Cinema will always be a social phenomenon: Sanjeev Kumar Bijli of PVR Limited

Srabana Lahiri | Updated on: Monday, January 17, 2022, 07:34 AM IST

Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Limited |
Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Limited |

Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Joint Managing Director, PVR Limited, is a man who believes in thinking big. Despite lockdown affecting the business in the last two years, PVR introduced several luxe and hi-tech format screens across the country, including the drive-in theatre at Jio World Drive in Mumbai. Now, Bijli’s plan is to expand PVR in existing and new cities, to reach the goal of 1,000 screens in the next 18 months.

The cinema industry was perhaps the worst hit by the lockdown, and cinema halls also were the most missed by consumers. What has been your observation on footfalls in movie theatres post lockdown, and how do you see the road to operational and financial recovery for PVR Cinemas?

When cinemas reopened post the first lockdown in October 2020, the content flow from Bollywood and Hollywood was constrained, with only a handful of movies, and it was only the regional content that kept audiences coming. For us, having a steady flow of Hindi films, supported by Hollywood and regional content, is important to garner footfalls. When the Government removed capacity restrictions in February 2021, certain key markets like Maharashtra continued to operate with restrictions, keeping footfalls low. From March 11, 2021, most cinemas across the country were shut down due to the second wave. Cinemas started reopening in July, 2021 in a staggered manner. Post that, with a good flow of regional, Hollywood and Bollywood content, some markets in the country had reached pre-COVID levels. Clearly, the third quarter of the year starting from the Diwali season fuelled by the release of big blockbusters like ‘Sooryavanshi’ and others revived cinema-going habits. This was aided by big ticket Hollywood movies like ‘No Time to Die’ and ‘Eternals’ and regional movies like ‘Annaatthe’, ‘Borrder’ and ‘Maanadu’. With Marvel’s ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’, ‘Pushpa – The Rise’ (Telugu, Tamil and Hindi) and the much-awaited ’83, the big screen was back in the reckoning. Then, the third wave struck, with all the big ticket movie releases getting postponed, and affecting footfalls yet again. Our operational and financial recovery will happen when cinemas are allowed to operate fully. This is the third time we have been made to shut down in two years; therefore recovery becomes difficult. There is a lot of misconception that multiplexes are not safe, although many international scientific studies have confirmed that cinemas - where customers are for the majority of time seated, facing in the same direction, wearing masks and not talking - presents a very low risk of COVID-19 transmission. Countries such as the USA, UK, France, Germany, China, Korea, Italy, Spain, UAE, Singapore, Malaysia, etc, continue to operate cinemas, with the highest degree of safety protocols.

How did ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ and other New Year releases do in PVR theatres? What are the big ticket releases lined up over the next few months?

There has been a massive response to the ticket sales for ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ and it has grossed more than Rs 250 crore in India, an unprecedented number for a Hollywood film in India. Allu Arjuns’s ‘Pushpa – the Rise’ (Telugu and Hindi ) also did exceedingly well in the month of December. ’83 has garnered a decent run at the office. Once cinemas reopen, many big ticket movie releases are lined up, such as Alia Bhatt’s ‘Gangubai Kathiawadi’, Rajamouli’s RRR (Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, and Malayalam), ‘The 355’, ‘RadheyShyam’ starring Prabhas (Telugu and Hindi), Yashraj Film’s historic epic action drama ‘Prithviraj’ starring Akshay Kumar, ‘Attack’ (John Abraham) and many more.

You recently forayed into FMCG, launching PVR PopMagic on Amazon, and also introduced professional sanitisation and deep cleaning services for home and office spaces under the brand ‘V Pristine by PVR’. Tell us about your plans to grow the Food & Beverages portfolio beyond cinemas and expectations from alternative revenue generation initiatives.

When cinemas were closed, we pushed our thought leaders to conceptualize propositions to tap the core strength of our businesses. Our think-tank of experienced leadership came up with an innovative idea of upgrading the skill-sets of our expert house-keeping staff, use our advanced ULV machines, EPA and FDA globally certified medical grade disinfectants to provide highly personalized cleaning and sanitization services for home and offices. After initial trials with 1000+ residences and offices across 46 cities among our employees, their friends and families, V-Pristine by PVR has now evolved into a full-fledged business model. PVR PopMagic was launched as a novel initiative to increase F&B consumption outside the cinemas. Similarly, our food selection in cinemas was made available to people through V Café on food aggregator platforms. However, both these initiatives were part of innovative business practices. Our core business still remains film exhibition.

