The Box Office Baron – Ajay Bijli
It appears that black is his favourite colour for there’s nary a picture of Ajay Bijli, Chairman and Managing Director of PVR Limited, where he’s dressed in anything but. Yet, his cinemas are filled with colour – ranging from bright reds and deep purples to pops of blue and gold thrown in for good measure. Everything inside a PVR multiplex is about creating a magical cinematic experience for its viewer. From ‘tubs’ of popcorn that were only seen in Archie comic pages, to service inside the cinema hall, bento boxes to eat out of as you feast your eyes on the latest action thriller, loos that boast of soft hand towels and moisturiser and some of the best reclining seats to sink into and enjoy Tom Cruise’s antics as he dangles from a plane – the PVR experience has spoiled the movie viewer for anything but the best.
Steep ticket prices and staggering concession stand rates haven’t deterred the footfalls into the country’s premier multiplex. The brand today serves more than 66 million patrons at PAN India level and sees at least 5.5 million footfalls into all of its 491 screens each month.
RITZ meets the dynamic man who brought the multiplex revolution to India
“It all began when my father purchased Priya Cinema in Delhi in 1978 and when I joined the business in 1988 I was running the trucking company for two years. I was really struggling there, going to Chandni Chowk every single day walking through that office and somewhere I knew that this is not what I want to do with my life. Luckily my father gave me the opportunity to take care of Priya Cinema, for I think somewhere he understood that running a trucking company was not my calling.
I used to be frequent at cinemas like Chanakya and Archana, the only two halls that used to show English cinema in Delhi and also Sterling Cinema in Mumbai which was one up on all other theatres showing Hollywood films since they had a Dolby sound system. That’s when I spoke to my father and convinced him that we needed to revamp the theatre that we owned and to put in a state of the art Dolby system so that we could have an edge over the other theatres in Delhi.
And so my father went to London to procure a Dolby system and that’s when the journey into recreating the cinematic experience actually started.
There was something very drab about a cinema experience till then. Most theatres had functional seats and basic lobbies – I don’t understand why all movie halls had grey lobbies. I decided to bring in better seating, more colourful lobby areas – there’s so much colour in a film and theatres looked drab. I believed that a theatre, the way it was decorated from the colours used in the lobby to the seats and concession stands, everything had to create that large than life, over the top experience for the movie goer.
Then I made a trip to Orlando after I got married in 1992, and where I was staying was next to a 12 screen multiplex. I was enamoured by the bright pop colours used in the multiplex and I wanted to emulated these in Priya Cinema as well. These were some of the major factors that led to the philosophy of PVR when it was conceptualised. I wanted people to take back more than the movie that they have come to see.”
The Priya Village Roadshow Saga
“From a single screen theatre, possibly the best in Delhi at that time, I got the opportunity to get into a joint venture with an Australian company called Village Roadshow. After an initial meeting in Singapore and some serious number crunching, we decided on a 60-40 joint venture where I would get 60 percent. There were no multiplexes in India at that time and the market was ripe for the model to make its entry. I reckoned that if we could have several screens showing different movies at the same time, we could offer more variety to the viewer ranging from Hollywood, Bollywood and regional language film being shown under one roof.
Unwilling to disturb the flourishing business of the single screen Priya Cinema, I began looking for a different property and ended up buying out a theatre in Saket – Anupam – which I converted into the country’s first 4 screen multiplex. I continued to expand the business in Delhi opening two more multiplexes, till my Australian partners decided to withdraw from India in 2001.
I was on my own and the PVR brand emerged of this very fruitful and amiable split. I had plans to make multiplexes bigger with 7 and 8 screens and had signed on projects with several companies developing malls. Our first foray into a mall multiplex was in Bangalore with Prestige’s Forum. It was an 11 screen multiplex and the response to it was phenomenal.
It ended up being the game changer for the company and from then on there was no looking back. Our expansions moved at lightening pace and today we have 491 screens across 109 locations in 44 cities. And there’s many more on the anvil.”
“Today PVR has a net worth of more than INR 15 million in revenue alone. It is the country’s largest leading cinema chain with approximately 30 per cent share of Hollywood box office, 20 per cent share of Bollywood box office and 4.5 million square feet of operational retail space. Another 3 million square feet of retail space is under development. PVR’s domestic box office revenues contribute to almost three fourths of the film industry’s revenue. Today most mall developers prefer PVR as an anchor tenant as this means an assured number of footfalls into a mall on any given day.”
The Brand Story
“PVR is the largest and the most premium film entertainment company in India. It is listed as India’s Most Trusted Company in the Brand Trust Report consecutively since the past three years in the Category of Entertainment and Display. Since its inception in 1997, the brand has redefined the way people watch movies in India. Serving 66 million patrons at PAN India level, the company acquired Cinemax in 2012 and has recently entered into definitive agreements to acquire DT Cinemas. PVR has made exceptional technology like the IMAX®, the ECX (Enhanced Cinema Experience) accessible to its audience and very soon will bring 4DX experience to its cinemas. As a brand it is known for cultivating and spreading international movie culture countrywide and supports independent filmmakers under the banner of ‘Directors Rare’.
