Why Covid-19 May or May Not End The Movie Theatre Business


Lessons from the Spanish Flu Outbreak of 1920

It has been more than three months since India locked down, a draconian lockdown that halted all aspects of life as we know it. While we slowly begin to unlock many sectors and aspects of life, the movie theatres remain closed. And there isn't much clarity as to when the movie theatres shall open, they very well be shut till the beginning of 2021 looking at the rapid rise of cases and reimposition of complete lockdown in many key cities and states. And looking at public behaviour across the world

[1] (movie theatres opened up in select states in the US and Dubai and the audience turnout was extremely low), it is highly unlikely people shall return in full numbers to the theatres anytime soon, even if the theatres open.

Footfalls and profit for the movie theatre business seem to be a very distant idea right now, at least for the next one to two years before the arrival of a vaccine or halting of cases. The theatre industry, of course, wouldn't survive for two years without any substantial footfalls. And with OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HotStar etc quickly emerging as dominant players because of their honest transparent methods to both produce and acquire content, without monopolisation and unfair economical practices like in the theatre business.

The law of survival of the fittest (OTTs have produced much better content in quality terms than many big theatrical releases have produced in Bollywood and Tollywood over the last few years) might perhaps ensure the Indian theatre business might go bankrupt and close much akin to what happened to the world's largest movie theatre chain in the United States, AMC

[2]. Fear and panic in the public psyche to come into the theatres till a substantial solution comes through for Coronavirus pandemic, either a vaccine or a low case rate both unlikely to happen anytime soon might be the huge deal-breaker here, it isn't the pandemic directly that is affecting the business its rather the much hysteric public fear about it and social boycott of people already infected, and hysteric mass pseudo beliefs that the virus is airborne and is lethal.

This fear might go on for years till a vaccine comes out. And by then the entire theatre business might disappear. Or maybe the opposite might happen eventually. Perhaps lessons from the Spanish Flu Outbreak in the 1920 is a valuable lesson to recount for us, especially in regards to the theatre business.

Much like today, movie theatres were shut down during the outbreak.

The theatres were opened up gradually, after six to eight weeks of lockdown in the United States

[3]. But as theatres gradually opened up, instead of low occupancy rates. Occupancy skyrocketed, theatres were thriving with full capacity, there was no vaccine or viable cure even when theatres opened up, cases were skyrocketing and unlike Covid-19, Spanish Flu was a much devastating virus with a higher mortality rate specifically targeting the young age group of 20-40, many died with the infection in less than four hours, it was a virus more dangerous than Covid-19.

Yet people came in full numbers, a few weeks after opening up theatres, once the movie theatres put in the necessary restrictions. In fact according to an archive article of Financial Times in 1918 November

[4]: "the Palladium theatre was dealing with the Spanish flu outbreak "very thoroughly — not only is an ozone ventilating system installed . . . but a spray of the strongest germ killer is used all over the theatre between each performance. The public seems to have grasped this fact, for business has been very good during the past week."

Maybe the fear paranoia in the public might go down eventually as the Covid 19 outbreak continues well into the end of this year and the beginning of 2021. And maybe people might eventually return to theatres, with fear eventually shaping itself into helplessness and acceptance, and the need for entertainment in a hopeless situation. Maybe, after a while people might adapt and learn to live with the virus with social distancing norms and masks.

But not halt their lives completely. As the Central Government has recently guidelines in Unlock 2.0, allowing the opening of movie theatres sometime in July depending on the situation. Life at least when it comes to the aspect of enjoying a movie in a theatrical experience might just return back to normal. Or maybe not.

Maybe the sheer fear and mass hysteria being spread out in social media (that wasn't a factor during the Spanish Flu Outbreak) might not exactly let people just enjoy a movie in the theatres without any apprehensions till a vaccine comes out (a timeline of eighteen months at best). Will the Theatre Industry be able to survive another eighteen months without any profit or footfalls? Or will OTT platforms ultimately overtake the theatres? Only time can tell us.

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