Multiplexes are facing the music and we are caught in the crossfire. Out of sheer entitlement, they are scolding producers for premiering on digital platforms, as if a crime against humanity. For those who have read ‘Who moved my Cheese’ by Spencer Johnson., this is a live case study.
The theatre is the larger-than-life front end of a vast and complex industry, quite like the passenger cabin of an aircraft. Its customer facing stature can be abjectly misleading, confusing the demonstration of value with the origins of value. Movies are made by a humungous orchestration of imagination and execution, the livelihoods of millions subject to temperamental outcomes. Multiplexes help enormously by building glorious experiences, giving cinema its deserving magnitude and stature, but they are not why cinema thrives. Till recently, the greatest blockbusters have been crowned by viewers in modest single-screen theatres, aided by greasy wafer chips and tired ceiling fans. When we got richer, we recognised the efficacy of luxury and thus these audio-visual drawing rooms seemed indispensable.
But then customer behaviour has been changing even before the coronavirus crisis felled us, like a Malcolm Marshall bouncer. Netflix and its peers deliver cinema-quality content for small-screen consumption, many leagues ahead of the Balaji soap operas. Its nonstop funnel fuelling entertainment greed, freshness every week as opposed to the 8-10 annual big screen gigs. A further accelerator is Hollywood unreleased in India, an influential upper segment accustomed to devouring Apple TV. In sum, the mystical allure of the giant screen is systematically bowing to the personalised technology and desirable convenience of high-performing devices.
Then, of course, the money we pay for the popcorn and soft drinks, guaranteed to embarrass even an Oberoi or Four Seasons menu card. Equally, the mesmeric accession of the otherwise cost-obsessed customer to this aberration, we complain more about airport price points than PVR rates. Most definitely, questionable food is available in such spaces, even quality is not a saving grace unlike the prohibitive five-star diner. On restrictive trade practices the less said the better, it is easier to smuggle a bomb inside a theatre than a burger, the zealous guards will qualify effortlessly for CISF or TSA employment. Multiplexes had us all trapped in what I must call Value Inertia, we will hopefully liberate ourselves post normalcy.
Value Inertia can be defined as a currently-successful yet rapidly-unsustainable equilibrium, consumers habitually preferring a sub-optimal experience which can be easily replaced by efficient, affordable and attractive alternatives. This is due to firmly established perceptions, driven by well-entrenched beliefs and smart marketing. Inertias as such cannot be eliminated in an incremental manner, usually a significant disruption leads to an awakening and thus dramatic changes in customer behaviour. The convergence of movies and the public big screen is part of one such belief system, extending effortlessly from the paltry stand-alone to the lavish multiplex.
There are many valid examples of Value Inertia and its decimation over time. In aviation, the accidents of the airships which made us wake up to the aircraft or the premium price points of legacy carriers shattered by the low-cost revolution. We expected to pay highly for air travel as if a necessary conduit, till Freddie Laker and Tony Fernandes taught differently. Just like we expected to pay exceptionally for premium hotel stay, till Ginger and then Oyo proved otherwise. Music consumption was designed for the expensive compact discs till streaming offered a magical solution; we misread the prevalent norm as a sincere obligation. The publishing industry may continue to howl, but e-readers have liberated customers from the sometimes delightful but often laborious act of buying books.
Post corona, I do predict a few other corrections of Value Inertia, starting with the dining-out and drinking-out business. Just luxurious interiors cannot be a guarantee for exceptional margins, one may well segregate real estate from kitchen outcomes. Imagine Swiggy food courts in malls, with socially-aligned seating, where food is delivered from empaneled restaurants at cloud kitchen prices. Any infrastructure-heavy business, like education and hospitals, may well graduate to nimble offline-cum-online models, enlarging access and reducing fees. The business travel expenses we take for granted today replaced substantially by the underrated video conference, while leisure travel keeps growing substantially to escape home entrapment. High-budget advertising films, surreptitiously substituted by remarkable made-at-home productions, with mammoth implications on time and cost.
On multiplexes though, the Value Inertia has most certainly crumbled for the entire ecosystem, unlikely to be resurrected. The viewer can access content directly through friendly intermediaries, enjoy it on hi-tech viewing formats whether projectors or I Phones, choosing both company and F&B, courtesy home delivery. What helps enormously is that our living standards have improved as have social licences, the theatre need not be a permit room for fancies. Producers can plan releases intelligently and even get one-on-one with the viewer via interactive digital marketing techniques.
Will the physical theatre still exist and thrive? Most definitely it will, with considerable doses of experience engineering, in my submission. An entry-only ticketing model with outside F&B permitted, right-priced in-house offerings, small-size auditoriums in apartment blocks on franchise model, a mix of new releases and old classics, social distancing influenced seating – just some of the means to a productive end. No further monopoly assumptions, live sports matches, producers choosing a blend of OTT cum PVR as per insightful sequencing strategy, varying from geography to demography. This will further liberate the content industry, benefitting both creators and customers.
One friendly tip to PVR and its ilk – please stop crying like babies, with immediate effect. In this customer-centric universe, the monopolist is an irritating anachronism and has no business to be in show business.
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