Cinema industry needs a rescue package: PVR’s Ajay Bijli

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The massive spike in Covid-19 cases across the country, which has resulted in multiple states and local bodies imposing lockdowns, weekend and nigh curfews, has aggravated the challenge for the cinema sector, and if the pandemic continues like this, the sector will be in serious trouble.

Ajay Bijli, chairman and managing director of India’s largest multiplex chain PVR, said that the industry needs a rescue package from the government.

“It is not the OTT, films or consumer trends that scare the cinema industry,” he said at the 6th National Leadership Conclave of All India Management Association (AIMA).

Bijli added that as soon as the government allows, people will flock to the cinemas, as there was a huge pent-up demand for it. “It is experiential entertainment versus utilitarian entertainment,” he said.

According to Bijli, even for the purposes of revenues and tax collection, it is better to release a film on the theatres first.

Bijli further pointed out that India had too few cinema screens for its size, population and heterogeneity. While the US had 40,000 cinema screens and China 70,000, India had only 3,000 screens. “We’re a mom and pop film fraternity, not an industry of just six studios,” he remarked.

However, this disruption has not deterred Bijli from investing in cinema. He said that he would continue to invest in cinemas because India still did not have enough screens.

For his, the greatest fear is that covid may be not controlled quickly enough. “What if the vaccine does not work?” he said.

Meanwhile, talking about the trend of film studios setting up streaming platforms, Uday Shankar, president, FICCI and former Asia Pacific president of the Walt Disney Company, said that the trend was no threat to the cinemas because they would not release a blockbuster movie exclusively on a streaming platform.

“Streaming will only add another revenue stream and expand the entertainment ecosystem,” he said, while giving the example of offering cricket on Hotstar for free many years ago, which initially agitated the cable and satellite TV distributors but eventually enlarged the sports universe and made the sports ecosystem much richer.

On the threat of the streaming platforms to the conventional broadcasters, Shankar said that Indian television’s problem was not the competition from streaming but its own lack of innovation. “The consumers are getting different experiences in various services, but the television experience has not changed,” he said.

According to Shankar the place to invest is content creation, because all types of screens will need to buy content.

He said his greatest fear is that the industry and the country would not learn any lessons from the crisis and will go back to the old ways once allowed to.

Srinivas Dempo, Vice President, AIMA and chairman, Dempo Group of Companies, said that though the social experience of cinema could not be replicated by streaming platforms, the business model of the entertainment industry had changed. “Direct to consumer is the new rule of the game,” he said.

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