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The screen sultan
Soumik Sen |
November 08, 2003
Can Ajjay Bijli stay ahead of the herd? He was one of the pioneers of the multiplex revolution that is sweeping the country.
But now he must compete with scores of others who think that building malls and multiplexes is the best way to riches.
Certainly Bijli isn't about to slow down. The son of a transporter (who was known in industry circles as Bijli Pahalwan) is in the middle of a heroic bid to turn his PVR Cinemas into a national-level company with screens around the country.
To that end Bijli is moving faster than the plots of the movies he screens.
In the next eight months he plans to open around 40 screens in five locations. By 2005 he hopes to be showing movies at 100 screens all around the country.
In fact, the building is already on at furious pace in several locations. In Bangalore, a 11-screen theatre is under development and another five-screen complex is being built in Hyderabad.
Bijli is also finalising plans for an eight-screen property in Mumbai. "A presence in Mumbai is essential," he says.
Meanwhile, he isn't neglecting Delhi where he started from. The company opened a multiplex in Gurgaon earlier this year and a two-screen complex is coming up in Faridabad.
Besides that, PVR has taken over Plaza, one of the Capital's oldest cinema houses and is gutting it from top to bottom to turn it into a modern entertainment complex. It also has two multiplexes in Vikaspuri and at Naraina in west Delhi.
Bijli even harbours ambitions of taking PVR outside India. That could be in the distant future because there's still plenty to be done in this country. But he certainly has a formidable war chest of cash for his new ventures.
A few months ago ICICI's India Advantage Fund picked up a 30 per cent stake in PVR Ltd for Rs 38 crore (Rs 380 million).
The cash plus another Rs 70 crore (Rs 700 million) (from PVR's debt and internal accruals) will fund the ambitious expansion drive from Delhi to Mumbai and Bangalore.
"But that doesn't imply we will get into non-core businesses like retail and film production as of now," says Bijli.
"We are at the infant stage of the multiplex boom and we've got miles to go before we become a national brand. All said and done, we are a Delhi brand," admits Bijli.
But Bijli definitely has his pulse on the entertainment industry unlike many who aspire to be multiplex owners. Recently, he backed a bizarre promotional event that picked up even more publicity than he had reckoned on.
He organised a contest in which people had to sit stationery inside a car (which was parked outside one of the PVR cinemas) for an indefinite period.
The person who stayed the longest received the prize and Bijli received more publicity than even he had anticipated.
Crazy as the scheme sounded, it helped spruce up the sagging collections at PVR Naraina where it was held. PVR Naraina needs a bit of a boost because, apart from a solitary coffee shop, it has yet to develop into a hot spot like the other PVRs in the Capital.
One concept that Bijli has understood unerringly is that it's important to turn the multiplex into a hangout with cool restaurants and the like.
Priya, the first theatre he owned, became a city hot spot with multinational brands like McDonalds and Pizza Hut making their presence felt. Bijli also went about energetically marketing PVR Anupam.
But the multiplex business is getting tougher than ever before and Bijli knows it. His revenues have jumped seven-fold between 1997 and now. But he can't rest on his laurels because scores of others are leaping into the game.
In Delhi alone companies like Digital Talkies, 3Cs and Wave are racing to catch up.
Nevertheless, Bijli has a head start on his rivals. Back in 1988 he graduated from Hindu College in Delhi and was thrown in at the deep end of his family business, the Amritsar Transport Corporation (or ATC, as it is known today).
ATC was a freight carrier company which had 550 trucks that criss-crossed north India. And alongside this regular business, the Bijlis owned the Priya cinema at Vasant Vihar.
The cinema business seemed quite glamorous compared to trucking and it sparked the interest of the young Bijli about 10 years ago.
"At that time the exhibition business wasn't doing too well, due to the administered ticket prices, which implied that we would have to keep some tickets priced at the lowest denominator prescribed by the government," reminiscences Bijli.
Cinemas were also in dire straits because of the video menace. But distributors were still looking for good theatres where English movies could be exhibited.
"But due to the uncertain state of the trade," says Ajay, "no theatre owner was keen on the additional investment to attract English films." Priya cinema was very much in the red till the early '90s, when Bijli's father gave him Rs 40 lakh (4 million) to re-do Priya.
"I was hugely inspired by the success that Regent cinema had, after it installed Dolby sound in its theatres," says Bijli.
"And to end the monopoly of Chanakya, which was the only hall that showed English films, I was the first to instal surround sound and Dolby in Delhi."
Bijli spruced up the carpeting, installed better air conditioners and decided to show only English films.
"However, the kind of films we were showing before the renovation, was embarrassing -- almost semi-porn stuff," confesses Bijli." That was because very few films were available.
The renovated Priya opened with the comedy Three Men and a Baby and the then Priya regulars (who had expected something else after seeing the name) were disappointed. As a consequence occupancy dropped steeply.
However sales soon picked up and while Priya was growing from strength to strength, Bijli met Mike Macclesfield, the president of Universal Pictures who suggested he should think about multiplexes and talk to an Australian company called Village Roadshow.
After two trips, Bijli flew down to Singapore and in 1995, a 60-40 joint venture was signed between Bijli and Village Roadshow, and after much scouting Anupam at Saket, in the Capital, was bought over.
"With an investment of around Rs 7 crore (Rs 70 million), I converted it into a four-screen multiplex, which opened with the Tom Cruise-starrer Jerry Maguire, in June 1997. And in a span of two years, we were in the black," says Bijli.
However, while Priya was rocking as a hot spot in the city, PVR Anupam was quite drab. Bijli went about marketing space in and around the multiplex. Dominos was the first to enter the premises, and very soon others followed.
It was then that the marketing plans were unleashed. Movie festivals were hosted, papers were splashed with ads, all the big studios -- Fox, Paramount, Warner -- came knocking and in a span of two years, the cinema finally broke even. In 1999-2000 PVR did business of Rs 24 crore (Rs 240 million).
In the year 2000, while both theatres were doing well, Bijli was advised by friend and guide Sunil Mittal, to do a three-week-long 'owner's management programme at Harvard Business School.
"The workshop really opened my eyes. Simultaneously, as the regulatory framework allowed de-controlling of tickets, the multiplex boom that was waiting to happen took place," says Bijli.
But Bijli's biggest test could still be ahead. The multiplex business is now the hot favourite both for real estate developers who want to get into value added businesses and for others who simply have plenty of cash in hand.
So, Ajay Bijli, the king of India's multiplexes, will have to keep moving quickly to ensure that he isn't dethroned.