Theatrical release still brings in over 60% of money a movie makes: Ajay Bijli, PVR

In the 1990s, Ajay Bijli, chairman of PVR Ltd, kicked off India’s multiplex revolution with PVR Anupam in Delhi. Many setbacks and three big acquisitions later, PVR Cinemas is now India’s largest movie exhibitor, selling 112 million tickets annually. In an interview with Malini Goyal, Bijli talks about his journey, the world of cinema and the OTT threat. Edited excerpts:

What is movie business telling us about the economic slowdown?
It is true that in recessionary times, people save on shopping and travel but spend on movies. We see that happening. With Rs 200 as average ticket price (ATP), we offer three hours of escapism that is still affordable. But it is also because of good content — Indian content makers have got their act together. GST reduction (from 28% to 18% for tickets above Rs 100) has helped too. Footfalls are up while GST collection hasn’t dipped — that’s good news for everyone.

Recently, we interacted with the prime minister who underscored the power of cinema and Bollywood as a great marketing tool. He asked us what more can be done (to promote Bollywood). He is very committed.

Do you see OTTs as a big threat?
I think OTTs are more about long-form storytelling than movies. And they do a great job. In a populous country like India, there will always be enough people who would like to get out of home to socialise and unwind by watching movies. We know that the same people who watch OTTs on weekdays watch movies over the weekend. Of the 115 million moviegoers we get, around 70% are 12-34-year-olds. The 60-day viewing exclusivity in theatres is a big draw. Theatrical release still brings in over 60% of the money a movie makes. Theatrical release is also an important marketing tool. It helps create buzz and sets the tone for a movie’s future viewings in other formats like OTTs. Movie business has seen some major disruptions every decade — TV, VHS, DVD and now OTT — and has had to reinvent. What I still need to do is build a fabulous infrastructure and offer a great experience.


Being among the world’s top 10 exhibitors, how do you benchmark yourself?
They all operate in different markets and contexts. But there are parts I admire. For example, Cineplex in Canada has a 75% market share and robust F&B earnings, higher than movie tickets. (65% of PVR’s revenues come from movie tickets). Thailand’s Major Cineplex Group excels in digitisation, with all tickets sold digitally. I admire AMC’s loyalty programme in the US. Loyalty programme is about offering your loyal customers things that money can’t buy — like upgrades, recognitions and special screenings. I also learn a lot from airlines and hospitality industry.

What have you learnt about slotting movies and their box-office success?
It is like a closed parachute — you only get to know on Friday if it works. Empirical track record helps. We have a programming and scheduling department with a 25-member staff to gauge the pulse of the audience and take decisions. Bollywood still contributes 90% of the revenue.

In the last two years, we have had many sleeper hits like Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho. Content is the big hero and small-budget films have connected well with the audience, which is evolving and maturing. A big hero is no longer a guarantee for a film’s success. And he must look the part, constantly reinventing himself. There is a preference for shorter movies — the era of mega, three-hour movies is over. Like in Gully Boy, songs are becoming very contextual.

How have you evolved as an entrepreneur? How has India’s entrepreneurial landscape changed amid all-round disruption?
As an entrepreneur, I have learnt to see the glass as half-full. I have become more rational. I have become more patient and don’t panic easily.

While India has had some incredible entrepreneurs, I see some generational shift. The newer entrepreneurs with humble beginnings who raise capital from outside seem to have better corporate governance. They are also very scale-driven. Talking of all-round disruption, let’s wait before deciding who is disrupting whom. Globally, we see many disrupters getting disrupted. You have to be careful. Give them all the respect but instead of panicking that Netflix will disrupt your business, focus on making your business more relevant. Be neither complacent nor over-confident. We have a lot of headroom for growth here

Since you have been at this since the 1990s, do you experience entrepreneur fatigue?
No journey is without peaks and troughs. There are times you feel low, there is too much struggle. Confronting those challenges and tackling them keep you motivated.

Our partner Village deciding to leave in 2003 was a setback. In 2007-08, competition intensified with Big Cinemas and INOX coming ahead of us. From having the first mover advantage, we got left behind. What you are today is more important than what you were in the past. I believe in the power of focus. Do one thing, but excel in it. That’s what Starbucks, Sachin Tendulkar and Disney do. The acquisition of Cinemax in 2013 was an inflection point, propelling us to the top. We have acquired DLF’s DT Cinemas and more recently SPI Cinemas. For real estate developers like DLF, cinema was a non-core activity.

And our business is a scale game, with margins improving with every 100 new screens. Thanks to some sane advice from people like Sunil Mittal and Analjit Singh, I have been careful with capital structure and have not taken too much debt.

What’s your day like? Do you find time for personal pursuits?
Spending time with my three kids — 21, 25 and 27 years old — is my top priority. My day starts at 5 am. I have been taking lessons in Indian classical music and do a 30-minute riyaaz in the morning. My workout time is 6.30-8 am, before I head to office. Breakfast with mom is a ritual. I leave office at 5 pm. At work, I focus on design, architecture, new signings and deals with developers.

Fact File: Ajay Bijli, 52 CMD, PVR Ltd

— Started India’s first multiplex, PVR Anupam in Delhi in 1997. Today, PVR is India’s largest multiplex chain with 15,000 staff, 821 screens at 172 properties in 70 cities. This month PVR Lanka marked its first overseas foray

— REACH: 115 million tickets sold annually

— HIS FAVOURITE MOVIES: Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Taare Zameen Par, Rang De Basanti, Uri

— HIS FITNESS MANTRA: Workout consistency and calorie intake are critical

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