Kiran Reddy is one of the good guys. Don of the glittering world of city cinema, it would have been easier if he wasn't so nice. After all, as legend goes, he's Sathyam Cinemas' godfather — taking it from dowdy to cutting edge.
Hence, I expect to be kept waiting for an appropriate amount of time, in an appropriately showy office till a swashbuckling, virtuoso surrounded by a quivering entourage arrives.
Yet, though I'm ten minutes early, I walk into Escape Theatre (Sathyam's sassy new theatre at Express Mall) only to find Kiran patiently waiting for me, standing beside the popcorn. He's soft-spoken, polite and low-key. He flinches from talking about himself, refuses to personally take credit for anything and is cautious about discussing future plans.
Trust me, the low profile make tough interviewees.
Although Kiran's best known for Sathyam, the cinema wasn't central to the family business when he was growing up. “My family bought it from someone else as real estate twenty years ago,” says Kiran, adding “I had no real connection with the theatre. I was in boarding school: Lawrence (Lovedale) and then Montfort in Yercaud.” After doing his engineering in Chennai, he went to the U.S. for an MBA. When he came back in the late 1990s, to a job far prosaic than the cinema.
“My family has other businesses. So I came back and got involved in the power plant,” he says, adding, “The intent was to demolish the Sathyam building. The theatre wasn't a viable business if you looked at the value of the land.” At that time, theatres in the city were uniformly grungy. “Sathyam used to be one of the better ones. But there was no intention to make it better. I slowly got involved and we started to make improvements. It was not a business move, more of an interim measure. I would spend just an hour a day on this.”
That's when he got hooked. “It was interesting because everything was customer-centric. The movie experience was so mediocre then that doing a few things right made a big difference. Our first steps were the basics: cleaner toilets, better trained staff. Then we improved the sound system… By 2001, what we were doing showed economic benefits. I realised I could get people to defer the demolition. We gradually began changing the existing structure.”
Despite drawing a steady three million customers a year, Sathyam — now a 100-crore company — always seems to be in a breathless race with itself. Reinvention at the flagship building never ceases. Even at brand-new Escape, frills are added incessantly. Touch screens to order tickets, monster Macs to browse, a spa… Meanwhile there's talk of iPod docks on seats and a new luxury lounge.
“The drive is to be at the cutting edge. For top-of-the-mind recall we have to do things phenomenally different from someone else,” says Kiran, adding their biggest challenge was to change mindsets. “We were perceived as ‘local' and the perception was that the national chains would be better.” Though he's gracious about the competition, he states. “We work from a different position: to do the best we can do.”
His theory is that the cinema is about more than just the movie. “It's a very democratic space,” he states, explaining how it's unique since it draws people from very varied backgrounds. “We want them to come into a space they would not normally experience in everyday life... No matter how many times people go for movies — theatre's a little luxury. Our challenge is, how do you make something low-priced luxurious?”
Although prices are on the lower side, compared with other metros, in keeping with Government regulations, Sathyam's not used that as an excuse to stint on amenities. “I'm probably the only person who's reasonably okay with the price point — it brings in more people. I'd rather have this than fewer people coming and paying more. Cinema should be a shared experience — you want the hall full.”
He adds, “We're at the cutting edge of technology — even if it doesn't always work financially. We were the first to go digital. First to go 3D. First to get three-way speakers…. It's not just what we can do, but the way we do it.”
Of course there are drawbacks to intrepid experimentation. “Some things work, and — yes – some things we fail at,” he says, adding with a grin, “Though I'd prefer to give you that list off the record.” A minute later, he relents. “We went overboard with the toilets at Escape. People don't know how to work them. Too many buttons to press.” He chuckles, “These are places you really don't want to push boundaries!”
Future plans include new theatres in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the first of which will open at Prestige Forum Mall in Vadapalani. “The other places depend on where we get the opportunity. There's no point discussing it because we're dependent on the people building the malls and they tend to get delayed. But not Mumbai or Delhi. We prefer to do a good job in fewer places… we want to make our business so painful, no one will want to copy it!”