Exclusive: Impact of Covid-19, OTT on cinemas and how to bring audiences back, PVR’s CEO Gautam Dutta explains

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Updated: May 21, 2021 1:35 PM

OTT and cinema will continue to coexist as both are differentiated by content. While OTT is long-form story-telling, Cinemas are a 3 hour moviecation experience. 

PVR Cinema, PVR movie halls, PVR tickets, PVR CEO Gautam Dutta, Covid-19, OTT, netflix, amazon prime'The multiplex industry suffered huge losses and business was impacted significantly due to multiple rounds of lockdown in the country.'

Covid-19 has shaken the world as we knew it. It has not only been turned upside down but the things which were a part of our routine and lifestyle look like tales of a bygone era. There is no more going to cinemas with family and friends and enjoying hot popcorn and cold drinks! As if the pandemic itself was not enough, its second wave has totally halted the audience which started trickling back to movie theatres in the early 2021. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online Gautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Ltd. talks about the impact Covid-19 had on movie theatres. Also, with the rising uncertainty and challenges owing to the second wave of the pandemic; companies are taking several steps to aid their employees cope with the situation, prioritizing staff wellbeing – physical, mental and financial. On the same lines, Dutta shares his views on PVR’s employee led initiatives; role of leadership in such unprecedented times and the measures undertaken specially during pandemic like medical support, financial aids, flexible work hours, etc. Excerpts:

As the new wave of coronavirus hits India again, what is and will be PVR’s approach in handling the crisis?

The second wave took everyone by surprise. Only when the states started reopening and encouraging announcements were made by producers on new releases, news of localized lockdowns, night curfews and weekend curfews started pouring in and the country came to a standstill with cinemas across the country made to close down.  The pandemic has brought in a state of aberration for everyone but as business players we need to stay alert & optimistic during such unprecedented times.

The focus certainly from the very beginning has been to ensure the safety and well-being of our employees. The leadership, therefore, is channeling all its resources to support employees in every way possible during these painful times. Keeping employees at the forefront; empowering them with flexible work models, supporting them with medical supplies and facilities while promoting a positive optimistic environment during the grim days is imperative for every organisation to keep the employee morale high. We at PVR are continuously striving to protect our employees and their families, their mental and physical well-being and ensuring that the company’s employee balance sheet is healthy.

We are in this together as a close knit family and as a forward-thinking brand we are hopeful the conditions will change for the better, and we shall come out of this phase stronger than ever as individuals and as an organization.

With a crisis which has lingered over a year; what according to you should the focus for leadership keeping business profitability into consideration?

Covid-19 is a much larger issue than our industry alone as businesses faced supply chain disruptions, steep decline in consumption demand and investments. Besides, uncertainty in the informal sector and large cash flow gaps for corporates aggravated the challenge.

The need of the hour is to stand with your employees, interact with them on a regular basis, make set-ups to bring the organization together and uplift team spirit.  Every industry has been impacted and for us the road has been long and difficult with the theatres being asked to close down in March 2020 and reopen partially in October 2020 after 7 months with zero revenue during this period.

We were quick to introduce welfare measures like medical reimbursements for Covid related expenses of our employees and their family members, sessions on mental well-being, 24×7 medical helpline and providing financial support. Realizing vaccination as the first line of defense, the company decided to reimburse the cost of vaccination for its employees and their families. Through a friendly inter-unit competition, we motivated staff of our units to get themselves vaccinated and instill a sense of pride on the achievement. PVR Juhu has become the first cinema with 100% staff being vaccinated. On the business front, we have a robust loyalty programme, PVR Privilege in place and we would continue to invest in it making it the most admired loyalty programme in the country to bring back our audiences to our theatres when we reopen.

As an employee first organization, our primary focus is to support and protect our precious employees and their dependents. We have pulled all strings possible to keep the financial health of the company sound through adequate measures made at the right time. At present, we are more focused on attending to the immediate requirements of our employees that is their health and safety. With the nationwide vaccine drive which now covers the younger population, one of our prime audience segments, we are hopeful the situation will change as we stay optimistic for a better tomorrow.

What are the initiatives you have introduced towards the welfare of your employees during this pandemic?

Safety and well-being of employees are of paramount priority; our leadership team has ensured they engage regularly with the employees to keep up their morale high. As mentioned earlier in the first phase itself we introduced a host of welfare measures for both mental and physical well-being of our employees.

With the second wave we have introduced a holistic and comprehensive PVR Care package in the form of an ‘Employee Support Program’ which includes 24*7 medical helpline, vaccination drive, arranging for food for Covid affected employees, medical supplies, oxygen concentrators, plasma database, doctor on call, assistance on hospitalization and ambulance services.

To reach out to our employees across our theatres we have empowered the cinema managers of our units across the country with all support services. They have been in regular touch with the leadership of every region and are closely monitoring the well-being of their unit staff.

The 2020 pandemic ushered in a ‘new work model’ – How has PVR equipped its employees and what are the key trends you see in the post pandemic work environment?

Covid-19 has been a game-changer for most organizations and the way they work.  Even organizations with more traditional workplace culture have made the transition to allow their staff to work remotely in an effort to keep employees safe and slow the spread of the virus. Working from home or teleworking during the pandemic has ushered in a new era of productivity, inclusiveness and connectedness. Before we saw the second wave coming, in order to ensure health & wellbeing of our employees and following the safety protocols, we advised our employees to operate from home.

