Ajay Bijli had very little to do with the business of cinema while growing up. His family was in the transport business. But they also owned the Priya cinema hall in New Delhi’s Vasant Vihar area. Ajay used to watch back-to-back shows, sometimes of the same movie, at Priya. He soon fell in love with cinema.
“I don’t understand anything except the cinema business,” says Ajay Bijli, chairman and MD, PVR Ltd, India’s largest multiplex operator.
After his father’s death in 1992, Ajay along with brother Sanjeev, inherited the transport business. However, soon after, a devastating fire left the business ravaged and the family shattered, both financially and otherwise. After paying off the debt and handing over the business to relatives in Amritsar, Ajay turned to cinema. Priya was refurbished. In 1997, the brothers entered into a joint venture with Australia’s Village Roadshow and opened India’s first multiplex Anupam (Saket) in New Delhi. The company was called Priya Village Roadshow, which later became PVR when the Australian firm exited in 2001.
The show went on. At the turn of the millenium, malls were coming up, and the Bijlis had committed `100 crore worth of projects. But most of them were still in the construction phase. Ajay then turned to mentor Sunil Bharti Mittal, who advised him to talk to private equity players. After raising some money and putting in some of their own, the brothers bought back Village Roadshow’s 40% stake in the partnership.
In 2012, PVR bought Cinemax properties, a chain of 138 screens, from the Kanakias for `395 crore. This put the company ahead of rivals like INOX-Fame and Anil Ambani-led BIG Cinemas. In 2015, it acquired DLF’s DT Cinemas. Though the deal is being probed by the Competition Commission of India, the Bijlis are unfazed. “The approval will come any day,” says Sanjeev, joint MD.
And now there’s the PVR superplex — a 15-screen property where a show starts every 15 minutes. Located at the Logix City Centre in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, Superplex brings all PVR formats under one roof – regular theatres (Premiere), a much-larger screen IMAX, the luxurious Gold Class, 4DX that offers the best pixilation, and Playhouse for kids.
Mexican operator Cinepolis has been running a 14-screen property in Thane and a 15-screen property in Pune for some time now.
Superplex has taken PVR’s screen tally to 516, increasing the gap from its close competitor INOX by more than a 100 screens. There is one more coming up in Bengaluru.
It also marks PVR’s second coming in Noida. A decade ago, it operated in Noida under a franchisee model with BK Modi’s Spice Corp Entertainment. The franchisee partner did not manage the property well, and PVR exited Noida and the partnership in 2008.
But Noida grew fast – Wave, Spice Cinemas, Big Cinemas and DT Cinemas opened up. The Bijlis, however, are unfazed by competition. “We don’t like to enter a market just for the heck of it,” says Ajay. “There is a laundry list before a PVR is opened – the right mix of location, tenancy, rentals, tax-structure and consumer profile.”
For the brothers, this is just the beginning. The US has 40,000 screens, China has 20,000 and India has only 8,000. The Bijlis are looking at every city where there is a big mall or a shopping centre, but with good tax structure. PVR has already ventured into Hubli, Pathankot, Latur, Raipur, Moradabad and Ranchi.
A better tommorrow
“Unlike peers, which add smaller properties of three to four screens, PVR is aiming for a higher number of screens (6-12) per property,” Abneesh Roy, analyst at Edelweiss, wrote in his report.
The brothers know how to get the cash register ringing – good seats with more leg room, new technology and great food. In fact, food makes up for 20% of PVR’s annual revenue of `1,773 crore. The company operates the kitchen in-house to have more control over the supply chain, price and quality.
Ajay still loves watching movies. He missed watching Sonam Kapoor’s Neerja and some of the other Oscar-nominated movies. He plans to watch them at the Superplex, and is looking at more properties down South.