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Storm the Norm - How PVR did it

How did Ajay Bijli change the face of movie watching in India? How did PVR become one of the biggest entertainment brands in the country? An in-depth analysis of the growth story of PVR.

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Flash back to the 1980s. Movie watching wasn’t what movie watching today is. We as consumers endured squalid, stinking, rodent infested cinema halls to watch our favorite movies. 

Cinema exhibition industry didn’t have it easy either. They resented the price sensitive consumer who in turn resented the black marketeer. Film distributors saw the cinema halls as untrustworthy choke points between them and their consumers.  Everyone resented everyone else, cribbed a little but accepted the status quo as a given. The business just trudged along through an extended period of sameness…until it all changed into a fresh, vibrant market we are part of today.  Was it just fortuitous happenstance or was there a design to it? Hindsight offers amazing insights. Just like the other stories of industry transformation in the book, this story too has a protagonist who drove the change. 

The method to the stormer’s magic 

Stale Norms

Stale markets have norms that haven’t changed for years, leading to commoditized offerings, mindless ritualized operations and waferthin margins. The market generates very little revenue and hardly any profits. The players seem to have grudgingly accepted it and become resigned to their fate. Scarcity makes everyone risk-averse and unimaginative. Every entity adapts itself to survive in the resigned-to-fate industry, until a stormer arrives.

Ajay Bijli was the typical stormer – an irreverent entrant who decided to question the unquestioned fundamentals the industry operated on.  

Well, he wasn’t really a new entrant but an incidental incumbent who hadn’t been in the thick of things and therefore was unconditioned by the hopelessly cynical industry. His family ran a transport business that his grandfather had founded and happened to own Priya Cinema in Delhi

Spot the Deep Suboptimal

For the stormer it’s not about finding new answers to old questions but really about discovering new questions. Questions that no one is asking. Questions that challenge not just the ‘whats’ and the ‘hows’ of the industry but also the core ‘whys’ of it.   Once the critical question is discovered, the answer is often staring at you. The disproportionate impact the future possibilities could create fascinates the stormer. The present seems dismally suboptimal in comparison.  The realization is breathtakingly obvious in hindsight and is so surprisingly powerful in its promise that once the stormer sees it, he can’t unsee it.   

Bijli was asking a new set of questions. “I can’t control the movie but can I transform the environment in which they are consumed?” Could context trump content? How do we make context the core of the consumer value proposition?

He could see the suboptimals. What he saw in the cinema halls was far removed from the immersive entertainment experience he had begun to envision. But was the consumer ready to pay for the experience he had in mind? He had a hunch, that the undesirable spaces, rigid schedules, limited choices and unpleasant consumer engagement were suboptimals that the consumer had come to accept as givens and so wasn’t asking for anything new, but would see the value of once he experienced it.

Bijli was sure that it had the potential to unlock disproportionate value for the industry. If the new format could generate the kind of demand he imagined, India he felt would need many more screens.

Conceive and Iterate the Breakthrough to Elegance

The stormer conceives a breakthrough - a new product, process or business model. It’s so compelling for him that he can’t wait to build the first prototype, plays with it in the market and rapidly goes through multiple iterations to evolve it. Unlike the usual belief, generating an idea isn’t an event but a process that involves multiple iterations.    Rapid iterations lead to discarding many concepts  before hitting the most powerful one. One that is elegantly simple, with the kind of simplicity that is found only on the other side of complexity.  

In early 1990s Bijli began experimenting with his new ideas at Priya. He says “I was passionate about the desire to provide millions of people with impeccable cinema viewing and a wholesome entertainment experience. That was my early evolution as an entrepreneur.” His idea of the winning proposition evolved rapidly through these experiments. For him it became essentially about location, quality of experience and transparency. And he wanted to raise the bar for each of these and create compelling propositions for both, the distributors and consumers.

Bijli’s Breakthrough: Absolute Escapism + Absolute Access  

Cinema has always been about a break from mundaneness of life. The large screen audio visual experience has always
Conceive and Iterate the Breakthrough to Elegance The stormer conceives a breakthrough - a new product, process or business model. It’s so compelling for him that he can’t wait to build the first prototype, plays with it in the market and rapidly goes through multiple iterations to evolve it. Unlike the usual belief, generating an idea isn’t an event but a process that involves multiple iterations.

