The dogfights of Top Gun and dive scenes of Avatar kept audiences glued to IMAX and 4DX screens last winter, but the premium movie formats that enable such spectacular cinematic experiences are themselves struggling for content in India.
IMAX and 4DX have been trying to expand their footprint in India for a while, but there aren’t enough movies to keep the screens running for even half of the year, trade experts said. Most IMAX and 4DX movies are Hollywood films which are released occasionally, and cinemas hosting these formats are forced to screen them for longer or screen even regular movies.
“India is yet to emerge as a meaningful market for large formats like IMAX. While Hollywood studios are big on converting their films into such formats, the trend is relatively new in India, and the amount of money producers can spend on VFX is significantly lower here, and nowhere close to Hollywood,” said Mohan Umrotkar, a media expert and former chief executive of Carnival Cinemas.
While Hindi and regional languages are beginning to shoot or convert films into such formats, they fetch only 15-20% of revenue for major multiplex chains. Often, normal 2D films, which are not made in these premium formats, are screened in these theatres to keep them going. What helps to an extent is the steep ticket pricing in the case of tentpole movies.
According to Umrotkar, it doesn’t make financial sense in India to shoot in IMAX and 4DX or convert existing films into these expensive formats since the country has less than 9,000 screens and large formats are available only in top metros. Producers and exhibitors have frequently locked horns even on extra charges levied on glasses for 3D—a critical component of most IMAX and large-format screenings.
Meanwhile, Mani Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan-2 is in another situation: The period drama in Tamil will be released in 4DX later this month, but there are no 4DX screens in its home state Tamil Nadu.
Queries sent to IMAX and multiplex chains such as PVR, INOX and Cinepolis remained unanswered.
In a recent interview, Richard Gelfond, chief executive of IMAX, said the company is planning to touch the 100-screen mark in five years in India, a goal the Canadian cinema firm had set out to achieve by 2025 in 2020. “IMAX is a very exclusive solution that aims at getting the best on-screen experience and is not a multiplex. So, if we had 100 movies a year, that will not be feasible in the context of how we operate,“ Gelfond had said, explaining the relatively low output for IMAX screens.
An executive at a multiplex chain said that often, a gap exists between the availability of films for these larger formats, though things are gradually improving with local Indian movies joining the bandwagon. “It’s a risk that both theatres and format owners have to take,” the person said on the condition of anonymity.
That said, post the covid-19 pandemic, audiences are flocking to large-screen experiences, be it Pathaan, RRR, Brahmastra, Avatar-The Way of Water and Top Gun: Maverick. “People want these larger-than-life experiences… While such cinemas usually require higher capital and operational expenditure, theatre owners are also to share a portion of the revenue with the format owners,” Amit Sharma, chief executive of Miraj Cinemas, said, adding higher ticket pricing helps make up for these challenges. Miraj doesn’t operate premium cinema formats.
Pankaj Jaysinh, chief executive officer of India operations at cinema distribution network UFO Moviez, said maintenance costs in these cases are three to four times higher than other regular projectors. “Ticket pricing is usually two to three times normal rates depending on the demand (for the movie), varying from ₹500 to 1,200, typically covers this cost. There is a commitment from the exhibitor to IMAX or 4DX to play a minimum number of shows during the year,” Jaysinh said, adding that when IMAX content is unavailable, regular films are played on such screens.