Interview By: SHAAMINDER MALIK

Rahul Puri, joined Mukta Arts Limited as VP – Finance and Business Strategy and has been involved in the development of the Company he then ascended to the company’s Board of Directors and became Executive Director and is now Managing director involved in all aspects of the company including financing, distribution, production, exhibition and marketing. With the intent of providing patrons with an affordable luxury cinematic experience, the company took a step further and created its own brand of multiplexes MUKTA A2 CINEMAS, which is now spread across 51 screens and is one of the fastest growing Multiplex chains in India. Mukta A2 Cinemas is currently present in 17 locations making a pan India presence to cater to all the parts of the country.

“Screen count has to and will go up but it cannot be without audiences coming to theaters”

It’s been said that this has been the worst year on record for the film industry. Do you agree and what have been the challenges this year?

I think it has been a very challenging year content-wise for the industry, especially the Hindi industry. A lot of big films have not worked as expected and when that happens there is always a lot of pressure. The challenges are many – but the core is poor story-telling and a lack of understanding of the audience. This means most of the films that have come have not been relatable and the audience has found them all too easy to dismiss preferring regional, English and other forms of entertainment. It is a time for introspection in terms of filmmaking – both of the content as well as the cost side. The industry will emerge from this slump. Every Friday hope springs eternal. There is a strong pipeline of films going forward to the end of the year and I am hopeful they will leave a strong mark on the box office.

Has the audience begun to reject superstars? Are they looking for better content?

I don’t think that is true. We love Stars here and that won’t change. People have rejected content not stars. It is true that if people do not relate to the film, no star can save the picture, however big and bright. People need that reliability factor these days and that is what has been missing. Audiences are looking for content that is more grounded or rooted. It need not be ‘real’ in the sense of the word we use. We go watch Avengers, Star Wars in drones. How real are these films? The setting may not be, but the people are relatable and so are the conflicts. That is what people need to empathise with. It’s not about setting or anything like that.

India’s ratio of screens to people is dismal. Will having more screens help films recover money?

What is the point of having more screens when films are hardly running in the screens that are already around? Screen count has to and will go up but it cannot be without audiences coming to theatres. How would that make any sense? Exhibitors are willing to invest and grow the screen infrastructure in the country but that needs to be backed up with a strong movie watching culture. At the moment, people have got used to not going to the cinema especially in the Hindi belt. Screens are growing strongly in the South because there is no content crisis there and cinemas are thriving. When this happens in the Hindi belt, screens will again be added in a rush.

Why do multiplexes continue to destroy their own business by having ridiculously priced refreshments and snacks?

F&B are vital for the multiplex business. We have just talked about how this has been a very dry period for the movie industry. So how do theatre owners recover their rent, electricity, housekeeping, etc when occupancy is no more than 15%? I agree that F&B prices can be marked up to silly amounts but most operators know that this won’t help them long term and so these prices tend to be dynamic. F&B quality is offered at a price but where consumers cannot afford, you will see these prices reduce.

How has GST affected the business? What should the thrust of our demands to the government be?

GST has not really caused much of an issue to be honest. There is still a lot of confusion of how it will finally operate but so far the implementation has been smooth enough, at least from our experience. There have not been any additional taxes levied as yet (though they have been talked about) and this means that so far, tax burden has come down. We will need to see what happens going forward. I think the thrust to the government must remain to urge them to reduce GST overall for the cinema business so that the industry and the consumers can reap the benefits.

With multiplex prices going beyond the reach of the common man, should there be some regulation imposed?

I am never in favour of ticket price regulation. The market forces exist and will always do a better job of regulating prices than any external body. You are seeing different segments of multiplexes emerging meaning the market itself is being broken down into different sections which means the business is maturing. Consumers of these sections will be catered to differently with different tastes and products and differential pricing.

Hollywood films have gone on to do good business in India. What is the lesson to be learnt from this?

The lesson to learn is that today people want good content and language is no barrier for this. If you can make something relatable to audiences, they will come and see it. They don’t look at ‘is this in Hindi’ or ‘is it in English’ anymore. Social media means that most English films are well known before release and if the consumers are excited by it, they will pick it over a Hindi film despite the language. Content has to be king.

Streaming of content is one of the biggest threats to cinema houses as films move to VOD. Do you agree?

Streaming content is a big concern for the industry but more from the point of view of how to make all the windows co-exist. There will be some films which will rather release on streaming platforms than in theatres due to the costs as well as the ability to target a more niche audience. This is a good thing for the streaming services and the cinemas as it means that only films with strong demand will now come in theatres which means average occupancy will go up. Again, content is key here. People will always want to see big films on the big screens but multiplexes will need to be keenly aware of the prices they charge and the quality of service they offer as streaming platforms are now direct competitors.

With your vast experience of films, what would you say are the chief ingredients of a successful film? What is your prediction for 2018?

Chief ingredients of a successful film are the same today as they were years ago. Story and the ability for audiences to relate to it. All successful films are built on this simple principle. It sounds easy but in practice, it’s very hard to get so many different people to relate to one story. The industry is suffering today because people are thinking of telling their ‘own’ stories without thinking of how these stories are relatable to millions of cinema goers. Just because a story works for a director or actor doesn’t mean it will work with viewers. This is something that needs to be revisited.

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