CineAsia: India’s Multiplex Pioneer Ajay Bijli Talks Cinema Growth, Digital Threats

Ajay Bijli -PVR Cinemas chairman - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of PVR Cinemas

The founder of India’s largest exhibitor, PVR Cinemas, which recently invested in U.S. luxury chain iPic, is being honored with the exhibitor of the year award.

As the chairman and managing director of India’s largest cinema chain, PVR Cinemas, Ajay Bijli has been a trailblazer credited with revolutionizing the country’s exhibition industry.

Back in 1997, Bijli opened the country’s first multiplex in the capital New Delhi at a time when single-screen cinemas were struggling against rampant video piracy.

New Delhi-headquartered PVR was launched as a joint venture in 1995 between Bijli’s Priya Exhibitors and Australia's Village Roadshow, which exited the venture in 2002. The move signaled a diversification for Bijli, 50, who comes from a business family that runs a trucking company.

In 1990, Bijli, a commerce graduate from Delhi University, had successfully relaunched a single-screen cinema, which was part of the family business holdings, by largely focusing on Hollywood releases targeting an upscale, urban audience.

PVR's first multiplex in New Delhi was an instant hit, leading the company on a growth path. While competitors emerged, including Mexico's Cinepolis, the only foreign exhibitor in India, PVR became the dominant player and also acquired rival chain Cinemax.

It now has 600 screens across 51 cities. For the latest financial year, PVR reported revenue of $340 million (21.8 billion rupees), an increase of 14 percent over the previous year, while the company's profits before taxes reached $58.8 million (3.8 billion rupees).

Bijli tells THR that a major factor behind his company's rapid rise was “the growth of retail" in urban India. "We got the opportunity to take spaces in emerging malls, which became destinations for everything from shopping to food to movies,” he explains. 

In addition to expanding locally, PVR recently embarked on its first foray into the U.S. market via a $4 million investment in iPic Gold Class Entertainment, which runs luxury cinemas combined with a high-end restaurant experience. Bijli says he was “fascinated at how luxury cinemas can also be positioned with a very strong emphasis on food and beverages” and hopes to draw lessons from iPic for enhancing PVR’s luxury cinema offerings in India.

Given that India traditionally is dominated by local films, multiplexes have also played an important role in expanding Hollywood’s presence in India. While Hollywood films still only manage a minority box-office share of about 10 percent in the country, Bijli says that Hollywood “has still grown in India largely because of event movies which don’t have complicated stories and are locally dubbed in various languages for wide release.”

But Bijli believes Indian films will always dominate the market. “Indians like to taste other cuisines, but then we want to go back to our staple Indian food — this analogy is perfect for movies as well,” he says.

As in other markets, digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon are posing new challenges to cinemas in India. But Bijli says that “the history of the exhibition industry shows that it has always faced down huge disruptive events, such as the dawn of television followed by home video.”

He adds: “I am not saying Netflix is not a threat, but we have to be confident of offering better services to get people out to the cinemas, especially in India where films offer escapism given that they are larger than life.”

Bijli draws parallels with how Hollywood’s event movies have inspired Indian filmmakers to also create homegrown epics, such as the blockbuster Baahubali films, “which are ideal for the big-screen experience.”

India may be the world’s largest film producing country, with over 1,900 titles made in 2015, but it is still one of the most under-screened markets in the world with just more than 11,000 screens serving a population of 1.32 billion. By comparison, the U.S. has over 40,000 screens for a population of 323 million while China has over 31,000 screens for its population of 1.38 billion. In terms of a per-capita screen average, according to a recent UNESCO study, the U.S. has 14 screens per 100,000 people, China has 2.5, while India has the lowest figure of 0.9 among the 69 countries surveyed in the study.

Comparing India with China, Bijli says that India “barely manages” to add 300 new screens per year, while China adds an estimated 20 per day. “Clearly, the infrastructure and government support in China is way ahead of India,” he adds.

As for receiving the exhibitor of the year honor at CineAsia, Bijli says that “looking back, 20 years ago, I would not have thought that one day I would be getting this award and for that the credit goes to our brilliant team.

"Moreover, I am thankful for all the support from my family, including my mother, wife and my brother [PVR's joint managing director] Sanjiv.”

Says Andrew Sunshine, vp of Film Expo Group, organizer of CineAsia“PVR has built a culture of innovation for cinema, changing the moviegoing experience in India. Bijli has proven to be a pioneer in the industry, and we congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.”