For PVR, the idea that has really gained momentum is Workforce Fluidity within the organization. Workforce fluidity encompasses not only flexible/virtual work assignments but also eliminating job titles or even the entire construct of a job. Today, the Employee Support Program is run by employees spanning across job functions and hierarchies working as a cohesive team to deliver results to protect the lives of our employees.   Today, it is vital to constantly think out of the box to come out with innovative ideas to sustain business models. At PVR, we are quick to identify talent who can disrupt their conventional way of thinking and come up with innovative ways to manage businesses effectively.

PVR Cinema, PVR movie halls, PVR tickets, PVR CEO Gautam Dutta, Covid-19, OTT, netflix, amazon primeGautam Dutta, CEO, PVR Ltd.

We thrive on our philosophy of “best to change is before its time to change” which has helped us stay ahead of the curve. As leaders in the multiplex space and cinema exhibition, we have set industry benchmarks and have not shied away from taking calculated risk. Guided by this, our senior management has provided the freedom to their team members to expose themselves to new ways of learning in cross functional areas.

As an organization that has been built on a strong foundation of human values, all our actions are guided with a humanitarian approach whether internally or externally. We are having a keen eye on employees who are leading from the front beyond their call of duty to become part of the Covid Response Team to assist their fellow colleagues in executing the employee support program.

Rapid adoption of digitalization, acceptance of remote working, preference of virtual interaction & engagement with geographically spread teams than travel, prioritizing health, wellness & fitness over targets, maintaining work-life-balance are some of the key trends that will drive the post pandemic work environment.

With the uncertainties around; how are the industry conditions and what will be your focus for FY 2021- 2022?

The second wave of pandemic has bought uncertainties and unprecedented challenges for both employees and the entire multiplex industry. Amidst the tumult, as mentioned, the company’s priority has been to safeguard the health and well-being of its employees, customers and communities at large while continuing the business operations with utmost responsibility and care following all stipulated protocols.

As mentioned earlier, our loyalty programme, PVR Privilege is our strength and we have the largest theatre network across India with a strong brand equity and an asset-light model with no ownership of cinema premises. Converting losses into profits will be a gradual process as conditions ease up but as times are dynamic, we are more focused on understanding the fast evolving needs and aspirations of our consumers through regular surveys on changing market trends and research all with a view to enhance movie-watching experience for our customers.

Keeping customer service at the core, our plan is to take stringent steps that adhere to our service policies such as enhancing the F&B menu, bringing global cinema technology for Indian customers and offering attractive incentives and discounts for the patrons. Our primary focus is on screen expansion in Tier-2 & Tier-3 cities and with increasing premium formats composition in the portfolio. We are hopeful to provide premium PVR experience to our audience & extend our hospitality once they are back in our theatres and thereby enhance the company’s box office and non-box office revenues.

What will be your key learnings from the year gone by as a leader?

We have seen a dramatic shift in the work culture, the way we work, business operations, team engagement and a keen sense of ownership and accountability among employees. But being a restless brand that thinks way ahead of times, we have tried to reinvent and adapt with the changing business landscape. Considering that we cannot live in isolation, with every section of society & industry hard hit by the pandemic which got further aggravated with the second wave, the path to recovery is not going to be easy. Since people are your greatest asset, as a leader, one should follow a humanitarian approach and stand with your employees, empower them and be accessible at their hour of need. The situation has been so unique that undeniably it has been a learning experience for every individual as well as the organization. After this ordeal, I can certainly assure, in retrospect, that we will emerge stronger than ever to face adversities in the future.

As a leader with all the measures in place to protect the organization, we are minutely following the developments so that we can quickly get on our feet. The journey is long and as we can see with the pandemic, not only the employee but his immediate and extended family has got affected.  Therefore, for now we shall be more inclined towards letting people take care of their health, their loved ones without undue stress and pressure of work deliveries.

Personally, the pandemic has taught me that there is more to life than work and that there are little yet important joys of life such as our hobbies and social interests that we should pursue to lead a balanced life.   It is important to accept the change and move forward with patience, perseverance, and positivity.

Business did go through an upheaval, but we all need to stay optimistic and with the on-going vaccination drive in the country covering the younger population, one of our prime audience segments, it gives us hope for the future. As long as we possess hope, we can draw forth our inner potential and strength to revitalize and inspire our teams to contribute to our collective growth.

Impact of covid-19 and OTT on movie theatres, and how they plan to bring audiences back to the halls?

The multiplex industry suffered huge losses and business was impacted significantly due to multiple rounds of lockdown in the country. These are unprecedented times, but India is an entertainment-starved country with cinema being the cheapest form of out of home entertainment in comparison to other leisure activities. India has a robust local industry which churns out over 2000 films in a year and there is already a pent-up demand of consumers to see high quality commercial films in a theatrical environment. Cinema is an experiential medium that is difficult to replicate and the entire package comes in the form of technology, F&B, service standards and comfort. Currently, most people are grudgingly watching movies on OTT as they are confined to their homes to contain the pandemic as cinemas are shut. Cinema has survived the onslaught of home entertainment which only changed in its format over the year from TV to satellite to VCRs, DVDs, etc and now to streaming. OTT and cinema will continue to coexist as both are differentiated by content. While OTT is long-form story-telling, Cinemas are a 3 hour moviecation experience.

Due to deep urge towards social interaction, isolation during lock-down might have an opposite effect and it’s important for people to go out for their mental health well-being when the conditions ease out as brought out in various consumer surveys during the pandemic. At the end of the day, we are social beings who want to get out of our homes and entertainment ourselves and be happy. And as far as the business is concerned, it will thrive, not now, but later when life will come back to normal once the virus scare is over and people will look at this as a phase in their lives.

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