Sanitizing Space to Leaving a Seat Vacant, PVR Looks for ‘Out of Box’ Ideas to Implement Social Distancing

PVR, the largest theatre chain in India, is looking at seat distancing in its halls as one of the “out of the box” ways to ensure audiences feel safe about returning to the movies after the coronavirus forced lockdown is over, says PVR Cinemas CEO Gautam Dutta.

Besides introducing social distancing at the ticket booking level — saying goodbye for the moment to shared popcorn and holding hands as part of the movie watching experience – PVR will also sanitize all its theatres and train its staff, Dutta told PTI.

“We are planning a number of things, from sanitizing our cinemas to coming up with a feature where we will do social distancing within the cinema. For example, if you have booked two tickets, we will leave one seat and book the next one,” he explained.

This will be for a couple of weeks or maybe a month so people feel comfortable again, he added.

“A lot of stuff is being done to gain back confidence and giving audiences the assurance that cinema is as safe an option as anything else. We are planning many small and big things, from training to sanitization. We are talking to Pepsi whether we can sell only cans.

“I don’t how much of it will get implemented but the reality is that a lot of out of the box thinking is happening,” Dutta said.

The company, which started in 1997, operates a cinema circuit comprising 841 screens at 176 properties in 71 cities in India and Sri Lanka, serving over 100 million viewers annually.

This is the first time that revenues have completely dried up, Dutta said, as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe with more than a million cases and over 59,000 fatalities. India, where the disease has infected more than 2,900 people and claimed at least 68 lives, has been under a three-week nationwide lockdown since March 24.

Dutta said the group had taken a voluntary decision to close the theatres even before the government’s notification. “Never in our history of 21 long years have cinemas closed down fully. Like any other business, we have gone through ups and downs in terms of revenues but we had never imagined our revenue will read zero. And it’s not just us, world over content releases have got impacted. Overall, it’s a very tough situation,” Dutta told PTI in a phone interview.

He expressed the hope that businesses, including cinemas, will slowly get back to normal after the lockdown is lifted.

People at the senior level in the company had decided to voluntarily take a pay cut to insulate the minimum wage staff, he said.

“The first call we took, and it happened organically, was that every leader raised their hands and said time has come to make a contribution. So we took a 50 percent cut on managerial positions. We also insulated our minimum wage staff. Technically, there have been no salary cuts, no retrenchments at the cinema level so far.”

But the situation is changing, Dutta cautioned

“This is not something that is mandated throughout because we really don’t know how widespread this problem is and when do we get to open the cinemas. If the lockdown situation is better and we are in a position to start opening cinemas, we will stay with that stand,” he added.

In his view, nobody will lose jobs even if “the problem” stays for the next couple of months. However, there could be salary cuts along the way because it is a big team, he said, adding that the situation would be assessed after the lockdown is over.

There is a fear that people may not return to cinemas immediately and many may even stop going to the cinemas completely as they switch to streaming platforms, witnessing a surge in viewership as people across the world stay locked indoors?

Dutta replied saying he was not worried about the future at all.

“If anything, streaming platforms up the appetite for content.”

On the last day of operation before the lockdown came into effect, two lakh people streamed into PVR cinemas across the country with only 50 percent of theatres operational at the time.

“People who are sitting at home will give an arm or leg to get out of their homes. We are social beings and like to go out. We don’t say we are in the business of cinema, we say we are in the business of out of home entertainment and it will thrive, not now, not later but always,” Dutta said.

“I have been in this company for over 14 years. When IPL came people said, ‘They will die’, when DVDs came, people said, ‘They will die’. Cinema is beyond movies, it is about marking a memory, about holding hands, eating out, socialising, birthdays and anniversaries,” he said.

Life will come back to normal once the virus scare is over and people will look at this as “a phase” in their lives.

“As we say, this too shall pass. But it’ll leave us with many learnings along the way. I think we have to convert this into a big positive,” he added.