in conversation with Shaaminder Malik -AJAY BIJLI

Ajay Bijli’s passion for movies led him to set up PVR Cinemas in 1997. The largest multiplex chain in India has unassailable lead in the number of screens over competitors. His entrepreneurial spirit has been best translated in his achievement in building the brand PVR. In 1995 he signed a JV with Village Roadshow, a global film production and exhibition company of Australia, and within a few years the company pioneered the multiplex format in India. Since its inception, the brand has redefined the movie watching experience in the country serving approx. 100 million patrons at PAN India level. The company acquired Cinemax in 2012, DT Cinemas in 2016 and has recently taken over SPI Cinemas in 2018. Today, with 727 screens across the length and breadth of the country, PVR Cinemas is the largest chain of multiplexes in India with 156 cinemas in 61 cities.
With an Owners/President Management program from Harvard Business School and a passion to venture into the unknown; Mr Bilji saw his business diversifying into distribution with PVR Pictures, hospitality, and retail. Acknowledging his business acumen, he has recently been honoured with “International Exhibitor of the Year award” at Cine Asia 2017 in Hong Kong. Furthermore, CNBC TV 18 presented him with Asia Innovator of the Year at India Business Leader awards, 2016. He has also been gratified with prestigious awards like E&Y Entrepreneurial Award for Business Transformation, CNBC’s Emerging India Award, Most Admired Multiplex Professional by CMO Asia’s Multiplex Excellence Award, to name a few. Under his leadership, PVR has also bagged the Fortune India’s Next 500 Big and Mid-size companies’ award as well.
As an industry leader of Indian film exhibition, Ajay is on the Board of Trustees of the MAMI and the founding member of FICCI Multiplex Association (India) and is associated with the Central Board of Film Certification, Government of India.
What among these do you think is more important to be no. 1 – Screens? Service? Revenue? And how does it create an impact?
As the world’s major economies have matured, they have become dominated by service-focused businesses, so addressing this fundamental question often involves wrestling with many aspects of the business at the same time. While PVR as an organization always operated with a consumer-focused approach, customer service now has a dramatic and long-term impact with customers’ awareness and sharing service interactions more widely than ever before. With the on-ground presence owing to competition relaying equivocal attention and suited strategy for revenue and growth, consumer experience reins pivotal for PVR. We strongly believe in due success with unmatched service to its patrons providing an experience that is only synonymous to PVR.
Many successful films this year have been films not based in big cities or in foreign lands as they used to be. Why has middle India or small town India come to mean so much?
Filmic location-shifts can create a sense of place, a sense that any place can become a stage for a story that is Indian. People used to look for foreign locations when they go see a movie because it was different. But with the world economic integration, mobility in travel and tourism among the burgeoning Indian middle classes and easy access to exotic locations; it is not as tempting anymore. While audiences recognize the allure of foreign locations, they also feel some loss and dissolution of long-held identities associated with local locations. Increasingly drawing emphasis over the years, this spatial loss is growing domesticated by shifting back to local filming locations.
After Bahubali I and II more and more studios are opting for big-budget multi-episodic extravaganzas. Is this the right way to go?
It is true to say that after the success of blockbuster like Bahubali, many studios are opting for big-budget multi-episodic extravaganzas and Disney has redefined this strategy with the MARVEL character-led series called AVENGERS and standalone films such as THOR, BLACK PANTHER etc. that tie up neatly at the end of 10 years run. It is actually the right way to go if the project/film has been conceived in a way that encourages the sequels.
With the amount of biopics being made they will not only be the flavour of the season but also probably the flavour of the year. Is this overkill?
Biopics have always had an audience, and if we look westwards, they are OSCAR baits and winners. In India, biopics were mostly hagiographies, but now the audiences are more interested in real stories. The content preference is changing and the moviegoers are appreciating real-life stories, which either created a history or made a strong mark. Biopics have a sense of inspiration and entertainment at its core.
A lot of these biopics are based on sportsmen and women. What does it say about the old thought that sports films don’t run?
Sports stories are mostly formulaic, but it is the sportsperson and their persona that most people connect to, so a well-told story will always find takers regardless of the gender of the sportsperson.
With consolidation in the sector, top 3-4 players have become huge and may have a greater say in how and when a film releases and the number of screens it gets. Should this worry the small indie filmmakers?
Dating of a film is the sole prerogative of the producer and presenter of the film, and we never interfere or offer unsolicited advice regarding the same. The only time we have a say is when we chase small indie films and filmmakers to release their films theatrically; like VILLAGE ROCKSTARS (India’s entry to the OSCARS) was released by Vkaao – the on-demand movie screening platform, and CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Our sole aim is to offer a variety of content to the customers and create of culture for alternate content. Globally, big-ticket films book a festival date as well as command a certain number of screens, and rightly so. These are event films and they drive the footfalls.
What is the status on the case related to allowing outside food and beverages into cinemas and how will it impact your business?
We cannot comment on the matter as it is still in court and is sub-judice. We have been operating under the constitution and will continue to do so; abiding by the ruling as and when is declared.
How do you account for the raging success of some Indian films in China? What do they like about our cinema?Indian stories, with universal themes, splashed with hues of myriad emotions, are finding their way into China, winning hearts and the box office game too. The market for Indian films has suddenly grown there. It is a long-drawn effort, but a new phase. They have expanded their horizons of Indian films being exported in their country despite having a limited quota on foreign films. But Indian films are making inroads into the market one after another. For instance, some Indian films like Secret Superstar have outperformed collections in China as compared to India. The audience has now become familiar with Indian actors after many successful releases which in turn is helping to make way for Indian films in China. The unique element of songs and dances looks very exotic and is also the reason for Chinese people to notice Indian movies. The mixture of right content, right distribution company, and seriousness showcased by the Chinese market for Bollywood has encouraged the business. Chinese companies are supportive while promoting films by mixing known local talent and Bollywood talents. The other big reason that Indian films are doing well in China is that the country has more screens; it has more than 50,000, hundreds of them in towns with a million-plus population.
What in your assessment are key ingredients for the success of a film? What is your prediction for 2019?2018 is a proof that story is the key ingredient for the success of a film. A story that is presented well, at a reasonable cost and is entertaining will find the backing of the audiences.

 

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