Making of an iconic Chennai brand: How SPI Cinemas created the ‘Sathyam Experience’

Stating that it was “extremely hard” to hand over Luxe to Jazz Cinemas, Kiran recalls that he was unable to stand his ground given the political climate at the time.
Making of an iconic Chennai brand: How SPI Cinemas created the ‘Sathyam Experience’
Making of an iconic Chennai brand: How SPI Cinemas created the ‘Sathyam Experience’
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On a wet Independence Day morning, Kiran Reddy – the CEO of SPI Cinemas – walks into a swanky but empty office in Chennai. It has been three days since news broke that the city’s iconic cinema exhibitor – originally known as Sathyam Cinemas- will be acquired by PVR, India’s leading multiplex chain for nearly Rs 850 crore. Since then, Kiran and his team have been dealing with the outpouring of anger and disappointment that the acquisition has come to mean for Sathyam loyalists and patrons. But did they anticipate the extent of the backlash?  

“I think we expected it. I don't think we necessarily expected the extent of the backlash. But the intensity was exactly the same as in 2015,” Kiran tells TNM, referring to the first time the news of the negotiations between SPI Cinemas and PVR made headlines. He adds, “Even the day before when we signed that transaction, we had this discussion and PVR expected it too because of what happened last time. They understood that there may be a difficult reaction and in the conversation that we had, we said it was not personal and it was people just venting on how attached they are and how much they love the (SPI) brand.”

Following the collective outpouring of reactions on social media, Kiran put out a press statemen on Monday to reassure patrons that everything associated with the “Sathyam Experience” would stay and PVR’s acquisition was only the “dawn of a new chapter” – one that would only go on to “elevate” the movie-going experience. Having emerged as one of the largest cinema exhibition players in south India with 76 screens spread across 10 cities and 100 more screens in the pipeline, the SPI Cinemas CEO explains the rationale behind the decision: “The business was growing really fast. It was difficult for us by ourselves to sustain that level of growth without bringing external capital. So, if not now, it would have been 6 months, a year or 2 years later. I needed to do this. I could have brought in private equity, but private equity would have to exit after some years. It would have gone through the same cycle. So, I needed to find a home.”  

Making of a brand

Sathyam Cineplex, as it was known back then, was established in 1974 and housed three screens – Sathyam, Subham and Santham. Kiran’s family bought it in the 80’s more as a real estate investment, given that the Royapettah complex was situated in the heart of Madras. And while Sathyam had become a go-to place for residents, it did not reach the ‘cult’ status that it now enjoys until Kiran entered the scene in 1997, when he returned from the US. “I had nothing to do when I returned and I didn’t really find a place in the existing family businesses. There were too many constraints. So, this was something that I ended up going to in the evenings and weekends. Nobody really cared about it. It was not really a business. It was the first consumer-centric thing that I had the opportunity to interface with,” he recounts.

Left to manage a shabby theatre complex, it started off with the little things – ensuring the toilets were clean, training the staff, improving the sound system. And although small, it paid off. Kiran notes, “Just doing little things made a big difference. When things are in such a poor state, simply putting the effort to do something better gets appreciated. And over a period of time, people start taking that as the norm, and base and you have to do more and more. Why people love us is because we have constantly made the effort. That started the journey, that for every little effort, people started to recognise the value.”  

Food journey

Experimentation and innovation have driven SPI Cinemas in every sphere – including adopting the latest projection or audio technology. But it is in food and beverages, where ‘Sathyam Cinemas’ really stands out from the rest. Ask any loyalist, and they’ll give you a list of must-try items in order to get the ‘Sathyam experience’. Whether it’s their buttered popcorn (the corn sourced from Nebraska), cream donuts, cold coffee, chaat - all this and more (barring bottled water and aerated drinks) are made in-house.    

Speaking about the food journey, Kiran says, “When we just had Sathyam, we had an external canteen contractor, who would come in and serve food. We went through a legal process- we tried to get that person to move on, they refused to move on. We won that legal process. We got control of the food. Then we started looking at various establishments in the city and whether they could become the source for food. Our cold coffee comes from that era. Our Head of Experience and F&B, he used to run a coffee shop at that point of time which didn't do well financially, but did well in every other way. His cold coffee was really good, he started off as a vendor and then joined the business. We started outside but slowly started doing things in house.”

But it didn’t just stop with just reinventing the staple cinema food. SPI has pushed the boundaries when it comes to F&B and thanks to its food innovation lab – some of the latest additions include goth ice cream (made out of activated charcoal) and ice cream donuts.

Looking back on the journey, Kiran is modest about the success of the brand, calling the past 20 years a haze. Ask him what is the one thing that sets SPI apart from the others and he chuckles, “There are so many things that we have done. For every person, the brand means something different. For example, for some people the old Sathyam has such a strong relevance - they had their first date there. Someone told me, they were studying in college and they threw stones at the cinema. For some it was a movie experience, and for some it wasn't a movie experience.”

He points out that there were other iconic cinema theatres back in the day – such as Safire complex in Gemini. “There were other places too that meant something to people. Unfortunately, those cinema theatres got demolished. They never kept up and pushed the relevance. We had the advantage of both - the advantage of the memories that people carried and the advantage of the effort we put in new things, the innovation. So, we got the best of both worlds with the business,” says Kiran, modestly adding, “None of this was strategy. So, don't assume we were so smart. Absolutely nothing. It’s just a journey that evolved and became this, without us realising what it had become.”

The encounter with Sasikala family

Although unique, SPI Cinema’s growth story has had its share of problems – most notably when it was allegedly arm-twisted into selling Luxe, its 11-screen multiplex to Jazz Cinemas in 2015. Jazz Cinemas belongs to relatives of VK Sasikala, the aide of then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Stating that it was “extremely hard” to part with Luxe Cinemas, Kiran recalls that he was unable to stand his ground given the political climate at the time.  “It was the worst period of my life. but if I look back at it, I don't know if it was the worst or best period of my life. The worst period because I went through the lowest phase of my life. But looking back, it's probably the best event that happened in my life. It changed me completely. It made me realise that my happiness was not linked to all of that. I could actually find a way to be happy, no matter what the environment threw at me. I would say that was truly one of the most beneficial things that came out of it - my ability to move on, my ability to forgive, my ability to feel positive in a significantly negative situation,” he recounts.  

And as another chapter begins for SPI Cinemas following the acquisition, I ask Kiran what many patrons want to know: ‘Will the name change?’  

“I think it makes absolutely no sense to change what is good. To me, the way I see it happening, it is the best of both. We will retain the good of what PVR does and combine it. If our brand is extremely strong in one environment then it is natural that that brand should continue in that environment,” he says.

For now, rest assured the Sathyam experience is here to stay. And heck, who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll get that butter popcorn with the ‘flavour-it-yourself’ seasoning at a PVR near you.

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