Rapid iterations lead to discarding many concepts before hitting the most powerful one. One that is elegantly simple, with the kind of simplicity that is found only on the other side of complexity that allowed people to escape into the world of fantasy. Bijli wanted to take it to an entirely new level. He calls it ‘absolute escapism’. An all sensory experience delivered through a combination of immersive cinema viewing, food, drinks and shopping. And all of it in beautifully designed spaces. A proposition that allowed the emerging middle class to sample a slice of the good life it had begun to aspire for. People could now live their fantasy, instead of just watching it on screen.

Seamless access was the other breakthrough - you could catch a show almost any time, impulsively. A refreshing change from planned, appointment viewing of the past.   Cinema, which until then was bound by rigid ‘standard show timings’, was liberated. And everyone welcomed the change.  

Pace to Critical Mass

To become a true game changer, the new concept must trigger a storm and for that it must hit the critical mass at a certain pace. Any slower, and the concept could join the large number of ‘great ideas’ that almost made it.   Concepts that have evolved rapidly through iterations in live markets are not just accepted but lapped up by the market that is surprised by their elegance. This leads to them hitting the critical mass at vigorous pace. The large-scale impact of newly unlocked value begins to show. Synergistic economies of scale and scope get triggered; and the bandwagon effect follows. 

In 1995, Bijli wanted to scale his propositions and decided to do it with a partner. The 60:40 joint venture between Priya Exhibitors Pvt. Ltd. and Village Roadshow Ltd. Of Australia was was launched. And the brand PVR was born. Through PVR Anupam in Delhi, India experienced its first multi screen cinema in 1997. And loved it.

Computerized bookings brought in never before levels of transparency that led to trust. For distributors and film makers, box-office-collections wasn’t a black box any more. In 2007 PVR tried its hand at film production with the very successful Tare Zameen Par made in collaboration with Aamir Khan Productions.
By 2011-12 the market had begun to respond well; business grew at a fast clip. PVR operated 166 screens in 38 cinemas.
Two acquisitions consolidated PVRs leadership position. Cinemax in 2012 and DT Cinemas in 2015. PVR now operates 474 screens across 106 properties and 43 cities of the country.  As part of its calibrated portfolio strategy, PVR introduced sub-brands to cater to uniquely different customer segments – Director’s Cut, Gold Class, PVR Premier and PVR Mainstream.

Not just cinema, PVR decided to become one stop entertainment destination. PVR bluO today operates 6 bowling centers with 135 lanes across 5 cities.
The price that the average cinema consumer is willing to pay today was absolutely unimaginable before the ‘storm’ arrived. More people watching more movies and willing to pay more for each, has been generating huge surplus that has altered the industry forever.

This has impacted not just the cinema exhibition space but cinema itself. The newly generated surplus is fueling innovations - new genres of movies, new breeds of producers, directors, artists and actors. New entrepreneurial energies have been unleashed and the industry has turned truly vibrant.

Fresh Norms

And before anyone realizes, the new concept has become the new norm and the lazy, cynical incumbents are anxiously playing catch-up.

It doesn’t end here. It’s a cycle. The fresh norm is after all a norm. And norms are usually the lull before the next storm arrives.

The next stormer will spot the suboptimal in it and pursue unlocking of newer surplus that reinvigorates the market.


Movie watching is already experiencing the beginning of the next storm - the Internet. Thanks to over-the-top (OTT), movies can be consumed anywhere, anytime - a proposition too compelling for the consumer to ignore. A new set of suboptimals have been spotted. New total surplus will soon be unlocked. Get ready for new vibrancy in the market. 

Storm the Norm is an Innovation method developed by Ranjan Malik and Anisha Motwani that helps businesses ‘storm the norms’ of their industry, revitalise their present business core and create new future core through innovation.The framework is a result of studying businesses and brands that either wrote or rewrote the norms of their respective industries and brought in unprecedented change and vibrancy. Anisha Motwani's book Storm the Norm has a collection of 20 such stories. The authors can be reached at [email protected]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Ranjan Malik

‎Ranjan is an Innovation Specialist, Speaker & Writer. He is also the Co-founder & Managing Partner of STORM the NORM Ventures

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