February 19. I landed in Berlin to attend the 73rd ‘Berlinale’ or the European Film Market. Adrenaline pumped through me as I looked forward to watching the best cinema in the world, and acquiring a bouquet of eclectic and commercial fare for our distribution company. I was exhilarated and optimistic, as we came to the end of a successful fiscal year. There was euphoria as we had entertained 100 million customers and were on the verge of opening 100 new screens by the end of the year. As I breezed through the festival, ominous news came in. A deadly virus in Wuhan, China, was believed to be highly contagious. It seemed contained in China, but murmurs of its global spread could be heard.
Back in Delhi, it was business as usual. We planned the opening of 20 new screens that would take our total additional screens in the year to 100, and prepared for the year-end’s biggest blockbuster, Sooryavanshi. Our stock price was at a record high, and we were consumed with optimism.
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Then came March. The COVID-19 virus spread worldwide, mainly to Spain, France and Italy. Disconcerting images of countries going under complete lockdown, and bone-chilling statistics of hospitalisations and deaths flashed across news channels. Health infrastructure seemed to be failing, and healthcare providers were on the verge of a breakdown. The WHO announced a global pandemic. Fear, uncertainty and despair set upon India too, and we waited to see what steps the government would take to control the virus. Unfortunately, it announced a carte blanche lockdown.
The week of March 11-17 was like a slow, excruciating tsunami. Delhi was the first state to announce the closure of cinemas, followed by others across the country. We were devastated. The economy came to a standstill. The enormity of the situation sank in every day with unemployment, destitution, the plight of migrants, and billions in corporate and stock market losses.
There are many challenges a company faces during its journey. Each day brings new problems that need to be discussed and overcome. Nothing is insurmountable; if you analyse the problem, discuss it with the core team, even take advice from the board, you can arrive at reasonable solutions. But this was an exception, a catastrophic turn of events. There was a debilitating uncertainty, the unknown nature of the virus, how long the pandemic would last, and how long before we could resume business.
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The first routine we put in place was to have a meeting every Monday with key management personnel on a platform I hadn’t heard of before, Zoom. Work-From-Home became the norm, and it was imperative to put in place a schedule so that even if we worked from home, our hours of operations were sacrosanct. It was important to align the mindset of the team, and focus on the myriad issues that needed to be addressed.
It was evident that with cinemas shut, we had to control fixed costs. Salaries, rent and utilities had to be looked at diligently, and strategies adopted to reduce them. Some extreme and unpleasant measures had to be taken. We are fortunate that on the first day, unprompted, the employees decided to accept voluntary salary cuts. Such solidarity and dedication gets built over a period of time. This selfless act will always be remembered, and will most certainly be rewarded in future.
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In addition, we organised town halls with regional managers and functional heads across the country. We operate 845 screens across 71 cities. We had to reach out to everyone, enquire about the health of their families, disseminate information about the virus and how to stay safe, and keep the faith. Everything is transient, and so was this crisis, and it was important to keep them motivated. They had to be told that cinemas would reopen, and we would be back to doing what we were best known for.
Cinema is a global industry, a soft power for nations like India, the US and France. India is the largest producer of films, which find an enthusiastic audience among the Indian diaspora and foreigners. When I landed in Morocco years ago, the immigration officer, normally cantankerous, broke into a song from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge when he realised I was an Indian. Our global industry is bound together through the Global Cinema Federation, a forum to freely exchange ideas, technological advances and future trends. We had several calls with it to learn about the best industry practices that served as a new blueprint for protocols to be complied with for safety and security of customers once the cinemas reopened. A team had the responsibility to research and procure equipment to sanitise and disinfect the cinemas.
Unlock 1 was announced on June 1. It became evident that the economy had to be opened up gradually. A languid and cautious approach meant cinema halls were prohibited, and essential services were allowed to resume. We had to focus on our cash flows and realised it would be an arduous task to survive even with truncated costs. We embarked on a rights issue to raise funds. Our issue was oversubscribed 2.24 times. Perhaps it’s a constitutive learning to prepare cash flows based on certain projections, no matter how grim they may be, so that one can plan an effective funding plan, and be ready with a war chest for future exigencies.
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Our plight was exacerbated by the fact that the makers of over 30 new films decided not to wait endlessly for cinemas to open and, much to our chagrin, sold the rights to OTT platforms. We decided to be patient and resilient, and felt this too was ephemeral. Once cinemas opened, customers would return to the big screens for an experience that is unrivalled—the lingering sweet smell of popcorn, plush seats, collective laughter and tears, and the roar of applause and appreciation. Notwithstanding this despondent turn of events, it was critical to keep everyone motivated and positive.
Unlock 2, 3, 4 did not bring any good tidings, and June swiftly moved to September. It was critical for us to remain optimistic, and keep a keen eye on the operations and evolving finances. We had to initiate discussions on reinvention strategies. To keep morale up and encourage employees to present new opportunities that may arise during these times of adversity, it is important to keep minds engaged, even if the ideas may not be actionable immediately. There are countless examples of companies that reinvented themselves during adverse times, and emerged stronger.
Unlock 5, which began on September 30, made us finally see the light at the end of an endless tunnel. The government announced the opening of cinemas with some protocols. Our patience, faith and unwavering belief were rewarded. After seven agonising months, we witnessed unimaginable reactions: The silence of an employee who was too overwhelmed to voice her happiness on the mobile; the mellifluous claps that greeted us when we entered a cinema after seven months to welcome staff and wish them luck; the overwhelming wishes from friends, patrons and partners, who wanted to return to the days of the big screen!
In the movie, The Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawkins says, “There should be no boundaries to human endeavour. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. While there is life, there is hope.” We agree excitedly. See you at a theatre near you!
(The writer is joint managing director, PVR Limited. Views are personal)