June 7, 2010

Multiplex Killed the Single-Screen Cinema-Goer

The man who brought the multiplex to India says he misses the old days when everyone shared one, big, tattered screen.

The scourge of multi-screen theaters that have spread in the last decade has brought the middle-class back to movie theaters but has also hurt the industry, said entertainment entrepreneur Manmohan Shetty. Mr. Shetty opened India’s first multiplex in Mumbai in 2000 through his company Adlabs Films (which is now part of the Anil Ambani empire and renamed Reliance MediaWorks.)

The fancy, expensive new theaters and the movies on their screens have ignored the country’s biggest movie fans who happen to have small salaries, said Mr. Shetty.

“Multiplexes have killed the industry,” Mr. Shetty told India Real Time on the sidelines of an event during the International Indian Film Academy weekend in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “We shouldn’t have forgotten the people on the bottom.”

While the multiplexes have upgraded the movie watching experience in Indian cities, they have also made it more expensive and exclusive. Movie makers are now aiming their content increasingly at the middle-class movie-goer even though they represent only a minority of viewers in India.

Mr. Shetty points to box office receipts in southern Indian which has fewer multiplexes and more movies aimed squarely at the movie-mad masses. As much as three-fourths of all the movie revenues in India come from that area of the country, he said. “In South India they didn’t break the pattern,” he said.

Tamil actor Rajnikanth is still a superstar at 60. He rules the South and has mass appeal because his films are fun. In old, single-screen theaters in Chennai, the crowd sometimes gets up and dances when Rajnikanth’s name flashes on the screen, said Mani Shankar, a movie director and writer from Hyderabad.

“There are mass films and class films,” he said. “In the South they still make the mass films.”

One of the best selling western films ever in India was “2012.” It worked because it was dubbed into many local Indian languages and it was an easy-to-follow, exciting story.

Much of India cannot afford or appreciate the movies from the new Bollywood, which is trying to woo the middle class minority, Mr. Shankar said.

“The movies are not visceral enough, they are cerebral,” he said.