Several leading chains are reducing prices from 20%-50% with a variety of reduced rates based on location, day of the week and the timing of shows. Most of the reductions are for weekdays with cinemas retaining their weekend pricing in most cases.
PVR Cinemas is now charging between $1.40 and $4.90 (Rs70-250) per ticket, which is a reduction of around $1 (Rs50) per screening. At the chain's PVR Lower Parel cinema in Mumbai, morning shows have been reduced from $2.30 (Rs120) to $1.40 (Rs70), while afternoon shows are priced at $1.90-$2.90 (Rs100-150) compared to $2.90-$3.90 (Rs150-200) previously.
Manoj Desai of Mumbai-based G7 Cinemas told a local newspaper that he used to charge $2.30-$2.50 (Rs120-130), but during the release of Billu (Feb 7), he reduced the rate to $1.30-$1.60 (Rs65-85).
The new pricing is an attempt by exhibitors to counter low occupancy figures, recessionary sentiment and the current lack of high-profile films.
The last two big Hindi film releases - Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Ghajini - opened in December 2008. Since then there have been no tent-pole releases, barring Warner Bros' Chandni Chowk To China in January, which performed below expectations.
Among the most highly-anticipated releases so far this year - Raaz (Jan 23), Luck By Chance (Jan 30) and Delhi 6 (Feb 20) - only Raaz went beyond expectations with $7m (Rs360m). Luck By Chance grossed $3.35m (Rs173m) and Delhi 6 took $6.5m (Rs335m) in its first week.
However, Big Cinemas COO Tushar Dingra says that cinema-going is still the preferred out-of-home entertainment option and that the lack of product and lower pricing is normal for this time of year.
'I won't say movies are recession-proof but recession-resistant,' Dingra says. 'In terms of pricing, we have a blockbuster ticketing strategy and a normal film strategy. We had raised prices in December for the two big releases so prices today reflect normal pricing. As for the lack of big films at this time, I would say it is seasonal and the normal pattern for quarter four.'
UTV Motion Pictures CEO Siddharth Roy Kapur agrees that quarter four is traditionally a quiet period at the box office. He adds that in a time of economic and financial insecurity, individuals are 'thinking long and hard about which films to watch in the theatre and what they can watch on a pirated DVD.'
'Distributors and exhibitors will have to work together to get audiences,' Roy Kapur says. 'Multiplexes are already doing their part by reducing ticket prices. Producers are working on rationalising production costs, asking talent to co-operate by reducing fees, reducing marketing costs and looking carefully at reaching a specific target audience.'
March is traditionally the time that 16-18 year-olds take school exams in India, followed by the college board exams that affect 21-year-olds. Hence it is a period for smaller-scale film releases. The exams even affect parents who help their children study and ferry them to and from exam centres.
Distributors are also keen to avoid the Indian Premier League cricket tournament, which was launched last year and is scheduled to take place April 10-May 29 in 2009.
Last year, UTV had a hit with Race in March, while Jannat released by Percept Picture Company was a hit in May. This year there are no big films scheduled for March and the next big release will be Kambhakht Ishq, starring Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor and Sylvester Stallone, in May.
To add to the film industry's woes, producers and distributors are locked in a battle with exhibitors over revenue-sharing terms. The Producers Guild has declared a strike from April 4, after which no cinema releases are planned until a resolution is reached.
This deadlock affects only multiplexes and not single screens. Percept Picture Company's Tasveer is likely to be the last permitted release on April 3, although the revenue-sharing terms are still under negotiation. Films likely to be held back include Jashan, Shortkut, Kal Kissne Dekha and Paying Guest.
Given that the IPL is slated to begin on April 10, producers are unlikely to be too concerned about rescheduling their films. However, if the recent terrorist attacks on Sri Lankan cricketers in Lahore leads to a postponement of the IPL, exhibitors and producers might have to consider a new strategy.
On this impasse, Dingra said: 'We have met the Producers' Guild more than once. We are already paying more percentage shares than before. We are bleeding and cannot really pay more.
'However, on an optimistic note, the Indian film industry is not seeing the kind of production slump evident in Hollywood which means that there is likely to be a robust list of releases and adequate software in the forthcoming financial year.'