New Delhi: Last month, film exhibition chain INOX Leisure Ltd brought INSIGNIA, a seven-star movie experience, to Delhi. Equipped with a laserplex screen, plush recliner seats, an exclusive gourmet menu crafted by celebrity chef Vicky Ratnani and a butler-on-call service, the luxury cinema is a first for the capital and clearly reflective of the close attention Indian multiplex chains are paying to expanding the premium luxury segment across the country.

Early last year, PVR Cinemas introduced a wine and jazz lounge to the Director’s Cut facility in south Delhi called The Den. Today, PVR operates 57 premium theatres in India—36 Gold Class screens, 7 IMAX, 6 4DX, 4 PXL and 4 Playhouse screens—with an intent to increase their number from 9% of its portfolio to more than 20% in the next three years. Immediate future plans include taking the popular Director’s Cut currently in Delhi to the Middle East and across cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata besides coming up with new formats in the luxury space.

Meanwhile, Cinepolis India introduced special concierge facilities, valet parking, recliners, blankets and an expansive gourmet menu for its VIP outlet in Thane last November. Up next is a 4DX screen in Delhi’s DLF Saket area. (4DX allows for augmented environmental effects such as seat motion, wind, rain, fog, lights, and scents along with the standard video and audio.)

Investment in luxury cinema can be nearly 60-75% more than that in a regular theatre, warranting almost three times higher ticket prices. But the idea behind expanding the luxury cinema segment in India is two-fold, experts say.

“India is one of the most under-screened countries in the world," pointed out Siddharth Jain, director, INOX Group of Companies. According to the media and entertainment industry report by lobby group Ficci along with consulting firm EY for the year 2017, India has a total of 9,530 screens with multiplexes making up around 2,750. This under-penetration has resulted in 8 screens per million of population compared to 16 in China and 125 in the US. China and the US boast of 40,000 and 40,393 screens respectively.

“The exhibition industry needs focus as a whole. All segments of cinema (within it) have the potential to grow, whether it’s luxury or economy or business or anything else. Each of these will cater to different societies and price points," Jain said.

The other reason, experts say, is less logistical. “India is a country that has changed tremendously over the last decade. Customers’ expectations have increased and the challenge that we have as service providers is to respect them and constantly try to meet and exceed them," said Javier Sotomayor, managing director, Cinepolis Asia. “Once you come up with a new offering, after a couple of weeks, it becomes business as usual. So it only creates this positive cycle of innovation and trying to always meet the increased levels of expectation of the customers."

The other challenge, Sotomayor agreed, is to offer customers something different as technologies such as home entertainment evolve. More than 30 over-the-top video streaming platforms that include both international players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video as well as local services like ALTBalaji, Hotstar and Eros Now, currently compete for viewers’ attention, offering them a mix of curated movie libraries and original shows. The question then is what will bring people to theatres.

“We did a market research that showed our audiences required and demanded luxury cinema viewing," Jain said. “They wanted an experience, which we call ‘decouching.’ Our entire motive is to remove people from their couches at home, and bring them here. So you want to provide them something that they can’t get at home."

Besides larger-than-life, spectacular movie content fit for the big screen, a wine cellar, sushi counter, bakery and laserplex screen are likely to count among things making up for a distinct experience.

“We’ve added a number of concepts adjacent to the Director’s Cut cinema in Delhi so people can enjoy the property for a variety of reasons," said Renaud Palliere, chief executive officer, Luxury Collections, PVR Cinemas. Formats like Director’s Cut and Gold Class make up the luxury arm of PVR that blends high-end hospitality and entertainment with features like 3D-enabled digital projection technology, world-class surround sound, fully reclinable armchairs, personal attendant call system and an exciting in-seat food and beverage menu.

“Obviously we encourage people to come for movies but we also encourage them to come back for other things, so it could be a combination of all of these or separate experiences. We’re obviously leaving that decision to the guests."

When you start offering such luxury services, Palliere said, you can never sit on your laurels, you have to constantly enhance the offering, bring in novelty, it’s a highly and constantly curated product.

“It’s very similar to high-end fashion or hospitality. The product is very sophisticated so the expectations are high and it seeks constant irrigation of ideas and concepts," Palliere said.

Luxury, by definition, Palliere said, is not a volume business. At least PVR had no reference to look up when it came up with Director’s Cut six years ago. Also, since targeted consumers are very discerning, they travel and are exposed to different offerings. So there tends to be a special appetite for these curated personalized experiences particularly in the metro areas.

But does that alienate tier-II and tier-III towns from the luxury experience entirely?

“I think the challenge will be to find the right mix for each of the markets. I do believe that tier-II cities also have potential (for luxury cinemas) as family income levels keep rising, and people are willing to experience new things if we can develop these additional services at a fair price," Sotomayor said. “Our experience in other countries has been to start in plush areas of the big metros but the natural trend is to go down to the tier-II and III cities."

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