UPDATE 1-Bollywood stays away as Indian cinemas reopen after eight months

(Updates with details)

MUMBAI, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Movie theaters in some parts of India opened for the first time in eight months on Thursday, but with no major Bollywood releases likely any time soon, beleaguered cinema owners worry about whether audiences can be lured back to the big screen.

All of India's near-10,000 movie screens have remained shut since the country imposed a strict lockdown in March this year, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushes for a gradual easing of measures, some states have allowed theaters to reopen, though at 50 per cent capacity and with strict curbs in place.

Cinema staff welcomed back with flowers and vermilion the first, relatively few visitors who wore masks.

"It feels good... Everyone was bored sitting at home and it feels nice to come here," said Ramesh Gupta, who came to watch a movie in the northern Indian city of Prayagraj.

Bollywood is not releasing any new films to cinemas for now despite the upcoming festival season, when ticket sales usually peak and audiences flock to theaters.

"It's a chicken and egg situation," said Shibasish Sarkar, CEO of Reliance Entertainment, which has two big-ticket movies waiting to be released.

"We won't know if audiences will come unless we release a film, but the big question is if those audiences are enough," he said.

OLD MOVIES

For now, theaters are screening older films, including a biopic of Modi, which first released after his resounding election victory last year.

Instead of waiting for theaters to open, several Bollywood production houses have instead sold movies to streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney and Amazon's Prime Video, which have premiered several titles in the last few months.

"We are trying to test the waters, see if audiences will come back. Once they do, hopefully we will see new movies releasing," Akshaye Rathi, a theater owner who owns properties in the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, told Reuters.

For India's coronavirus-battered theater industry, deprived of Bollywood blockbusters, analysts say more bleak months await.

"Many single-screen theaters will probably never open, and we won't know the full impact until theaters actually do open," said Shailesh Kapoor of Ormax, an agency that tracks Bollywood releases.

(Reporting by Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai; Additional reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad and Subrata NagChoudhary in Kolkata. Editing by Alasdair Pal, Shri Navaratnam and Gareth Jones)

10/15/2020 13:05

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