For film-makers, PR’s the rising star

The success of Spice PR shows how public relations has become an integral part of film production, exhibition


Despite negative to scathing reviews, Dhoom:3’s estimated box office collections make it one of the biggest blockbusters in recent times.
Despite negative to scathing reviews, Dhoom:3’s estimated box office collections make it one of the biggest blockbusters in recent times.

Mumbai: Dhoom:3, the Yash Raj Films (YRF) action drama about a circus artist who targets the financial institution that drove his father to suicide, is laughing all the way to its bank.

Despite negative to scathing reviews, Dhoom:3’s estimated box office collections make it one of the biggest blockbusters in recent times, marking 2013 as a special year for its producer as well as for the public relations company that handled its pre-release coverage and made the right connections between the previously media-shy studio and entertainment journalists.

As of Tuesday, YRF was reporting net box office takings of Rs.129.32 crore across the Hindi, Tamil and Telugu versions that opened in 4,500 screens. In overseas territories, Dhoom:3 claimed collections of $10.17 million (around Rs.63 crore) on the opening weekend and $28.11 million as of Tuesday.

This is welcome news for YRF, which has fielded three indifferently received films this year.

As for Spice PR, Dhoom:3 is a feather in a cap that resembles a Royal Ascot race confection. Spice has handled the public relations and marketing activities of several of this year’s high-profile releases, including Chennai Express, Ship of Theseus and The Lunchbox, as well as some of the duds (notably Besharam).

A white board in its modest office in the northern Mumbai suburb Santa Cruz lists at least 10 forthcoming releases—and that’s only until March. On an average, Spice handles 18-20 films a year, but 2014 promises to be one of the busiest for its dozen employees.

“We don’t encourage this,” said Shilpa Handa, the company’s co-owner along with Prabhat Choudhary, pointing to the board. “We would rather handle two or three films a quarter and do a good job of them.”

Usually, the work of an individual or two whose brief didn’t extend beyond inviting critics for previews, arranging interviews, and occasionally putting out fires, public relations in the film trade has become an integral part of film production and exhibition. It is now gospel that a movie will not get a good opening weekend unless it is heavily promoted.

Increasingly, film public relations (PR) is not about who the studio or the star client is, but about a well-considered and sustained campaign, said Hema Upadhyay, a former Spice staffer who now runs her own company, 1H Media Consultants. “It’s about being able to handle the work pressure. Press conferences are now just photo opportunities, and tours of other cities have become very important,” said Upadhyay, whose clients include the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Film Development Corporation.

The growing belief in Bollywood, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that collections are inextricably linked to marketing activities means that companies such as Spice PR often get involved with a film from its early stages of production through the initial screenings and all the way until the release.

“Your shelf life is between three and six months, and you need to establish your brand within a very short span of time,” Choudhary said. “We take most of our cues from the film—the recall value of a campaign is very high when you are in sync with the film’s general tone.”

Movie PR specialists such as Spice and its close competitor Raindrop are privately owned and modestly staffed outfits, headed by one or two individuals who oversee a floating workforce of young mass communications students. They are neither as informal as the press secretaries of yore, nor as structured as corporate communication companies.

Many of them found their feet in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, around the same some of the producers and studios that now rule the trade emerged. The timing was right for all parties: the movie business was getting more professionalized, second- and third-generation actors were staking their claim to hearts and wallets, mainstream media was multiplying, and, most importantly, beginning to develop an insatiable appetite for popular entertainment.

“The story of a company like Spice is also the story of marketing and communication in Bollywood,” said Choudhary, who previously worked in the promotions department at Star Movies. “There was a space available, although at the time we didn’t realize that we were filling it.”

Spice PR set foot in the movie publicity arena with YRF, so it’s apt that it ends a bumper year with the company. Choudhary, an English literature graduate from Hansraj College in Delhi, set up Spice in 2004, with an initial investment from entrepreneurs in the UK. Among its early clients was Parle Agro, but the permanent switch to a new client base came that year when YRF signed it on to handle Hum Tum, the rom-com starring Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji.

