IPL, strike leave cinemas empty

Sports, labor trump new releases

NEW DELHI -- India's movie theaters have more than a producers' strike to worry about these days. Business also is suffering thanks to a popular televised cricket tournament.

The second season of cricket's Indian Premier League -- which got underway in South Africa on Apr. 18 -- has cut into ticket sales for the few films released before producers began withholding new titles.

Last year's debut IPL season, which features some teams owned by Bollywood stars competing in a new fast-paced cricket format, was a runaway hit and drastically affected cinema attendance.

This year, industry observers said the producer's strike appeared to have been timed to coincide with the IPL season so as to minimize its impact on ticket sales.

"The really big films are usually slated in the second half of the year, so the strike wasn't going to affect those titles anyway," said Rajeev Masand, entertainment editor of the Mumbai-based TV channel CNN-IBN.

Still, industry estimates reckon that multiplex attendance is down by more than 50%, a drop that could translate into losses of as much as $62 million (3 billion rupees) for the quarter ending June 30.

Although its TV ratings thus far are slightly lower than last year's, the IPL series has distracted Indians who might otherwise have bought tickets to the theatrical release of thriller "8 x 10 Tasveer," starring top actor Akshay Kumar.

"Tasveer" was released just before the United Producers Forum's decision in early April that no new films would reach screens until an agreement with theater owners was reached.

While independent boxoffice figures are not easy to come by here, reports indicate that "Tasveer," which garnered poor reviews, has performed below expectations, as has Hollywood release "Fast & Furious."

While none of the Hollywood studios' India offices would comment on the strike, major Hollywood releases also seem to be on hold.

In terms of viewership, the IPL season is competing against round-the-clock coverage of India's ongoing national election. Still, according to ratings figures released by Mumbai-based TAM Media Research, the opening four days of IPL delivered ratings only one point lower than the 2008 season.

This year's IPL ratings of 4.6 translate to about 28 million viewers, an audience that is expected to grow as the series moves toward the final on May 24 in Johannesburg.

While the deadlock between producers and multiplex owners continues, some producers have re-released older films at single-screen theaters to rekindle audience interest.

"The strike could continue well into May, after which there will be a backlog of new releases competing for precious screen time," Masand said.