Bangladesh cinema halls counting days to reopen for survival

Cinema halls wear a deserted look as the government recently asked people to avoid public gatherings fearing coronavirus infection. The photo was taken in front Balaka Cinema Hall, Nilkhet, Dhaka on 3 March. Photo: Dipu Malakar
Cinema halls wear a deserted look as the government recently asked people to avoid public gatherings fearing coronavirus infection. The photo was taken in front Balaka Cinema Hall, Nilkhet, Dhaka on 3 March. Photo: Dipu MalakarDipu Malakar
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The entire world is still reeling with an unprecedented time and consequences of COVID-19, with the reopening of businesses and living with the ‘new normal’ bringing several changes to lives and livelihoods in comparison to the pre-lockdown era.

Still, some businesses are yet to fully reopen around the world such as movie theatres or cinema halls, and this industry in Bangladesh has been eagerly waiting for the reopening.

The question of ‘survival’ has never loomed with this much intensity in the timeline of Bangladesh cinema industry, as the people in this country are generally known as the movie-loving, ‘filmy’ people. Movies have always been an integral part of their lives, and theatres have been one of the major recreational places for families.

Fast forward in 2020, Bangladesh now has approximately 194 cinema halls and cineplexes still operating, from having approximately 1,200 halls all over the country in the decades between the 1990s to 2010.

The country’s first international standard multiplex chain Star Cineplex has recently announced shutting down of its successful debut branch in Bashundhara City in the capital, and major cinema halls including Purnima, Rajmoni and Ovishar have already been closed while other vintage halls like Balaka, Modhumita and more have been suffering losses for ages.

Outside of Dhaka, the scenario for this business has been horrific, even before the arrival of COVID-19 in Bangladesh. As the pandemic started impacting lives and livelihood all over the country, that became a nightmare for the industry.

Now with the lockdown and other restrictions imposed to deal with the virus officially lifted, the cinema hall owners and the entire film industry are hopeful again for resurgence, after the government announced specific plans for the revival of the movie-business.

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On 25 August, the executive committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) chairperson and prime minister Sheikh Hasina asked the authorities concerned to create a special fund to provide financial support to the owners of cinema halls through a big project, in order to revive their business through grants and loans. The directive came as many movie houses have been left abandoned or damaged across the country.

Two days later, information minister Hasan Mahmud called a meeting with Film Producers-Distributors-Directors Association leaders at the Secretariat and said that the government is monitoring the situation and will announce its decision on reopening the theatres after 15 September.

“However, the big concern is whether the audience will consider coming to the movie theatres like before, during this ongoing situation. Bollywood is the second biggest movie industry in the world, yet the movie theatres have still not reopened in India. So the decision on reopening is depending on many facts altogether,” the minister said at the meeting.

Reassuring the industry representatives, the minister said that the prime minister is personally concerned about the situation and will take necessary steps for the overall betterment of the film industry and the cinema halls.

Amid the fear of the COVID-19, the surviving cinema halls all over the country have been in lockdown mode since 18 March and it has caused havoc in the cinema industry bringing losses for producers, actors, directors, associated casts and crew members and most importantly, the cinema halls - where the audience see the movies.

That concept, however, has been rapidly changing for a long time with the availability of options to the viewers. It started with the mass-availability of cable TV connections which allowed the viewers to watch movies at home, outside of the theatre - and the practice increasingly continued with the availability of computer and mobile phones at the mass level.

The piracy of movies and availability on YouTube has also created major roadblocks in this industry, against which the industry-insiders have been raising their voices for such a long time. Apparently that decreased to a consistent level, and new platforms like the Over The Top (OTT) media service that offers directly to viewers via the internet with bypassing cable, broadcast, and satellite television platforms, are now offering more control to the viewers to watch movies in their electronic devices, outside of the theatres.

To bring the audiences back to the cinema halls, resurgence in the industry seemed visible in recent years. Piracy got reduced, multiplexes like Star-Blockbuster-Shyamoli started showing both local and international movies focusing audience demands which brought back the young generations, middle class and upper-class people back to the theatres - and a new generation of moviemakers started making more conceptualised and entertaining, big-budget movies to cater the urban audiences and reach the global market.

Dhallywood star Shakib Khan’s ‘Bidrohi’ and ‘Nabab LLB’, Arifin Shuvoo starring action film ‘Mission Extreme’, Siam Ahmed starring action film ‘SHAAN’, Ananta Jalil’s Bangladesh-Iran joint venture ‘Deen - The Day’, Tollywood star Dev starring Bangladeshi spy thriller film ‘Commando’, noted television director Masud Hasan Ujjal directed ‘Unoponchash Batash’ and Chayanika Chowdhury directed ‘Bishwo-Shundori’ were some of the big-budget and much-anticipated movies scheduled to be released before the lockdown, that were pushed back.

“We are very much thankful to our prime minister for taking the necessary steps to save our cinema and the halls. The crisis situation is frustrating for everyone associated with the film industry. The audience will come back again if the continuous flow of both local and international movie releases can be ensured, and the halls must have to operate following the COVID-19 health guidelines. We are waiting to embrace the resurgence in the industry,” Bangladesh Film Producers-Distributors Association president Khorshed Alam Khosru said in a statement on the present scenario.

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