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Saurabh Varma

Vice President, Cinema Marketing & Promotions | 26 May 2006

“The uneven state laws are one of the major challenges. State laws differ from state to state. Secondly, as I said, every area has its own requirement, unique requirement so you need to understand that and adapt to that. You can’t actually run your own story and expect people to come and watch the film so that is a biggest challenge.”

Movies had always been a passion for Saurabh Varma, who was recently promoted as Vice-President, Cinema Marketing and Promotions, PVR Ltd. With over 10 years’ experience in the cinema exhibition industry, Varma has been responsible for content programming and planning to optimise revenues, acquisition of film products, strategy planning and concepts development, brand building and creative development in his various appointments.

He had headed the Programming and Marketing division at Wave Cinemas and had a stint with Chanakya Cinema as well prior to joining PVR Ltd.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Sumita Patra, Varma shares more about the marketing mantra of PVR Cinemas and the entertainment industry in India.

Q. You started the multiplex culture in India when you opened the first multiplex in Saket in South Delhi. How do you look at the years gone by?

The multiplex business started in 1997 with PVR Saket, which is still one of the highest occupied cinema halls of the country. At that point of time, when we were looking at an outfit, which is kind of a hangout zone, we could not source anything. Then we built up our own hangout and this particular thing became a phenomena. Post-Saket, there have been a lot of developments. One is the advent of malls, so the combination for just movies has changed into a combination of entertainment, shopping and eating. So, from just a movie going concept it has become a wholesome experience in today’s world. Plus, there are a lot of other things as well; look at destinations, multiplexes has also brought in a big retail boom in the industry. So, wherever the multiplexes are open they have brought in big brands.

The recent big combination is that of cinemas with a hyper mall. All these things are making it a wholesome experience from what it was earlier. In terms of content, when we started the multiplex business, it was a little difficult to source out content for four screens into four or five shows a day. At that point of time, we used to play both English and Hindi films. Now we are getting films from all over the world, we are even releasing movies from Thailand and France, which would, of course, be dubbed in English, and we ourselves are distributing the films.

Every year you see there is a trend of one big blockbuster. The flow has also increased now because there is some place to play these kind of movies and there is also a lot of experimentation in terms of project – so from a ‘Dil Chahta Hai’ to a ‘Rang De Basanti’ to a ‘Khamosh Paani’ to an ‘Amu’ – all these films have audiences.

Q. How have you developed the PVR brand since the inception?

There are two things when you develop a brand. One is the facility and the services that you provide to the consumers. So, every year our mantra changes. Earlier, it has been to provide services and facilities to the consumers, how do we make him avoid the ticket counter and get a ticket at his doorstep. We, therefore, took a lot of initiatives. We started with the first computerised ticket system, we got the software, a complete transparent system where every report goes to the government and the distributors. We also set up a multimedia kiosk where you swipe a card and get the ticket, we also started tele-booking where you punch in your credit card number and book a ticket via phone. We also started cross-location sales. So, you can purchase a ticket for say PVR Saket from any of the PVRs. All these initiatives are a first that we have initiated in our cinemas. Tomorrow it may be common to other cinemas, but at the moment all these initiatives are basically to benefit the consumers and make it convenient for him to book tickets and watch movies.

Secondly, every cinema we build has to be classy, have the best location, best sound, luxurious seating, etc. Everything has to be top class. Apart from that, the new mantra that we have adopted is experiential marketing. We feel that the experience of the consumer has to be better than the rest, that’s the kind of differentiator for our cinema. For instance, a person goes to watch ‘Mangal Pandey’ and sees a contest form, he fills it up and gets to meet Aamir Khan, or he goes to see ‘Hanuman’ and there is a Hanuman standing in front of him much to his kid’s delight, or maybe he wins various movie merchandise – so all these things contribute to the experiential marketing.

Moreover, we are also looking at promoting regional films or multiplex specific films like ‘Amu’ and ‘Khamosh Paani’, and are trying to develop a market for that. The next big thing that is going to happen in the cinemas is the expansion into B and C territories. We will be coming up with a no frills model, where tickets will be cheaper, but without compromising on the facilities and quality of PVR Cinemas.

Q. You said price would be cheaper. What would the variation be like?

The variation would be in terms of investment. From a consumer’s perspective, the seats will be comfortable, and there will be no compromises in the projection and sound quality. So, a viewer watching a movie in Aurangabad or Latur will find the best cinema in town. It would come under a different brand name though, but it will be called PVR ‘something’. That’s an extension of the PVR brand and fortunately for us, PVR as a brand has become synonymous with cinema.

