Mumbai: Until a few weeks ago, Son of Sardaar was yet another remake of yet another hit Telugu film. Thanks to its co-producer, Ajay Devgn Films (ADF), Son of Sardaar will now forever be known as the movie that dared to take on Yash Raj Films (YRF), with whose Jab Tak Hai Jaan it will be released on 13 November. The film’s co-producer, Viacom18 Motion Pictures, has mostly refrained from commenting on the allegations of uncompetitive behaviour and coercion hurled by ADF against YRF. About YRF’s pre-release distribution deal with exhibitors, which has resulted in more screens for Jab Tak Hai Jaan than for Son of Sardaar, Viacom18 Motion Pictures’ chief operating officer Vikram Malhotra would only say that “Whether the practice is fair or unfair, the matter is sub judice”.
Malhotra did have a lot of other things to say, about the movie trade, shifting audience behaviour in small-town India, the success of the company’s recent films such as Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur, and OMG Oh My God! and future plans for Bollywood and Hollywood. Edited excerpts:
What is your perspective on the Son of Sardaar controversy?
The per-screen average for films with good content in the right period is very high. Also, historically, this period has taken two big releases. The fact is that you have Tuesday to Sunday, so you are sitting on a six-day weekend. That’s a lot. I don’t subscribe to this policy of having one edge out the other to deliver.
Besides, three recent films—Oh My God!, Kahaani and Barfi!—have sustained themselves beyond the opening weekend. Oh My God has done Rs.85 crore in less than 1,200 screens; Kahaani ran for 100 days. Exhibitors will play what the audience wants to see. They may not do it on the first day or on the second day, but they will do it by the weekend. Which exhibitor will throw away commercial logic?
Distribution has become a high-risk, high-stakes business.
We stress about screen width, about showcasing our releases on the right dates, about everything. We release domestic and Hollywood films, and we fight tooth and nail over every screen, irrespective of the budget of the film. Who wouldn’t want to maximize a release potential? Footfalls and admissions at theatres are touching all time-highs. But we will not resort to tying-in or blocking theatres. I am happy if I fight on the strength of content and marketing.
More Indians seem to be watching films than ever before, despite the fact that ticket rates have increased.
As our economy and population get more urbanized, the traditional means of spending leisure time are giving way to newer forms of entertainment. Ten or 15 years ago, middle class Indians would go for picnics or lunches and dinners on the weekend. The mall has replaced the picnic. The single biggest phenomenon driving higher admissions at the macro level is the fact that movie watching is one of five things a family or group of friends does on the weekend. The other four things are visiting activity centres (for children), window shopping, grocery shopping and going to a food court in a mall. This doesn’t happen every weekend, of course, but movie-going has become a convenient and value-for-money experience. Two years ago, a frequent moviegoer saw a movie every eight weeks. That’s now down to four weeks. Your expectations from content used to be high, but nowadays, you are watching movies every two-three weeks; so now even an average entertainer is all right.
Every producer seems to be in a race to make a Rs.100-crore film these days. How do you respond to this preoccupation?
We are not bothered by this Rs.100-crore number at all because it’s a function of how many people are coming to watch a movie, which, in turn, is a function of what kind of movie you make. Tanu Weds Manu made Rs.45 crore, Kahaani made Rs.60 crore. We have had at least 10 films that ran for 50 days and more, which, to me, is of greater value. Also, there are several permutations and combinations by which you arrive at a figure of Rs.100 crore. We don’t like to let the tail wag the dog. If we were in that business, we would only buy bigger movies.
The next leap for the health of this industry is return on investment (RoI). Now that you have the metrics right, it’s about delivering the target RoI. Films like Gangs of Wasseypur, Kahaani, Pyaar Ka Punchnaama, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted have all given us fantastic RoI. Why should Rs.100 crore be a benchmark? It’s a self-defeating discussion.
What are your plans for Hollywood releases? Are you planning to do any international co-productions?
Since June 2001, we have been marketing and distributing Hollywood films in alliance with Paramount Pictures International. Some of our big wins were Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Hugo.
I would rule out international co-productions for now. I am extremely focused on building sustainability and profitability. So you won’t see investment from Viacom18 Motion Pictures that won’t cross these two filters.
The Hollywood market isn’t as developed as it should be—why is that?
Whatever happens on the domestic front needs to be flipped on its head when it comes to Hollywood. For Hollywood films, you have to create the market. We have brought in a lot of aggression in marketing. For MI:4, we got Tom Cruise to India and marketed the film as a Salman Khan-type of movie. A market opened up for that film in Punjab. Hollywood films tend to do well in English where there are youth, for instance, in Nagpur and Kota.
What kind of films do you like to produce or partner with?
It’s the script that matters the most. At the risk of being extremely hands-on, I will admit that I am engaged in each one of the film-making decisions. However, the director is the captain of the ship in my eyes. This is not a business where you can have two points of view to a story.
Five of our films were refused by other studios—Tanu Weds Manu, Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap, Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur and Pyaar Ka Punchnaama.
Every film has to have feasibility and capability. What did we learn from Tanu Weds Manu? Content matters. Pyaar Ka Punchnaama? The youth is not just in Delhi, Bangalore and Bombay, but in Noida, Faridabad and Patna.
So “small-town” India is where it’s at?
Our quarterly track tells us the B-tier towns are more open to experimenting with content. A lot of non-metro towns want to see their own stories. If you pick the big hits this year, foreign countries and alien subjects play negligible roles. Many of the films of this year are set in small-town India, like Gangs of Wasseypur, Ishaqzaade and Bol Bachchan. Kahaani did very well in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and the interiors of Punjab.
For a lot of us sitting in Bombay, Punjab means Chandigarh, but the growth is actually happening in small towns, in Kota, Ajmer and Patiala. These are the centres where the numbers are seeing a massive upswing.
What are your plans for the next few months?
We begin 2013 with Sudhir Mishra’s Inkaar, about gender politics and sexual harassment at the workplace, on 18 January. There is Special Chabbis by Neeraj Pandey, who made A Wednesday, on 8 February. On 22 February, there is Chashme Buddoor, David Dhawan’s take on the yesteryear comedy. Saheb Biwi and Gangster Returns is on 8 March. We also have micro-budget films, like What the Fish, which is set in Noida and is from the team behind Quick Gun Murugun. Our LCD (least common denominator) title for next year is a remake of the Malayalam movie Pokkiri Raja, called Boss and starring Akshay Kumar. In Hollywood, we will release Rise of the Guardians on December 21. We have the Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher in January and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters in April. Then there is GI Joe: Retaliation, with Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis.