Cinema experience pioneer Sanjeev Bijli has created another first for India — a cinema loyalty program to build a relationship of a lifetime with their consumers and enable customer centricity within PVR. In this conversation with Bhakti Mehta, he pulls back the curtain on the cinema chain’s latest milestone
What was the inspiration behind introducing this loyalty program for a cinema chain which nobody has done before?
Yes, this is a first for a cinema chain in India. Of course, it does exist in other retail segments. We were very keen to launch a customer loyalty program for a long time and wanted to do it properly. There is a huge danger of actually launching something which doesn’t work. We experienced this about fifteen years ago which turned out to be a disaster.
We learned that it is easier for retail companies like Shopper’s Stop to offer a loyalty program. For a cinema chain, it hasn’t really worked anywhere. Yet, we were determined because the feedback from some customers was that they watched films only at PVR. They wanted to be rewarded for their loyalty.
We did a lot of research on cinema companies across the world — AMC in the United States, Cinemark in Canada, CJ CGV in South Korea, etc. We researched best practices and created this idea. We had to get the technology part right and of course, the gratification part too. We didn’t want to offer rewards and gratification which seemed too less or too complicated to the customer. We wanted to make it more user friendly. I have been part of loyalty programs as well and the one thing I told my team was that I didn’t want a physical card. I invariably end up forgetting my physical card and I get held up accessing services. People don’t carry much stuff except a credit and/or debit card. I wanted everything on the phone. This is what happens once you become a member. I also didn’t want a cumulation of points which would become irrelevant to me after a while. I keep getting SMSes about the expiration of my points before I can even think about it. Here, your points are for instant gratification.
For every 100 rupees spent, you get five points. The moment you reach 50 points, you receive a voucher for 50 rupees. The idea is that reaching 50 points is not a big task. If four people watch a movie, it will cost them around 1000 rupees which equals 50 points. Invariably, in every visit, you will earn something. The 50 rupees voucher can be redeemed at the candy bar or the box office or you can keep it stored with you as it is valid for 90 days. It can be used the next time too. Our research told us that an average person watches a movie once in four months which is 120 days. We kept the validity to 90 days to motivate the customer to visit again within three months instead of four and that is a feasible task to accomplish. It is
completely doable and helps us increase repeat visitations.
PVR just acquired their 600th screen in India. Your theatres are known to have a certain standard as far as the cinema-going experience and facilities go. How difficult is it to maintain that standard across the country?
We have a very robust team, systems and processes. At all our venues, we ensure our housekeeping and audit teams take care of things. Their job is to go to these cinemas and do an audit. If they find something out of place, they will get it corrected as quickly as possible. It sounds like a herculean task but if you have a good team with good systems and processes, it can be achieved. It is like a well-oiled machine.
When you choose a location to open a multiplex, what are the demographics and elements you factor in?
We always look at locations that, primarily, are populated with potential to sustain. We make sure that the space is at least two hundred and fifty-thousand square feet. We also factor in good tenants and a developer who can offer a mall properly. Lastly, we have to ensure that there is enough parking. Regarding demographics, it changes and varies even in a city. When you go beyond that, within inter-cities, it changes a lot. Luckily for us, our business appeals to all types of demographics. It is just that we need to tweak the programming. In South Mumbai for instance, you end up showing plenty of English films as well. This works for places like Andheri and maybe Kurla too. If you open in Thane or Mulund, Hindi movies find more patronage. These are the elements that we keep in mind when we select a location for a theatre.
Delhi has the very lavish Director’s Cut lounge. When will we see this lavish trend in other metro cities?
We ask ourselves this question all the time. We are waiting for the right location. It just so happened that this location in Delhi fell into our lap and worked perfectly. This entire line of the DLF mall, Ambience and Emporio, along with the vicinities of Vasant Vihar and Vasant Kunj, is a high-end catchment area in Delhi and perhaps in India. We are looking at places in Mumbai where we can find a location that is excellent for this kind of product.
Rajinikanth’s upcoming movie 2.0 is the first Indian film to be shot entirely on 3D format. If it generates the business it is anticipated to, other movies will also adapt a similar technology. Do you think theatres in India are equipped to handle this?
I think our theatres are equipped quite well to handle this. I don’t think there is any kind of problem here. There is plenty of upgradation taking place as far as technology is concerned, even in the single screens. They are all equipped to show 3D films and have 2k projectors. They have state-of-the-art sound. I think that is what Baahubali did. The technology in it, even if it wasn’t 3D, paved the way for cinemas to be ready for that. 2.0 is a phenomenal, universal film just like Baahubali and I hope it does well because that will benefit everyone, including us.
It is being said that while humungous ticket prices for big superstars may be justified, the same is not valid for movies starring actors with lesser fan following. What is your take on this?
You cannot predict the fate of films these days. I think that the ticket price will define what the movie is even before it releases. We slot it as a small film. It is not fair for a smaller actor who can do a big film. There is nothing stopping them from doing a big, 100 crore film. Even the perception of the consumer is, ‘Yeh toh cheap hai, yeh choti movie hogi, choti budget hogi.’ Such thoughts creep into a consumer’s mind which is detrimental to both the producers and us too. Even the producers won’t agree because even if it is a relatively smaller film like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan or Bareilly Ki Barfi, both which did so well, they ask why they should lose out on revenues of the first weekend. It gets hampered when you are charging a lower price. But we also do flexi-pricing. Regardless of the content, we do flexi-pricing which is a saver’s day where even big movies starring Salman Khan and small, medium films get discounted.
In this generation where digital is becoming the primary platform for the audience to consume content, how difficult is it to pull people into the theatres?
I don’t think digital penetration factors in so much as the content of a film does. At the height of Amazon, Netflix and Hotstar, Baahubali released and made 1000 crore which is unheard of. Even Dangal created a record at the box office when it released. Digital platforms have always been around. The difference is now people are becoming more time-conscious. They just want good content and good movies. They will watch it even if the film is small. If the content is good, they will come. And they did come for smaller films like Hindi Medium. I just feel that these two mediums — theatre and digital — will co-exist. They always have. First it was television, now it is digital. Cinemas have always co-existed with all other formats and the onslaught of new ones. Today, in India, penetration of digital mediums is very low. In the United States, although digital penetration is higher, people still go out to watch films. Dunkirk did so well and so did the recently released IT. Good films are working wonderfully. There is always a social need for people to get out and watch a film with their family and friends. I don’t think this will ever go out of style.
What do you want the audience to take away from the loyalty program?
I hope there is a positive response from the audience about this loyalty program. I just want them to like and accept it. They should feel that this is a value addition to their cinema-going experience. It is rewarding their loyalty and allows us to interact with them on a more personal level. That is something we hope to achieve.