Distributing A Multiplex Vision – Atul Goel

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At 29 years, anyone would think that he is too young to spearhead the Essel group’s foray into an area that’s crackling with competition. But make no mistake – within his diminutive frame ticks a brain that’s razor sharp, and he’s got the pedigree to back him up.
Atul Goel CEO E-City Ventures

For starters, Atul is part of the family, Dad Laxmi Goel looks after Zee News and is a bundle of energy just like his uncle Subhash Chandra, who has grown the Essel group into one of the biggest in media and entertainment space in Asia.

Meet Atul Goel, the CEO of the Rs 600 million turnover E-City Ventures, a group that is out to provide “the best out of home entertainment and shopping experience.”

Goel did his MBA from the US-based Thunderbird Business Management School. He was picked up on campus by a US based pharma company but he said no to the job offer and chose to take up the challenge of working with a startup company back in India, E-city Ventures, that had been set up by the group six years ago.

“At that time E-city Ventures was only into the real estate business. I chose a start up because in startups you get a chance to learn more, build a team and experience a new sector. It was right after my studies that I joined E-city. At that point in time I was not really sure if I had taken the easy or the more difficult path”, said Atul.

He points out that the journey has not been an easy one in real estate, especially the timing of investments. “We could not have picked a worse timing as it was just after the dot com crash in the year 2000, and the real estate market was in a total slump.”

But he did not let that deter him. Says he: “I believe you have to keep going on even if you fail. Take things it as they come. Keep trying hard. Learn from your mistakes and if you fail it really does not matter. There is an opportunity in every crisis.”

And he did find it. Over the past six years the group has however stabilized and grown under Atul’s leadership and diversified into the cinema exhibition business, film distribution, digital cinemas and mall management.

Goel runs a clutch of companies which go to form his group. Among these:
*E-City Entertainment India Private Limited: Sets up family entertainment centres.
* Fun Multiplex: In the business of exhibition and managing cinema screens.
* E-City Property Management Services: Provides integrated property management services and real estate consulting services to investors.
* E-City Digital Cinemas: Is setting up a chain of electronic cinemas all over the country.
*E-City Films Private Limited: Acquires and distributes Hindi and international films.
Sitting Tall

Goel has three family entertainment centres operational in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Chandigarh under the E-City Entertainment umbrella. The fourth is targeted to open Lucknow in September 2006 and a fifth in Kanpur (2007) and the sixth is coming up Coimbatore. On Goel’s wishlist are another two centres by 2008. His plans attracted investment from ILFS which has picked up a stake of 26 per cent for Rs 1000 million.

“Around that time we got into the cinema space as there were a few multiplexes coming up, and we had the advantage of being in real estate and cinema. After a hell of a lot of mistakes and learning from them, we finally came through. Today the cinema business is our bread and butter, but the cream comes from our real estate business, given the booming real estate market,” says Goel triumphantly.

Fun Multiplex’s business model of lease/rental, revenue sharing, operations and management contracts has proved successful, and the company has grown to 23 screens, located in six properties as of today. The properties are present in four cities, viz one in Ahmedabad, one in Mumbai, three in Delhi and one in Chandigarh.

But he is not stopping there. “By the end of 2006 we should be approximately 50 screens. Seven screens in Delhi, three in Panipat, three in Agra, four in Bangalore, four in Lucknow , one in Ambala and five in Chembur, Mumbai are in the pipeline. We have also signed leases for another 150 screens which should be operational by the year 2008.”

He agrees that the multiplex business is getting very competitive with the Fame Adlabs, the Cinemaxes, and the PVRs spreading all over the country. He, however, points out that – “it is an efficient consolidation model that can create immense value.”

His distribution initiatives come under E-City Films which was set up in 2001. E-City Films distributes Hollywood films in India and syndicates Indian cinema content worldwide. ” Alexander was the first movie we got to Indian audiences in December 2004. After that we have distributed movies like One Dollar Curry, Million Dollar Baby, Sahara, Cellular (2006), I Could Never Be Your Woman , The Flock, A History of Violence and The New World,” says Goel.

Not all of them were big blockbusters, but they did fairly well, says Goel.

Recently, ECF has acquired movies like Astronaut Farmer (starring Bruce Willis), Babel (starring Brad Pitt), Miss Potter (starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger), Micheal Clayton (starring George Clooney), and The Good Shepherd which will star Robert De Niro (in which he also makes his debut as a director).

“We distribute 15 to 20 movies per year, handling all the publicity and promotion outlays of the movies in-house,” he says. “The fact is that cinema distribution today is growing because of transparency and better cinema infrastructure.”

Goel also has a hand in e-cinema through E-City Digital Cinemas which was set up in April 2004 to deliver films via satellite to any screen. And he is extremely excited about the potential of e-cinema, and dismisses the bad press it has been getting.
Bollywood Calling

“We take over cinemas on theatre hire, and our model of controlling theatres would be what we feel would work in the long run in India. Though the e-cinema boom is yet to be witnessed in India, it is important that the cinema owners use the latest technology and equipment. It takes approx Rs 15 lakh per screen. Some cinema owners are not investigating the technology front and just jumping into the bandwagon. This has led to poor quality digital screenings, creating a mind block for cinema goers. This needs to be addressed,” says Goel.

His company has around 30 screens in Gujarat and has formed a strategic alliance with Sree Vijay Raj Entertainment & Software (51 per cent stake) which is one of the leading exhibitors controlling and managing around 90 theatres in Gujarat and Maharashtra. “In recent times we have even got into film distribution in Gujarat with Phir Hera Pheri, Shadi Se Pehle, Aksar. Our turn over from the state is approximately Rs 50 million from the beginning this fiscal, so it has been profitable for us,” said Goel.

And to further those profits he is hoping to set up some 500 e-cinemas by 2008; 100 of these will be in the Bombay Circuit by this year end. “Film content acquisition is a good model for e-cinemas and in Gujarat we have taken over virtually every film after March, and it helps that we have control over the screens.”

Goel is ambitious enough to state that he would like the group to leapfrog into the Rs 10,000 million league by 2008. When he achieves that, he will be rewriting history. Just like his father and uncles did.