This year Ajay Bijli, 45, and PVR Ltd moved closer to a dream they had promised themselves a few years ago: to operate 500 screens by 2013. When PVR’s proposed acquisition of Cinemax is complete, the multiplex pioneer will have 351 screens, more than any other chain in the country. “Six months ago I looked at this framed sign (“500 screens by 2013”) that we have up on everyone’s table and was wondering, why did I do this?” says Bijli, chairman and managing director, PVR. “It was a joke. PVR was at a screen count of about 170 then and we had about 100 screens in the pipeline but there was no way we could have reached this magic number by organic (in-house) growth alone.”
Bijli knew he needed an external stimulus, and that opportunity came when the Kanakia brothers decided to put up Cinemax for sale. Once the acquisition is complete, PVR hopes to reach at least “70 million viewers” next year, operate in territories in which it has little or no influence, and become the biggest exhibitor in Mumbai, a very important market. “But we are still the same company,” Bijli says. “Yes, our scale has increased but our values remain the same.”
Bijli set up India’s first multiplex in Delhi in 1997, but he isn’t content with being known as the pioneer of the multi-screen format that is gradually replacing single screens across India. “What has always concerned me is the question: What are we today?” Bijli says. “There are just three to four listed multiplex operators out there and even the investors did not really know who the leader is. I wanted to stand out, and also wanted to excel at what we are doing. It is not about ego, it is about profitability. I wanted to be a scale player because that automatically makes explanations about who you are, easy.”
PVR’s key challenge in the coming year will be multifold. “We have to now look at innovative ways of entertaining the customer within that black box called the auditorium,” Bijli says. One such initiative was Director’s Rare, which invites independent directors to show their films at limited shows for a minimum of a week. “There is a disparate audience out there; we have to fill up seats and position ourselves as a company which has a serious connect to movie-goers, so we like to show films that offer variety,” Bijli says. “Director’s Rare has huge potential and now it has to move out of limited properties and few cities.” Also in the pipeline are a design laboratory to work on issues such as seating and cushioning and the introduction of “Cry Babies Shows” aimed at parents with young children.
If there doesn’t seem to be too much time for movie production, it’s by design and not by accident. “I was personally gutted when I saw the results of Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (an Ashutosh Gowariker film PVR co-produced in 2010),” Bijli says. “It wiped out the profits of the company. Sometimes, you just have to acknowledge where you have expertise and where you don’t and work accordingly.”