Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Big Cinemas to club Western efficiency with Indian hospitality: CEO

The Big Cinemas theatre chain, which opened a five-screen movie hall in a Chicago suburb last month, will provide moviegoers a unique experience that will match standards set by mainstream American theatre chains while having an Indian flavour, says Adlabs Films Limited CEO Anil Arjun.

"We hope to combine Western efficiency with Eastern hospitality," Arjun told IANS in an interview here.

Adlabs currently has 170 'operational screens' in the US and Arjun is confident that Big Cinemas will meet audience expectations.

"We see the US and Britain as strong markets," Arjun said, adding that the nature of the markets was different.

"Britain has a number of organised theatres (showing South Asian films) and the Indians are concentrated largely in London. In the US, on the other hand, Indians are spread over a much larger area, covering over 35 cities. Moreover, there is no organised player in the US and there is a huge latent demand. For us, the challenge of consumption is the challenge of delivery," he explained.

Arjun noted that he was focusing on the South Asian, rather than just the Indian market. He expected Big Cinemas to attract a loyal clientele. An internal survey by the company showed that the average Indian American saw 12 films a year while the national average was six.

"Indian Americans have a clear affinity with Indian films," he said.

Nevertheless, about 50 percent of the company's theatres in the US screen Hollywood films. Arjun does not see this as moving away from a niche market.

"These theaters are not necessarily Indian oriented theatres. We screen what the neighbourhood wants."

The theatre in Chicago's Niles suburb, for instance, will screen Korean and Polish films in addition to those from India. The opening week began with the screening of Hindi, Punjabi, Malayalam and Telugu films.

Adlabs has a total of 435 screens worldwide with 202 in India and 66 in Malaysia. "In India, 25 percent of the theatres are in South India, which do not play Hindi content," said Arjun.

The Adlabs CEO said that Big Cinemas would ensure the screening of small budget films, which would otherwise not be shown in the North American market.

"Our challenge is to make sure customers see not just the large blockbusters but also a range of small budget movies, which generally lack the marketing muscle to be screened in the US."

In addition to screening films, Arjun noted, the company offers other services too.

Adlabs recently got an order for the digitization and digital preservation of 1000 films from the National Film Archive of India. Arjun sees the process as essential in making a commercially viable product.

"What is the value of an archive if you cannot modernize it? There are three sweeping changes taking place - converting analog to digital, making print film available in a plethora of platforms like the internet and Youtube, and moving films from standard to high definition.

"Some films bring into play a national prestige, like the films of Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy. It thus becomes the national responsibility to control the archives. All time classics like 'Mughal-e-Azam' and 'Sholay' always have an audience on satellite television and DVDs, even though they may not have a big audience theatrically," he said.

Adlabs last year acquired a Los Angeles based company, Lowry Digital, which has the reputation of being one of the premier film restoration companies.

Despite the aggressive encroachment of newer media platforms like DVDs, blue ray discs and Youtube into the realm of the traditional media, Arjun sees no threat to the latter.

"I would give the example of the restaurant business. We are eating out more often now and there is more variety. Moreover, the television and the DVD are essentially individual experiences which cannot beat the big screen. For an intricately choreographed dance, or a Harry Porter film, for example, there is nothing to beat the theatre. The theatre is also the only place, other than a restaurant, where you can have a family experience."

Adlabs, Arjun said, is in the process of "rebranding" existing theatres in New York and New Jersey.

"There are huge opportunities. In the months ahead, we will have more acquisitions. But we are not in a rush to grow in a reckless fashion. We will make measured calls," he added.

Arjun said he was confident that theatres like Big Cinemas in Niles would elevate the expectations of Indian Americans.

"Indians (in the US) have matured. We wanted to make sure that their experience is on par, if not better than at (mainstream US theatre chains) Regal or AMC," he added.

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