A few days back (April 4, 2018), a two-Judge bench of the Bombay High Court heard a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) challenging the prohibition on bringing outside food and beverages into cinema halls.
While the Court did not pass any final order on the matter, it made no bones about where its sympathies lay, with the Judges reportedly saying that they had themselves experienced how exorbitantly priced food and water were at theatres, and that such items should be sold at regular prices. Moreover, they suggested, if theatres wanted an embargo on edibles in their premises then they shouldn’t have their own vendors selling various food items either.
The Court has fixed June 12, 2018 as the date for the next hearing on the PIL, after the government pleader said that the Maharashtra government would soon formulate a policy on the matter of outside food consumption in theatres as well as the prices that exhibitors can charge for F&B items sold by them.
First off, let us unreservedly concede that most multiplex properties, especially in metros, have indeed adopted a rather premium pricing policy when it comes to the food and beverages sold at their concessions.
One often feels that it is cheaper to purchase a standard product like a cola at a five-star hotel or from the inflight sales on airlines, rather than at a movie theatre. Similarly, more often than not, the price of a basic snack like a tub of popcorn is at par with, if not higher than, what one shells out for the movie ticket, which is not a cheap acquisition either.
With prices for in-cinema snacking being as high as they are, it is conceivable – indeed probable – that many patrons avoid indulging their taste buds while watching a film on economic grounds alone. One could even speculate that for some potential movie-goers, the prohibitive cost of snacks may be a factor in deciding against going to the cinema altogether and opt to wait for films to be available on television or digital platforms.
Whether lower food and beverage prices would help drive film ticket sales up is a pertinent question for the film fraternity to debate, not just for exhibitors but also for other important stakeholders, especially producers and distributors, who are directly impacted by the trajectory of the box office. It may also be worthwhile for exhibitors to study what the potential uptick in F&B sales would be at various, lower price points. It could well be that compromising on profit margins could mean higher profits in absolute terms.
However, even as we accept the contention that the food prices at cinemas are high and recommend that the film industry internally discuss the pros and cons of a price reduction, we are strongly against government-dictated price control on this, or indeed any other film-related matter.
Typically, governmental price controls seek to serve either of two objectives deemed to be in the public interest. One, to ensure affordability of essential products and services that are critical to a basic standard of living – food grains, water/power supply, medical care, life-saving drugs, education, public transport and the like. Alternately, to discourage consumption of harmful or socially unacceptable products like alcohol and cigarettes by imposing heavy taxes and driving up their prices.
Imposing price caps on what is sold at food stands in theatres doesn’t pass muster on either of these two grounds.
Unlike, say, the forced hospitalisation of a patient, the decision to watch a film in a cinema hall is a purely voluntary choice made by the consumer. Further, unlike, say, passengers on a long-distance train or a long flight where the duration of the journey can often span several meal timings, patrons typically visit cinema halls for three hours or less. Snacking, while definitely an enjoyable indulgence, isn’t critical to the primary reason for visiting a theatre i.e. to watch a film, in the same way that, say, a pair of special glasses is essential to experience a 3D film.
So, fundamentally, munching on a samosa or sipping a soft drink while seated in a multiplex is a non-essential supplement to what is a non-essential activity to begin with and nowhere in the same league as the proverbial roti-kapda-makaan that the state should justifiably ensure affordable access to.
And if we go by the second rationale for price control i.e. discouraging consumption of socially undesirable goods, well, in such cases the regulator tries to drive up prices, not reduce them!
Either way, there is no case to be made for the Maharashtra (or any other) government to waste their already thinly spread bandwidth to ponder over what the right price for a serving of popcorn is.
There is another reason that we, the entire film industry, should be concerned about this exercise underway. Once the state encroaches on the exhibitors’ freedom to fix F&B prices, it would be only a matter of time before that overreach is extended to ticket prices too. Our colleagues in states like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are already grappling with the fallout of arbitrary film ticket price caps and it would be catastrophic for the film trade if Maharashtra was to go down the same path.
Finally, by seemingly being concerned about the affordability of what is sold inside a movie theatre, after having taxed entry into that premise at the highest GST rate possible, the powers-that-be are, yet again, demonstrating their double standards of conveniently treating films as either a sin industry or an essential public service, depending on what suits their agenda.
Talk about having their cake and eating it too… after dictating at what price they will buy it!
- Nitin Tej Ahuja