For Maria Anicia ‘Annie’ P Naval, Senior Vice President of SM Cinema, the movie theatre is an irreplaceable experience for the audience.
“As I always tell my people here, at the end of the day, going to the movies is a social event,” says Annie. “Very seldom will you go to the movies by yourself, although you can do that as well. More often than not, it’s a social event. It is something you look forward to – going to the movies with your family, with your friends.”It’s for this reason that Annie hasn’t seen any shift away from the cinema in the wake of on-demand streaming services, a source of disruption for many industries. It’s also why she’s confident in the continued success of SM Cinema, a chain boasting 62 branches and 36% of all screens in the Philippines.
Annie didn’t start out in the cinema business; over the years she’s developed a rich grounding in numerous industries. She began in fast-moving consumer goods, then moved to telecommunications, satellite TV and eventually SM Cinema. The diversity of these roles has been a challenge for Annie, but a positive one.
“It’s really very fulfilling because I learn a lot from each industry,” she says. “The principles of what I apply from one industry to the next may be the same, but the manner of execution changes, because the target market changes, and your habits are different.”
Annie’s diverse experience proves extremely beneficial in a company like SM Cinema. It is, after all, constantly looking to move into new areas, ahead of the industry. For example, it was the first in the Philippines to introduce IMAX and the Director’s Club concept – a luxury cinema experience with leather seats, butler service and an exclusive menu.
But Annie hasn’t lost sight of SM Cinema’s overarching commitment to the social experience. “We believe in being affordable,” she says. “Of course, we run a business, but at the end of the day, we’d like to be the kind of brand that is accessible to our customers. In terms of our pricing, we always make sure that it’s very competitive and attainable for them.”
A perfect example of this approach is SM Cinema’s recent Kids Watch For Free program, which offers one kid’s ticket for every regular ticket purchased, for selected movies. This even includes IMAX and the Director’s Club, proving that Annie’s mission for affordability is more than just talk.
Meanwhile, SM Cinema is being constantly reinvented. At present, Annie explains, the cinema is trimming down on unnecessary things. It’s shrinking the food menu, so that it can focus on the core items that moviegoers expect, and improve on quality rather than quantity. SM Cinema is ‘right-sizing’ its auditoriums to increase the number of theatres and offer more screening time to its patrons. More comfortable seating is being added, in accordance with the number-one request from customers.
Annie seeks out new ideas like this from everyone; not just from moviegoers, but from her team as well. “Nobody has a monopoly on all the ideas,” she says. “It’s always nice to get people together, talk about the business, brainstorm once in a while. Because sometimes, when you offer a small idea, somebody builds on it, then somebody else builds on that, and there you have it.”
“At the end of the day, we’d like to be the kind of brand that is accessible to our customers.”
This mirrors Annie’s approach to the other players in the cinema industry. While it is competitive, there’s also an element of collaboration. “As an industry, there is a lot of room to grow,” Annie explains. “There is always room for adjustments, which in
the end, should benefit the industry as a whole. We discuss issues that affect it – whether negatively or positively. Things like piracy, censorship, the impact of video-on-demand (VOD)/online streaming.”
“Working with SMLEI is like watching a movie in their cinemas. We achieve our anticipated satisfaction knowing that HPI is a part of something great. We always look forward to excellent products and services, just like we eagerly look forward to their next movie.” – Windy G Gomez, President, Hospeco Philippines, Inc.
But Annie’s career hasn’t always been easy. In her early years, she was battling a male-dominated industry. “You have to prove yourself and work a little harder than the guys. Of course, it’s changing now. But years ago, they’d always say, ‘You’re a woman, you’re going to get married, have kids, and your work won’t be as important to you anymore’.”
It required plenty of perseverance from Annie, but that refusal to give up has seen her through a successful career, and to a leadership role in one of the Philippines’ biggest cinemas.