The iconic South Mumbai cinema incurred heavy losses for 7 years

Empires do rise from the ashes, but hobbled by an acute financial crisis, a multiplex boom and mounting real estate prices, New Empire cinema in South Mumbai, one of the oldest in the city, has called it a day. It screened its last film on March 21.

On Thursday, behind closed gates, the last remaining poster of the Hollywood film, 300-Rise Of An Empire, on the grand building was torn down.

“We did everything we could to salvage the situation but financial pressures kept mounting. Audiences declined but we had to keep the movies running even if 20 people came,” said Burge Cooper, owner of New Empire. The cinema suffered losses every month for seven years with an accumulated loss of Rs. 2.58 crore.

But the state of affairs was not always so sorry for New Empire. In its days of glory, it was one of the best-known cinemas screening Hollywood movies. At the time, the idea of a “hit” was a run of 25 weeks with three shows a day in a hall, which could seat a thousand people.

“Movies run from morning to night on several screens in multiplexes. Within a week, the distributors make their money,” said Roosi Modi, former owner of New Empire. His father, Keki Modi had bought the cinema in 1935 when it was a live theatre. “In 1948, he renovated it and renamed it New Empire,” said Mr Modi.

New Empire, along with Liberty Cinema, became a crucible of the Art Deco Movement. Architect Ridley Abbott laid the foundation, and the project was later completed by J. B. Fernandes and Waman Namjoshi.

Once a proud cultural institution of the post-Independence era, New Empire’s gradual decline bears testimony to the fate of single-screen theatres.

Over the last few years, about 600 single screen halls have closed down and Mumbai has only about 60 today. What then happened to the times, as in the 1960s, when Mackenna’s Gold, a western, for instance, ran at the Strand for 50 weeks?

Players in the field of cinema blame it on the entry of multiplexes around 2005. The Maharashtra government gave them a tax relief for five years, which meant they were exempted from paying the 45 per cent entertainment tax on the ticket.

“New Empire is the latest victim of the tragedy in which almost every single screen cinema is swimming to keep its nose above the water. The technology revolution has also led to fewer people coming to these cinemas. Multiplexes have mushroomed in every corner,” said Nasir Hoosein, owner of Liberty, which after facing tribulations, is in the process of reinventing itself.

Liberty is now trying to get into theatre and stand-up comedy. This is the same cinema, which ran Hum Aapke Hai Kaun for 125 weeks straight, of which 44 weeks were houseful. Two million people watched the film at Liberty.

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