Despite having the largest film industry in the world in terms of volume, India has one of the lowest global screen densities, but this is set to change. 

In pre-pandemic years, India produced some 2000 films a year but has just seven screens per million population as opposed to 30 in China, 68 in the U.K. and 125 in the U.S. With about 1,500 single screens closing, many of them permanently, during the pandemic, the total screen count has shrunk to 9,423 for a population of 1.3 billion, per the 2022 annual EY/FICCI media industry report. 

To redress this, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has entrusted the Film Facilitation Office with the task of simplifying the process of opening new theaters via an online single window clearance system.

“There are multiple regulatory authorities [i.e. no single point of contact] resulting in uncertainty on timelines for opening a new cinema theater, which are adversely impacting the growth of the exhibition sector. In view of this a creation of an online single window ecosystem for promoting screen density will facilitate clearances and enable monitoring of the licensing process across states,” Apurva Chandra, secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, government of India, told Variety. “The online mechanism will allow applicants for a cinema operating license to view the complete list of requirements statewise, enable easy submission and track applications, thereby giving an impetus to the growth of theaters in India.”

The expansion of multiplexes, growth drivers in the sector, slowed during the pandemic. PVR Cinemas and Inox Leisure, the largest multiplex chains, which are now in the process of merging, added 69 screens each in 2019, but these shrank to 27 and 41, respectively, in 2021. However, post-pandemic, expansion plans are back on track. The merged entity plans to add 200 screens a year, going forward, with a total of 2000 screens to their existing combined 1,546. The streamlined permissions process will help.

“The single window clearance system should go a long way in speeding up the regulatory compliance process,” Alok Tandon, CEO, Inox Leisure, told Variety. “The mall-developers community also needs to be armed with simplification of the regulatory environment around the real-estate business, which should allow them to break free and go aggressive on urbanization. Our cinema technology partners must also be prepared to add to the layers of technology and scale up to satiate the demand of various markets in our country. Overall, the government must incentivize and encourage the stakeholders in the cinema exhibition industry, which should not only help them recover from the shackles created by COVID, but also set new benchmarks globally.”  

The combined PVR-Inox entity will exist in 109 Indian cities and the next stage is to expand to 200-300 more cities. 

The other challenge that Indian cinemas face is that of an audience weaned on streaming content during the pandemic. Some 200 films across Indian languages originally meant for theatrical release went direct to digital over the past two years. “Content like docudramas, series, documentaries, old movies are doing phenomenally well on these platforms, whereas cinemas are still a preferred way to enjoy fresh new movies, and that’s the reason both the channels have been not just co-existing but doing well in our country,” Tandon says. “Both modes of entertainment are identified by a distinct consumption pattern and behavior to an extent, largely due to the technology involved.”

With Indian theaters fully reopened now, some films, designed as big-screen experiences, have set the box office on fire, notably S.S. Rajamouli’s “RRR,” which has grossed $146 million globally and Prashanth Neel’s “K.G.F: Chapter 2” not far behind with $134 million.

“With records being broken week after week, the Indian content creators, who have curated content for the giant screens, as well as the cinema audiences, both deserve a round of applause for bringing cinemas back to life, in a grand style. Such a response has buoyed us to get closer to them with newer destinations offering world class experiences,” Tandon says.

“With giant screens delivering larger than life stories, thunderous sounds, captivating experiences and a community viewing experience, we believe that cinemas are shrines of limitless entertainment, boundless creativity and loads and loads of emotions. We have faith in the passionate movie lovers of our country and are optimistic that cinemas will be their most preferred escape getaways for years to come.”