A reduction in multiplex ticket prices across India is an indicator of the delicate economic times in the territory.

Prices have been reduced by 20%-50% at various multiplexes, with rates varying based on location, day and time of the screening. At PVR Cinemas' sites, tickets now cost $1.36-$4.86 (rup70-rup250), on average a $1.95 (rup100) fall. This is clearly an attempt by exhibitors to counter low occupancy figures, recessionary sentiment and mediocre programming.

Exhibitor Manoj Desai of G7 cinemas in Mumbai told a local newspaper he previously charged $2.33-$2.53 (rup120-rup130), but during the release of Billu Barber on February 7 he reduced the rate to $1.26-$1.65 (rup65-rup85), roughly a 40% drop.

The move to reduce prices partly reflects the sluggish release schedule. The last major Hindi film releases, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and Ghajini, were back in December, and since then there have been no large-scale releases (aside from Warner Bros' Chandni Chowk To China which underperformed in January). Of the hotly anticipated films in the early 2009 schedule such as Luck By Chance, Delhi 6 and Raaz: The Mystery Continues, only the latter performed above expectations.

Tushar Dhingra, COO of Big Cinemas, believes cinema-going is still the preferred out-of-home entertainment option. 'I won't say movies are recession-proof but recession-resistant,' he says.

Dhingra also suggests a flexible pricing plan suits the mix of releases. '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 price drops today reflect this.'

Siddharth Roy Kapur, CEO of UTV Motion Pictures, suggests the fourth quarter is a low period at the box office and adds that in a time of financial insecurity, consumers are 'thinking about which film to watch in the theatre and what they can watch on a pirated DVD'.

Kapur argues: 'Distributors and exhibitors will have to work together to get audiences. 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.'

Traditionally the month for student exams in India, March is often a time for modest film releases, with April seeing the opening of the popular Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket season. This will also dissuade distributors from positioning any significant films for the coming month.

While 2008 saw March release Race give exhibitors a much-needed boost and Jannat do likewise in May, the same period in 2009 sees only small and medium-budget releases, all without star names which can at least guarantee initial takings at the box office.

Good time for a strike

This year the product-light release calendar is set against the backdrop of the continuing battle between producers/distributors and exhibitors over revenue-sharing terms. The United Producers Forum has declared a strike from April 4, unless the Multiplex Owners Association agrees to the Forum's demand of 50/50 revenue-sharing terms and greater support for non-mainstream, non-commercial content. In response the multiplex owners are proposing performance-linked revenue sharing.

While this deadlock affects only multiplexes and not single screens, no film releases are planned until a resolution is reached, with Percept Picture Company's Eight By Ten (Tasveer) likely to be the last permitted release on April 3. Multiplexes now account for 65%-70% of India's total box office, with approximately 225 multiplexes and 850 screens in the territory.

Films likely to be held back include Jashan, Shortkut, Kal Kissne Dekha and Paying Guest, although given the IPL is due to begin on April 10, producers are unlikely to be overly concerned about rescheduling their films. It also seems likely Hollywood product will not be released at this time. One multiplex owner said: 'Scheduling the strike during the IPL is a convenient plan.'

On this impasse, Dhingra says: 'We've met the Producers Forum more than once. We're already paying more percentage shares than before (48% for the distributor). We're bleeding and cannot really pay more.'

However, he remains optimistic: 'The Indian film industry is not seeing the kind of production slump evident in Hollywood, which means there's likely to be a robust list of releases and adequate programming in the forthcoming financial year.'