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Screen presence - FUN CINEMAS

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At Spice PVR, another cinema theatre in Noida on the outskirts of Delhi, a clutch of guests invited by industrialist and Spice World mall owner B.K. Modi is taken on an under-sea expedition through a 4D film. Here, the ambience adds the fourth dimension. Celebrity guest Nafisa Ali squeals as the water snake on the screen actually squirts water into her face. The audience jumps up in fright when rats seem to run all over them, thanks to the special effect created by a draft of wind.

Welcome to the brave new world of cinema where multiplex operators are vying with one another to deliver an out of the world experience to the public through a host of new offerings. Says Rajesh Jain, head of media practice at consulting firm KPMG: “The multiplex industry will be driven by customer expectations of a lifestyle experience.”

To be sure, multiplex operators are trying to bring in audiences not just through technological innovations such as 3D and 4D cinema. They’re also spreading their wings, and offering the public a host of services. Aeren R ? the Aerens group, a real estate developer, is also the IMAX licencee in India for the north and the east ? CEO Sujit Kumar has plans to open 10 IMAX theatres by 2012. Three new ones are coming up in the next three years beginning with one at the Mani Square Mall in Calcutta by November 2006. IMAX, a motion picture technology developed by a Canadian company, offers an experience where the screen is often eight stories high and 120 feet wide. IMAX theatres are equipped to show both 2D and 3D films. “Even a regular 2D film appears to be completely different at IMAX, compared to a routine screen,” says Kumar.

Similarly, Aditya Sikri, CEO of Spice World which runs the 4D theatre at Spice PVR, is clear that the 4D experience will be available in at least some of the 40 screens that the company is planning to sign up. Spice now operates nine screens ? an eight-screen multiplex in Noida and a single screen theatre in Benaras. Its parent company, M Corp Global, also plans to open multiplexes in the US.

Spice PVR also boasts of a 36-seater gold lounge with seats that recline 180 degrees. “The entire theatre is like the first class section of an aircraft,” says Sikri.

Essel group company E-City’s CEO Atul Goel is also gearing up to present a new cinema experience to film buffs in Ludhiana. Coming up at the Aerens group-promoted Festival City Mall is a Fun Cinemas multiplex owned by Goel’s company. The six-screen multiplex will cover 70,000 square feet, nearly five times bigger than an average multiplex. “We are not into the 3D-4D experience. Our focus is on service.”

Similarly, PVR Cinemas is banking on customer convenience. Members of the public can key in their credit card numbers on their mobile phones and book tickets. More recently, it launched touch screen kiosks at some of its theatres where customers can pay for and print their own tickets. The exhibition company has also improved its Internet booking facility. You can now not only buy your ticket on the net, but also choose your own seat. “The idea is to eliminate the inconvenience of queuing up for tickets,” says Saurabh Varma, head of marketing at PVR Cinemas. The company is now readying to enter places like Aurangabad and Latur and Chennai and Coimbatore. “We are also doing no-frills cinema in many cities,” says Varma.

No-frills theatres for cinema-starved markets is also on Adlabs’ agenda. “While the evolved markets will experience vertical growth (the likes of a 3D and 4D experience), markets with no cinema experience will see more theatres,” says Tushar Dhingra, chief operating officer at Adlabs Cinemas. Adlabs, now controlled by the Anil Ambani group, will be investing Rs 150 crore in building 11 cinema theatres and 40 screens ? up from the current 33 screens. “Our plan is to dominate the market in terms of market share, profitability and reach,” declares Dhingra. Meanwhile, the Mumbai-based Shringar Cinemas is not sitting idle either. It has signed up 33 properties in states such as Maharashtra, West Bengal, Punjab and UP where it will open theatres.

If multiplex operators are rapidly expanding, it’s because on an average 3.1 billion people go to the movies in India every year, versus 1.5 billion in the US. But India has 12 screens for every one million people. The number for the US: 120 screens.

Still, several multiplex owners feel that theatres cannot draw crowds just on the basis of technology. “These days customers want an integrated experience within a mall where their car park needs, eating out needs and the retail experience needs are met,” says Shringar Cinemas director Shravan Shroff. He thinks 3D and 4D are pretty useless. “These technologies are not meant to view a full length feature film. They are okay for a science centre,” he says. Atul Goel of Fun Cinemas agrees. “Watching films in 3D and 4D is stressful.” Also, it’s difficult to get 3D and 4D movies. But Aeren R’s Sujit Kumar says that this is not an issue. Both Warner and Columbia are creating movies to suit the IMAX format. In fact, Superman Returns, to be released this summer, will have 10-12 minutes of 3D visuals. Polar Express will be released as a 3D film in December, in the wake of T Rex and Happy Feet. “Even many 2D films are being digitally remastered to suit the IMAX format,” says Kumar.

Film-watching is on a new high. And audiences may soon find that seeing a film is not just about viewing.

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