Q. Which are the other cities that you are planning to foray into and when?

We are going to expand further in Delhi. We will be opening PVR Prashant Vihar. In Mumbai we have already opened PVR Juhu with two screens and are coming up with four more properties – one in Mulund, one at Phoenix Mills in Lower Parel, and two other projects in the pipeline. In the North we are coming up with two multiplexes in Ludhiana, one each in Amrtisar, Bhatinda and Chandigarh. In the South, we are coming up with a multiplex in Chennai. In fact, we are looking at expanding to around 250 screens in the next 12-15 months.

Q. What about the East?

Yes, we are looking at expansion in the East as well. Everything is being worked out. So, definitely the expansion will include every part of India.

Q. How has the multiplex business evolved in India?

There was a time when people preferred to watch movies at home buying or renting video cassettes or VCDs / DVDs. Now they are returning to the cinema halls, thanks to the good ambience, international sound and picture quality and the option of purchasing tickets without standing in long queues.

Another thing that we are seeing is that people have become more receptive towards experimental cinema. A movie like ‘Rang De Basanti’ may not be a typical masala Bollywood movie, but it has done phenomenal business. Similarly, an animated feature film like ‘Hanuman’ has also been accepted well by the audience. Oscar nominated and winning films, which used to be considered very niche earlier, are doing very well too.

Another trend is that of hosting corporate functions, birthday parties and even kitty parties in movie halls. So, cinema is being looked at as a complete medium of entertainment.

Q. What kind of investments have you lined up for expansion?

We have lined up Rs 300 crore for expansion of multiplexes.

Q. What are the forthcoming releases (Bollywood and Hollywood) lined up for 2006?

Among the Bollywood line-up we have – Krrish (Rakesh Roshan), Don (Farhan Akhtar, Kabhi Alvida Na kehna (Karan Johar), Umrao Jaan (J.P. Dutta), Phir Dhoom (Yashraj Films), and Sholay 2 (Ram Gopal Varma), among others.

The Hollywood line-up includes Superman Returns, Casino Royal (James Bond), Da Vinci Code, Mission Impossible 3, Aishwarya Rai-starrer Mistress of Spice, Pirates of The Caribbean 2, and Assassination of Jesse James, among others.

This year if you see the line up, there is one blockbuster almost every fortnight. That’s the kind of power our business is going to get. Advertisers, too, are showing a lot of interest and want to do innovative things. I guess everybody understands the potential of movies so it is becoming big and big every year. The next big thing is that multiplexes will go from metros to non-metro cities. The business is further going to expand.

Q. Any major tie-ups in the pipeline with Hollywood and Bollywood studios / production houses?

We have already tied up with several Bollywood production houses. Another big advantage is that with studios, producers are directly approaching us and telling us we have got this content, we would like you to plan a marketing activity for the film and so on and so forth. So, we are directly in touch with these producers, building up specialised marketing and promotions for the films. With the recent change, producers and directors are taking PVR as a hub where they can get a feedback on their films and design the next film according to what the customer is saying. They are actually trying to understand what the consumer thinks so that they can make a better and specialised product for that particular segment. Thus, customer research management is being worked out in PVR.

Q. Can you tell us the names of the houses with which you have tied up?

UTV is very prominent in coordinating marketing activities with us, so are Warner Bros, Sony Pictures, Paramount Films and Yashraj Films. Ram Gopal Verma (RGV Films) is very active too. Almost every person is looking at cinemas as a big medium to advertise with.

Q. Do you also plan to get into film production and film distribution?

As part of our complete pyramid, the producer is at the top, then there is the distributor and then the exhibitor. We only need exhibition and distribution and we are very happy with that. At this moment, we just plan to focus on what is our core competence, which is exhibition and distribution. Once we feel that now we have time to focus on other areas we may look at that, but at this moment we are focusing on exhibition and distribution.

Q. With the other players in this segment (multiplex business) also becoming aggressive, how is PVR gearing up to face the competition?

There is a big market here. We would welcome competition because it brings good change and we are looking at people who are serious about the business, because ultimately it will help the industry to grow. We are happy that the competition is coming.

Q. Have you chalked out any particular strategy to combat competition?

Our brand stands for two things – one is the facility we provide, which anybody can match, and secondly, the service standard and experiential marketing, the experiences of the consumer being good to the cinema, which is a PVR and vis-a-vis other cinemas. He can see the difference in terms of the quality of the service and the passion behind it, so that’s our biggest strategy.

