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As Miraj Cinemas notches up the 100-screen milestone, Amit Sharma – MD, Entertainment Division, talks to Bhavi Gathani about the expansion of the theatre business, consumption of cinema and much more

Very recently, Miraj hit the 100-screen milestone. How would you describe your journey?

The journey actually started on a very humble note. We started our first cinema in Ajmer with a small, two-screen, 50-50-seater kind of auditorium. But we always wanted to become a pan-India company and didn’t want to remain a regional player. With experience of working before in the cinema industry and by hiring the right set of intelligent and hardworking people, we were always very sure that we wanted to reach a certain number and do a good job. About the journey… well, it was a learning curve.

What helped you survive and emerge as one among the top five theatre chains in just five years?

In our industry, people always look to consolidate their numbers, specifically in a particular region, and then they expand their wings outside their comfort zone. But because we always wanted to become a pan-India chain, we started our journey from north to south, east and west, everywhere. That gives you greater opportunities in terms of signing more screens and in terms of diversification of your risk, because you have a larger number of languages to play. You can expand in every direction in the country. If you do not have any issues with fund flow, you can experience organic growth, provided you have the right set of people.

The complaint today is that there are limited screens. Despite that, in the first quarter of 2019, so many films have done very well. Why do you think this is the case?

There are two different subjects to look at – number of movies releasing and number of releases not getting a good reach. Definitely, we are an under-screened market and yet we are the biggest producer of films, in multiple languages. At the same time, we have a large English-speaking population, which is why Hollywood became a huge opportunity for us.

Talking about screens, with an audience of around 130 crore, we have only 3,000 screens which are multiplexes. From 9,000 to 10,000 screens, I am only considering 3,000 because half the remaining 6,000-odd screens are not even serviceable screens. If we compare the number to China, it has 60,000 screens. So the comparison is 6,000 screens with 60,000 screens or 3,000 screens with 60,000 screens. It’s not 9,000 screens with 60,000 screens.

So we are a severely under-screened market. So when a movie does well, it is a very good sign for the entire industry. We could earn 10 times more in collections if we have that number of screens. Right now, the way I look at it is 70-80 per cent of the country’s population is not even exposed to a multiplex today. There are so many places in India where in a radius of 50-60 km, you do not have a multiplex.

In the entire North East, except for Assam, you do not have a cinema. In Jammu & Kashmir, except for Jammu, there are no cinemas. In the entire belt of Uttarakhand, except for a few cities like Dehradun and Haldwani, you do not have cinemas. There is enough of a market to grow. There are a lot of opportunities out there in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

What aspects do you look into for developing a property in any market?

The first thing to understand here commercially is the consumption of the film. India is a country which behaves very differently, according to different areas, when it comes to movie consumption. If we compare Vijayawada with Jodhpur or Agra, which has similar population, Jodhpur or Agra have barely 10-12 lakh people coming to watch films every year in a multiplex; whereas in Vijayawada, more than one crore people watch movies in cinemas every year. So movie consumption varies drastically with geography.

Coming back to developing the property, there are different kinds of ticket prices and different kinds of F&B offtake. You have to evaluate all that and then decide where to open a cinema. The only thing to really know is what kind of film works where. What is the average ticket price, what is the F&B offtake, and how does the operational expense work. It is a completely commercial decision depending on consumption of movies, food, etc. 

What do you take into consideration when it comes to distributing the screens to the films releasing?

Before the multiplex era, we had commercial cinema or parallel cinema. Now there are mainstream films which are being made for the multiplex audience as well as for Tier 2 and Tier 3 audiences. We need to understand what kind of subjects work in what place. Movie consumption is one aspect and what you consume is another aspect. I am generalising certain points right now. Gujarat and Rajasthan, as individual states, exhibit a very massy consumption pattern. Here, a Total Dhamaal would do fantastic business compared to a Gully Boy.

Similarly, a Gully Boy would work very well in Mumbai’s suburbs compared to the northern part of the city. You have to understand consumption tastes and patterns. Also, there is another aspect… what time people want to watch a film. There are certain films which do very well in the evening shows and there are films which do very well in the matinee slot. That is another thing to consider before assigning shows.

How has the consumption of regional films changed over the years?

Amazingly! If you ask me, that is the silver lining for the exhibition industry as of now. We always talk about the South as a regional industry – Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. But the fact is these industries are already developed. But right now, I would talk about the other regional films like Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali and Punjabi, which are still growing. For instance, just five to seven years ago, it was very difficult for us to do business in the Punjabi industry. The consumption of films was very strong there at the time.

Right now, I have five cinemas in Punjab, even in small towns like Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur. In these properties, 50-55 per cent of the total movie consumption is that of Punjabi films. Look at the Bengali industry and the kind of films they are making now. They may not be very commercial but I am sure that will happen pretty soon. Also, Gujarati cinema has surprised us in the last three years. It is picking up – and how! For Marathi cinema, 2018 was an amazing year. Every kind of regional cinema is evolving and that is the most important thing.

Also, since last few years we have observed how digital content consumption has been booming in India. Does this expansion affect the theatre business in any way?

Just look at the numbers that are coming in from films, they are actually improving. What I believe is if you don’t like watching videos, don’t like watching TV or movies, then it is difficult for everyone. The consumption only increases if I keep providing the content with multiple genres which are also good enough. If you observe, if in a row, multiple films flop at the box office then people gets very conscious about the next film that is getting released. They start waiting for the review before going to a a cinema hall; but when three to four films have work well at the box office in a row then even a mediocre film will do well.

According to me, OTT platforms are encouraging audience to consume more content. This also gives an advantage to creative people to come out with different stories.

The Union Budget introduced a legal provision on anti-camcording. What are your comments on this?

Piracy is a crime. We have been talking about it for a long time. Unfortunately, in India, we did not have a stricter law for it. Even if people who used to encourage this method, they easily escaped from the consequences after getting caught. But, now, because we have an enforced law, it will work to our advantage.  

Unfortunately, in India, we don’t consider piracy as stealing someone’s work. If a kid downloads a film from Torrent then the same parents will appreciate the child of being tech savvy. That’s the difference. That is a moral and ethical thing which needs to grow from the grassroot level. Only the law cannot help it.

Post this achievement for Miraj, how are you looking forward to expanding?

What happened in the last five years is that we opened 110 screens but we built in a pipeline for around 225 screens. We have not created a platform but we have created an eco-system that boasts of manpower and fund flow which will help us fulfill our target of coming up with 50-70 screens every year. That’s the kind of numbers that we have maintained in our system. There are a few more properties that are coming up this year. We are aiming to increase the number of screens up to two times. So in the next 15 months, we should be reaching approximately 200 screens. That is the next goal.

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