Glorious Return: How Moviegoers Are Coming Back For Experiential Marvels

Read this exclusive interview with Ajay Bijli, Managing Director, PVR INOX Limited


Ajay Bijli, Managing Director, PVR INOX Limited, in an exclusive chat with BW Businessworld, talks about the revival of cinema-going in India, strategies driving PVR INOX's success in an era of digital streaming dominance, innovative enhancements to the movie-watching experience, the dynamics of urban and rural audiences, industry challenges, and the exciting expansion plans for PVR INOX both at home and abroad.


We have witnessed a phenomenal resurgence in people going back to cinemas. What do you think explains this trend?

Well, you know, as Aristotle said, man is a social animal. Everybody's desire to go out, in fact, in my view, has only increased after the pandemic, because during the pandemic, people were forced to remain inside, and it was not by choice. 

There were 18 months of closure. You can't write off a strong activity like cinema-going, which has been around for hundreds of years, by just 18 months of closure. Definitely, habits did change, and people did not have any choice, because when you don't have a choice, then you do consume content at home. Where else are you going to go? But I think when you do have a choice, then you like to consume content where you're meant to consume it.

People's desire to go out and watch movies is something which cannot be replaced by anything happening at home. And I have nothing against OTT, that's a different form of entertainment. OTT is just another avatar of home entertainment. Home entertainment used to be with TV, then colour TV, then satellite TV, VHS, DVD, LD, and OTT. It has always been in existence, home entertainment. So I think that's why people are going out and watching movies.

How have you innovated in order to enhance the cinema-going experience?

It's an event for people to go out and watch a movie. And when they get out of the comfort of their homes, make a programme with their kids or their friends or their family, I think it takes an effort to do that. Once you do that, then we as exhibitors and cinema operators must not disappoint you. We should try to enhance that experience. Now that experience gets enhanced when you have a very high-quality audio-visual. They should say, "Wow’, this sound, I can't get at home.” For the visual experience from analogue to celluloid to digital to laser, you should be able to say, "Okay, wow, now the quality that I'm getting on the screen, the lightness, luminosity is unparalleled.”

In any case, big screens are not competing with your video home theatres. Then comes the seating part, so I try to focus on what's happening in that black box. The black box must have very good seating comfort. It must have excellent audio-visual, and it must also be very vibrant and colourful. 

Movies are larger than life, our heroes look like demigods, our heroines look like demigoddesses and the influence in our designs has also come from the content.

It’s all about people saying, “Wow, you know, this I could not get at home." So, I think, if you don't make it experiential, then people will come back to the first question that you asked, "How is it different from watching at home?"

Over a period of 30-odd years, I've committed myself to getting everybody out of their homes and watching movies on the big screen while also trying to understand the disparate needs of every customer. 

I think the customer is very discerning and, therefore, the experience enhances their movie-going outing basically. 

What strategies or collaborations have you undertaken to ensure that PVR continues to provide a fabulous and enhanced cinematic experience for audiences, especially in an era where digital streaming platforms are becoming increasingly popular?

You see, I am in the middle of content makers and content consumers. So basically I'm not in the production business at all. But content obviously is the number one thing for people to come in. And I only enhance and augment that by giving a fabulous experience. 

So I get that delta in the occupancies. We are not a passive company, we have flexible and dynamic pricing. We do so much to customise our communication and marketing to the people to get them out. 

At the same time, content makes us complete. And a cinema without content is an empty space. India has a large quantity of content, 1,400 to 1,500 films come through the system every year. The film fraternity, whether it is Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali or Marathi, those guys are determined to make sure that it creates content which connects with the consumer. So I don't have to do much. I have to be obviously in touch with them to understand what they're thinking. 

When I was in touch with Shah Rukh before Pathan, I didn't have to do anything. He was extremely determined to make sure that he created some content which connected. Rajamouli, when we did a long promotion with him long ago, maybe pre-pandemic, we had to change the name to PVRRR. He was so determined to make a movie which connected RRR with the whole of India. 

When you see these filmmakers, people like Rajkumar Hirani, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Aamir Khan, Ranbir, Ranveer, Karan Johar and Aditya Chopra, all these guys are very determined. They understand that the theatre business is very important because otherwise how will they recoup their budgets?

Budgets of the movies cannot be recouped if you go straight to a streaming platform. So I think I don't need to do anything. I just need to make sure that when these guys make a fabulous movie, I make sure my environment where I'm showcasing these movies is fabulous. It enhances that experience.

How does the cinema-going trend vary between urban and rural areas in India?

It depends on the movie. So if you look at a movie like Gadar 2, it was made for Bharat. It was made for the whole country. So I think some of these movies, the storylines and the budgets are such that they resonate with everybody. Whereas some movies are urban like Rocky and Rani.

The response in urban and rural is a function of the movie and who it is being addressed to, or made for. RRR was for the whole country, it didn't matter where you belonged to. So I think the content makers decide who they are making the movies for and then accordingly they get the reaction.

The response to movies can vary depending on the content. Some films are designed to connect with a broader audience and resonate across urban and rural areas, while others may be more urban-centric. The success of a movie often aligns with its target audience, and India's diverse film industry caters to various preferences.

What challenges do you foresee for the cinema exhibition industry?

Challenges are always there for any entrepreneur in any business. And you know, it doesn't matter how much we try to differentiate ourselves. We have to keep pushing the envelope. 

So because your story is about experiential economy, I think that's where the challenge lies. We have to keep pushing the envelope to make sure that every cinema gives a fabulous experience. And we are able to give consistent experience across 1,700 screens. It's not easy to give a consistent experience throughout the country. I think that challenge remains. 

And number two challenge is access to real estate. We still need to figure out whether we get good locations, good developers, good developments, or shopping centres and malls where we can have an anchor presence. And sometimes I have no option but to go into a place where I don't have access to the movies that I want to show. 

All the mall operators now want to have a cinema operator in their mall, because they have realised that they have to attract footfalls. It's not about just attracting the guys, the footfalls. They have to give entertainment and food. So the malls and the shopping centres are our real partners in many ways. So that's where the challenges are. 

What is lined up on the expansion front, both domestic and international?

We never ventured out of India because India has a humongous market. But what we did was we went to Sri Lanka and we've been there for 13, 14 years. We built one of our largest properties there, PVR Cineplex, which has nine screens.

We have 1,800 screens, the second largest in the world. We are almost 50 per cent more than the third, fourth and fifth guys put together. We will have our 100th property sometime in December 2023. So we have about 60-odd properties under construction, 40-odd properties which we will still acquire and some we will construct.

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