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Covid second wave pushes multiplexes’ recovery to next fiscal: CRISIL

Temporary closures will delay big-ticket releases to second half of 2021.

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New Delhi: Multiplexes across the country are set to log operating losses for the second straight fiscal as localised lockdowns, night curfews and other restrictions to contain the resurgence of Covid2019 infections will keep occupancies low for the next few months, according to CRISIL ratings.

The film exhibition sector was one of the worst impacted by the lockdown in 2020, being the first to lower their shutters in March, and among the last to resume operations, in October.

Occupancy had started improving post-resumption, and was expected to reach 18-22 per cent – the breakeven level in terms of operating profit – in the current quarter. Sequentially, occupancy doubled to 12-13 per cent last quarter, and was seen climbing anew to 22-25 per cent in south India.

However, the sudden spike in Covid2019 cases in April will send that estimate askew and defer recovery to the second half of this fiscal, said CRISIL in its latest report.

"Our base case assumes average occupancy of 10-12 per cent in the first half of this fiscal and 20-22 per cent in the second half, when restrictions on occupancy and fears of infection will hopefully recede. A full recovery is seen only in fiscal 2023," said CRISIL Ratings director Nitesh Jain. 

Temporary closures in many states, especially Maharashtra, will push back new film releases, at least the big-ticket ones, to the second quarter, noted Jain. 

“Maharashtra is a crucial market for cinema, accounting for a fifth of the total screens in India. The resurgence of pandemic has created many uncertainties, and restrictions could continue for longer, leading to deferment of film releases on big screens and continuation of cash burn for multiplexes,” he elaborated.

In the milieu, CRISIL-rated multiplex operators, which account for almost half of the industry’s revenue, are expected to log cash losses this fiscal, too. They had bled roughly Rs 900 crore in fiscal 2021, compared with a cash profit of around Rs 785 crore in fiscal 2020.

Last fiscal, multiplex operators undertook steep cost controls, including deferring maintenance and major capex outlays. They also raised Rs 1,350 crore equity to fund losses and augment liquidity. The current liquidity could comfortably cover operating expenses and debt servicing of these players for the next four to six months.

But with the sudden turnaround in the state of affairs, cost cutting measures, including deferring maintenance and major capex outlays, are likely to continue even this fiscal. Their ability to keep a leash on fixed cost will, however, be a monitorable, opined CRISIL Ratings associate director Rakshit Kachhal. 

“Lease rentals is the largest fixed cost and they could save 70-75 per cent (~Rs 800 crore) from waiver of rentals in the last fiscal. Their ability to renegotiate rentals for the current fiscal will be crucial to contain the losses. Besides cost controls, the ability to raise funds in a timely manner will bear watching,” he added.

The spread of infections, the success of the vaccination drive, and the return of moviegoers will be monitorables, too, as will be the players’ ability to raise funds in a timely manner. But this is only when one sets aside people's fear of closed spaces.

According to CRISIL, since multiplexes are among the few out-of-home entertainment options in India, occupancy should bounce back once the fear of infection recedes and the pace of vaccination picks up.

Besides, big-budget movies, which are temporarily being deferred, are unlikely to be released on over-the-top (OTT) platforms, given that multiplexes contribute more than 50 per cent of the total box office collection. Thus, exhibition of big-budget movies leading to recovery in occupancy should script the recovery for multiplexes, currently seen in second-half of this fiscal.

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