We saw Kerala’s first 4 DX theatre at Kochi, launch of luxury format screens, drive-in theatres, etc… What are some of the innovations and tech advances taking place on PVR screens currently and what is in the pipeline?

We introduced Kerala’s first ever 4DX, an exhilarating cinematic concept, at PVR Lulu Mall, Kochi on December 17, 2021 with the screening of ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’. All shows for that weekend got booked. In a 4DX Audi, specially-designed motion seats change the cinematic paradigm from just watching to ‘experiencing’, where movies no longer are confined to the screen. We launched India’s first rooftop drive-in theatre on November 5, 2021 at Jio World Drive in BKC, Mumbai in association with Reliance Jio Drive-In, accommodating 290 cars. This brings back the nostalgia of watching movies under the stars in the comfort of your car. We opened Maison PVR, the House of PVR, a six-screen uber luxury multiplex cinema at Jio World Drive in Makers Maxity, BKC Mumbai on October 20, 2021. Inspired by the popular French Grand Maison, the property incorporates three intrinsically designed concepts – The Living Room, The Library Hall and The Loft–besides a unique ‘Bond’ theme lounge. The new six-screen multiplex with exclusive colour theme in each of the three premium audis, has two luxe screens and one viewing room for bespoke private screenings. PVR expanded its luxury formats with the launch of the First Director’s Cut in Haryana on August 5, 2021. Director’s Cut is an essential part of PVR’s assiduous strategy to increase its luxury offerings to cater to the growing demand in the sector.

What is your outlook for the coming year for the company as well as the post-pandemic cinema industry? How do you plan to grow PVR Cinemas and also beyond the cinema?

India is the world’s biggest film-producing country, but one of the most under-screened nations in the world. Screens per capita are still very low, indicating considerable headroom for expansion. We are keen to expand our screen presence and have plans to open properties in prime markets including Kolkata, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and new cities where we do not have a presence, such as Trivandrum, Jaipur, Dhanbad, Bhubaneswar, Patna, Nizamabad, Patiala, Ajmer, Jamnagar and Rourkela. We are very excited that we will be commencing work on select properties and some new cities and towns. We managed to open 18 new screens in this year till January, 2022, and hope to add 20 more screens before the year-end. We are very confident that COVID will reach an endemic stage this year, and cinemas will reopen, movie flow will start again and customers will come back to their favourite form of entertainment. We are committed and excited about reaching our 1,000-screen goal in 18 months or so. We also have a robust distribution business and PVR Pictures has a very exciting line-up of both Hindi and English films for distribution.

What is the update on in-cinema advertising currently at PVR? Are the brands back – if yes, which are the big ones?

Cinema advertising is based on footfalls and the larger-than-life visuals it creates for the brand. Since we had already reached 70-75% of pre-COVID footfall levels and even beyond in some markets, this ushered in active discussion with the trade for big and long-term deals. Most of our big clients resumed their association from October, 2021 itself, to capitalise on this resurgence of footfalls and increase their audience reach. Our mainstream brands are back on board along with a few new names too, e.g. - Apple, Oppo, Cred, One Plus, Facebook, WhatsApp, PepsiCo, Coke, Dyson, Kotak, Tata CliQ, Dettol, HDFC, Nippon, WOW, etc.

Acceptance of in-cinema advertising is fast emerging among advertisers as brand count is growing at a rapid pace. Advertisers are persistently seeking newer mediums, higher reach and different forms of engagement to get higher SOV and to de-risk clutter, which cinema offers. With higher footfalls in view of richer content, prolific growth of regional cinemas and bullish growth of screens, brands would cater to a bigger universe with higher OTS (opportunity to see).

Tell us a few stories from the history of PVR Cinemas. What would you call your big learnings so far?

One incident I clearly remember is when we opened the first multiplex in 1997 in Saket, Delhi. The average ticket price at the time used to be around Rs 25-30 and we took a bold decision to price our tickets at Rs 75. Most consumers got confused and thought it was the price for all four auditoriums, and not just one film. My learning is to think big; nothing is impossible. Take risks, and pursue what feels right. Even if it doesn’t work, treat it as a learning and move on. As a leader, you are the one that needs to have that big audacious goal. Always build a strong team; surrounding yourself with good people who generate great ideas and lead to smooth execution. Be strong on governance and ethics.

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Published on: Monday, January 17, 2022, 07:34 AM IST