PVR Ltd, the integrated ‘film and retail brand’ has PVR Cinemas as its major subsidiary. Its other two subsidiaries are PVR Leisure and PVR Pictures. PVR Leisure focuses on rolling out F&B and retail entertainment concepts. It’s one of a kind venture, ‘PVR BluO’ is the largest bowling chain in India comprising of 135 cosmic bowling lanes which spreads across 6 centers. PVR Leisure’s first casual dining concept ‘Mistral’ is another venture that offers patrons a high quality experience. Adding to the portfolio, PVR Pictures has been a prolific distributor of non-studio/ independent international films in India for many years.”
“Our first foray into a mall multiplex was in Bengaluru with Prestige’s Forum. It was an 11-screen multiplex and the response to it was phenomenal”
Ajay Bijli’s passion for movies led him to set up PVR Cinemas in 1995. The largest multiplex chain in India has unassailable lead in the number of screens over competitors. Clearly, he has transformed the way millions of Indians consume entertainment content over the past two-and-a-half decades.
Ajay’s entrepreneurial spirit has been best translated in his achievement in building the brand.
With an Owners/President Management program from Harvard Business School and a passion to venture into the unknown he saw his business diversifying into distribution with PVR Pictures, and hospitality, retail with successful joint ventures. Acknowledging his business acumen Ernst and Young awarded him with the E&Y Entrepreneurial Award 2013 for Business Transformation. He also received CNBC’s Emerging India Awards in the same year.
As an industry leader of Indian film exhibition, Ajay is on the Board of Trustees of the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) and the founding member of FICCI Multiplex Association (India). He is also a member of The Film and TV Producers Guild (India), Young Presidents’ Organization and is associated with the Central Board of Film Certification, Government of India.
The Support System
Sanjeev Kumar Bijli is the Joint Managing Director of PVR Limited. He has been intricately involved with PVR Ltd. since its inception and has over 15 years of experience in the film exhibition industry. As the Joint Managing Director he manages the cinema acquisition and distribution business and programming activities of the company and also oversees the operations and the marketing. His experience in cinema exhibition stretches the full spectrum of the company’s business, propelling the brand to greater heights.
During his tenure Sanjeev has been conducive in setting up relationships with various Hollywood Studios including Miramax, Newline, IEG and Zee MGM. He plays an important role in determining the content selection for the cinemas and is also closely involved in the development and growth strategy of PVR Ltd including the identification of new business opportunities such as digital and franchise opportunities.
Sanjeev holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and Accounting from Sanford University, Manchester and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Imperial College London University. On receiving professional training in operations and development at the Village Entertainment Center, Australia, Sanjeev excels in management skills and in the domain of cinema knowledge.
“Today PVR has a net worth of more than INR 16,000 million in revenue alone. It is the country’s largest cinema chain with approximately 30 per cent share of Hollywood box office, 20 per cent share of Bollywood box office and 4.5 million square feet of operational retail space”
According to his brother Ajay, who is more involved in day to day operations and detailing of the business, “The movies and entertainment part are solely Sanjeev’s responsibility and all the success in that department has to be attributed to him. There’s no way I could run the show successfully without him.”
And now with Ajay’s 23-year-old daughter Niharika joining the company as Director, Special Projects, she is responsible for handling various new projects and heads various film festivals hosted by PVR Pictures across the country. Being passionate about movie and coming from the family who brought multiplex revolution in the country, Niharika is confident and excited to add fresh innovations to the company.
His life is surrounded by luxury – from the kind of fabrics used for each seat in the cinema hall, to the premium F&B outlets that he’s particular about and even Payal Jain designing uniforms and styling his staff at each and every PVR auditorium – his eye for everything fine and premium cannot be missed.
His personal style is edge and extremely debonair, the all black New York look seems his favourite. The watch on his wrist is expensive, but subtle. The car he drives is luxury personified, but not something that he likes to show off. His clothes are custom made, his shoes of the finest leather. Yet, as we sit across the lunch table sampling sushi and miso from the newly added sushi bar at Director’s Cut in Ambiance Mall, what strikes us is Ajay Bijli’s humility and his extraordinary drive for perfection.
He lights up when he sees his daughter and at the mention of his brother, he can discuss the nuances of his business for hours together, he hates talking about his wealth and prefers instead to dwell more on how he can further perfect his business. From the kind of New Year gifts being sent out, to the new print on the concierge’s uniform to the calendar they’re sending out to associates and partners, he wants to have his say in everything.
And that’s the reason, he says, that PVR can proudly proclaim that they’re the best and most premium entertainment company in the country.
We agree and continue enjoying his company along with the fabulous Japanese meal being served.