Q. What are the major challenges for the growth of multiplex business in India?

The uneven state laws are one of the major challenges. State laws differ from state to state. Secondly, as I said, every area has its own unique requirement, so you need to understand that and adapt to that. You can’t actually run your own story and expect people to come and watch the film, so that’s a big challenge. The South is a different experience, Mumbai is a different experience, Delhi is a different experience, hence, adapting to a particular region is challenging and exciting as well.

Q. What is the average occupancy level of PVR theatres across the country on weekdays and during weekends?

The average occupancy is 50 per cent, if I include both weekends and weekdays, of course, weekdays are a little lesser than weekends. But again it is all content driven as well so you have 60-80-100 per cent on a weekend and you have 30 per cent to higher numbers on weekdays. So, it all depends on the kind of movie you play. For example, ‘Rang De Basanti’ had a lot of audience during the morning shows even on weekdays because college goers were attracted to the movie.

In terms of season, there is a different trend like March and April would be light seasons, but May, June, July and August would be phenomenally big this year, and generally it is big because of summer vacations. Another reason is that in summers people want to get into an air-conditioned hall and spend the whole noon and evening there. Post Diwali also it is really big. Therefore, overall the occupancy level varies from season to season as well as weekday to weekend.

Q. Are you planning to show any of the 2006 FIFA World Cup matches this year in PVR halls?

Yes, we are looking at doing screenings in our cinemas. We keep on doing alternative programming content like soccer or cricket matches.

Q. How has the response been to your Star Club?

We have more than one lakh members, who watch movies regularly and we keep rewarding them. The response has been very good, look at our website, we get a lot of queries. If tomorrow I want to do a movie, which is about a serious subject, I can target a specific audience and send a mailer and inform them about it, if I am releasing an Amitabh Bachchan movie I can target Big B’s fans. We are able to take all these initiatives because of our database and the kind of segments we have. All those things are basically helping us grow the market.

Q. What other interactive programmes do you have on the anvil?

We are doing contests and games on our website, we keep on changing contests and everything. Then we have something we call LAM (local area marketing), which is very strong in our cinemas. Every movie or cinema has a different kind of a promotion. So, there will be some kind of leaflets or banner or a hoarding, or maybe a contest which are at a local level. For instance, may be you get a card and get it punched four times, the fourth time you can get a free movie ticket. All these come under LAM. At this moment, if we have 11 cinemas then every cinema will have a different LAM plan, We are also very strong in technological innovations. You can book a ticket for any of the PVRs from any PVR counter. Similarly, you can go to a kiosk, swipe a card and buy a ticket. Such kiosks were introduced in Delhi (Saket) and Bangalore in October 2005. These user-friendly initiatives are helping us in a big way.

Moreover, we have also introduced real time ticketing, where you can actually log on to our website,, and choose the seat you want.

Q. What percentage share do online bookings have vis-a-vis on the spot ticket sales?

It is around 30 per cent online bookings. I could call it value added services, so if it is online booking, it is ticket fare booking. Rather than calling it online, you can call it the value added service – whether it is online or mobile booking.

Q. Any major promotional and marketing activities lined up in the future?

Movie merchandising is something that is going to grow in the coming years. So ‘Krrish’ may have a good merchandising opportunity, ‘Superman Returns’ may have a good merchandising opportunity. They tend to offer a lot of value addition to patrons coming to PVR cinemas at that point of time. We are segmenting our audience and doing specific promotions for that. So, kids will have a special promotion for them, students will have a separate promotion, women will have specific promotions, then families will have a different kind of promotion. Hence, we are segmenting the people who come to a cinema and are trying to do things around them.

Q. What constitutes a great movie viewing experience?

One is the hardware, which is cinema and everything, second is the software, which is the content, in between comes the value added services, which help you remember things that are small but when you go home you remember them. So, when a person goes home he/she says, maybe the movie was average, but my whole experience was good. But if the movie is good, then the whole experience becomes even better. So, hardware and software both add on to a good experience.

Q. Finally, what is the mantra of PVR’s success?

I would call it passion for the business we are in. If you see our MD, Ajay Bijli, he is passionate and doing what he loves to do. Our criterion for the selection of the person is that he has to be a hardcore movie buff. I think passion and innovation has helped us be where we are. Our internal catchline is we should be mad about movies and our project philosophy is that all cinemas should ooze with movies. I guess the movie mad culture is helping us be where we are. That is our success mantra I guess.

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