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BY Anjana Naskar

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The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have affected almost all businesses across sectors, but with strict restrictions in place for cinema halls for a far longer period of time, the Indian movie exhibition industry suffered immensely. In-cinema advertising – one of the major sources of revenues for the industry, has also been impacted severely. However, with the government easing out restrictions and large-scale vaccinations, theatres were allowed to reopen in Delhi and other parts of the country from 30th July this year. Earlier last month too, Maharashtra, one of the largest markets for cinema in the country, finally announced show time for movie buffs. With some normalcy finally returning, we ask the all-important question – will in-cinema advertising too see a resurgence? 
“The opening of cinemas in Maharashtra is an important milestone in the journey of cinemas to normalcy. This one market constitutes 15-20% of the box office and an even larger percentage of cinema advertising revenue,” notes Ajay Mehta, Founder and MD, Interactive Television (iTV) and MD, Kinetic India. “With cinemas opening in Maharashtra, a number of blockbuster movies have been lined up which will drive audiences back to the theatres across the country which will have a direct and positive impact on cinema advertising. We are very bullish on the growth from hereon if there is no third wave, given that the numbers were very low during the lockdowns, growth from here will be in triple digit numbers.”

Box-office revenues plunged by 75% year-on-year in a COVID-hit 2020 to Rs 2653 crore, states the PWC Entertainment & Media Outlook 2021. It is expected to recover and grow at a CAGR of 39.3% grossing up Rs 13857 crore by the end of 2025. The overall segment comprising box-office and cinema advertising is predicted to grow back to pre-COVID levels by mid of 2023, adds the PWC forecast. Speaking about the impact of the shutdown in Maharashtra on ad sales revenues for INOX, Anand Vishal – Chief Sales and Revenue Office, INOX Leisure Ltd. says, “From an ad sales perspective, a lot of advertisers are based out of Mumbai, and Mumbai actually happens to be the largest advertiser base for us. So for them, when the theatres were not open in Maharashtra, they were not open across the country too. That’s the general perception people had even when most of the states had already reopened cinemas. So, they were not focusing on cinema because Maharashtra was closed.”
Noting that cinemas have been unfairly singled out by government policies during the pandemic, Gautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Ltd says, “Honestly, cinemas have been at the receiving end of all the policies of the government. Technically, people do not talk at the cinema, they are quiet, so how can one transfer the virus? If you see bars, restaurants and airlines, it is completely illogical to frame cinemas as places where the virus can spread. But, be it as it may, I think the important thing is to get people to the cinema once. And our job is done.”

Echoing a similar perspective, Vishal notes that films are now announcing release dates with Maharashtra finally lifting cinema restrictions. “The content pipeline will start flowing now with Maharashtra open, and practically all the weeks from now till March are packed weeks. People have started to ask for plans for Sooryavanshi. Active conversations and deals are closing. A couple of deals we’ve already closed as far as advertising is concerned. So that’s a very positive sign. With Diwali drawing near, a lot more deal closures will happen. So this is good news for us, on the advertising and ticket sales fronts.”

Advertisers are also actively exploring cinemas more and more with normalcy returning across markets. “Every week, we are seeing brands come back to cinemas and more and more brands engaging with us in active conversations,” points out Mehta. “While spends have been low, they have slowly risen with big releases such as the new Bond movie and Bell Bottom. New age categories like e-commerce and fintech have been active, along with some categories which are festive heavy.”
Mukesh Kumar, CEO, Infiniti Malls is hopeful that once cinema halls reopen completely, footfalls will increase. “People have been locked in their homes streaming movies on their phones, laptops or television sets for over a year and many will want to finally watch a movie in theatres. We expect to see an increase in footfalls and we are all set to welcome our audience taking into consideration the COVID safety protocols,” Kumar says.

Cinemas are what drives footfalls across malls, remarks Gurvineet Singh, CEO, Viviana Mall. “If a shopping centre is a train, then cinemas are the engine. Because they drive regular weekday footfalls, which are very difficult for a shopping centre to get. But when there is a good movie playing, we get very good footfalls on the weekdays also. Close to 15% of our footfalls during pre-COVID times used to come from only cinemas, and we have the largest multiplex in the country with 14 screens and a seating capacity of 2250. So we are very happy about the reopening of cinemas in Maharashtra,” he elaborates.

Similarly, FMCG major Colgate-Palmolive is looking forward to bringing its upcoming campaigns back to the theatres. “It is really great news to finally have cinemas, a prominent aspect of our culture, back in business across states,” says Arvind Chintamani, VP Marketing, Colgate-Palmolive (India) Limited. “As people come back to the big screen, in-cinema advertising won’t be far behind. We are evaluating and looking forward to bringing some of our brand campaigns to the big screens hopefully leading to big smiles, as things get back to normal.”

Some brands are taking the wait-and-watch approach when it comes to in-cinema advertising, as Prateek Malpani, Head of Brand, Wakefit.co tells us. Yet he is not ruling out the prospect. He explains, “We don’t have a very clear view on how it stands in our marketing mix right now because there are other priority channels, which are higher in priority in terms of reaching out to consumers or going with our message in a more innovative way. Having said that, if we chance upon something that clicks really for in-cinema, something that can grab attention while people are grabbing their popcorn or something contextual to that particular moment then we will definitely consider it.”
Though he is positive about in-cinema advertising’s long term future, Adhish Zaveri, Senior Director, Marketing, Shaadi.com remarks that the brand has always made a low investment on in-cinema advertising even pre-COVID. He says, “The near-term future of in-cinema advertising is going to be dependent on the third wave or the absence of it. In the long-term, cinemas are going nowhere and neither is the in-cinema advertising business. However, in-cinema advertising has always been expensive from an ROI standpoint and hence we’ve invested minimal ad dollars there even pre-COVID. In the scenario that the costs come down, we’d consider it as a part of our mix.”

“While OTT and other home entertainment options have enough content, the experience of watching a movie in a cinema hall cannot be replicated and larger-than-life movies drive this experience. The future of cinema is bright and there may be a trend towards bigger and larger than life kinds of movies,” Mehta assures. The Pitch Madison Advertising Forecast this year noted that cinema advertising revenue will definitely see a revival but will only see normalcy by H2 in terms of AdEx. Considering the washout that 2020 was for Cinema, the report projected that the medium would achieve a 161% growth rate, which will take its AdEx to Rs 475 crore, half of the 2019 numbers. Given the prevailing positive consumer sentiment this festive season, the silver screen might just shine by the end of this year.

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