“For a consumer product, advertising is the primary medium while PR is the reminder medium,” Choudhary said. “With movies, it’s the reverse. PR is the main thing and everything else, such as the advertisements, the making of (the film) are all the reminders.”

Handa joined Choudhary just around this time, straight out of the Xavier Institute of Communications, to work on a movie whose Hollywood-style slickness and hip positioning signalled an early indicator of YRF’s ability to influence popular culture. “YRF did have a PR professional who handled press kits (publicity material) and stuff, but we felt that we could do so much more,” she said.

Ideas that have already become routine were tested out on a public being nurtured as Bollywood addicts—for instance, a national daily ran a cartoon strip about Hum Tum. Other YRF films followed, including Bunty Aur Babli in 2005, one of whose publicity gimmicks involved lead actors Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukerji, who play con artists, reading the news on the NDTV24x7 and NDTV India television channels.

Different subjects require different approaches, and one big idea. With Singh is Kinng (2008), an action comedy starring Akshay Kumar as a Sikh, the approach was one of hip hop culture-influenced “attitude communication”, Choudhary said. The promotions and song trailers had Kumar raising his fist in a Black Power salute and wearing his diamond-studded turban. “It is Akshay’s most remembered brand till date,” Choudhary said.

Spice’s association with YRF continued till Fanaa in 2008. At some point, the studio, set up by the late Yash Chopra and run by his son Aditya Chopra, even wanted to fold Spice into its own structure. That didn’t happen and Spice grew and signed on a series of high-ranking studio clients, including UTV and its subsequent avatar Disney UTV, Sahara One, Pritish Nandy Communications and Excel Entertainment. Its client list also includes individual actors, many of whom are also handled by talent management agencies such as Kwan and Bling. Deepika Padukone, for instance, is a client who signed up after Break Ke Baad in 2010.

Padukone, the reigning queen of the box office, was in the midst of a series of flops at the time, but in the eyes of her PR representatives (and the media that bought the line), she was the future No. 1.

“I realized when I first met her that we were sitting opposite an extremely brave girl,” Choudhary said. “Looking at her, we needed to back the fundamentals even though she was in the middle of a bad patch.” Word went out about a young achiever, born to a famous father (former badminton player Prakash Padukone) and the owner of an apartment at a young age, until success caught up with the manufactured image.

The most well-known name in the Spice stable is, of course, Aamir Khan, who worked with the agency on his home productions Taare Zameen Par (2007), Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008) and the mega-hit Ghajini (2008).

For Taare Zameen Par, Spice pushed the messages of childhood and Khan’s commitment to social causes. Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na focused on college-going and youthful crowds, while also reminding audiences of Imran Khan’s film heritage (he is Aamir Khan’s nephew).

For Ghajini, the idea was to give ushers at a suburban single-screen cinema Khan’s shorn-skull look from the movie. Khan had previously used his movie appearances to generate off-screen interest for Mangal Pandey: The Rising in 2005, for which he made it a point to be seen everywhere his luxurious handlebar moustache.

For Ghajini, hair, or the lack of it, again came handy again. Choudhary and Handa invited a journalist to witness Khan’s locks being chopped off. The press conference was held inside a gym, the best place to showcase Khan’s physical transformation for his role. One of the final pre-release promotional events was held in Delhi, where Khan played barber and gave haircuts to a few passers-by. The association between Khan and physical transformation continued through 3 Idiots, in which he played a 21-year-old student, and Dhoom:3, in which his bare-chested and beefed-up body was accompanied by a bowler hat.

It was during the promotion of 3 Idiots that the idea of Spice Bhasha, a division that caters to the Hindi-language media, was born. Following a suggestion from Khan that marketing needed to reach beyond the saturated markets of Mumbai and Delhi, Choudhary travelled to Mughalsarai, one of India’s busiest railway junctions.

A spot interview with young people hanging around a platform revealed that they didn’t know much about the superstar. Only an elderly tea stall vendor confessed to having seen Khan in Raja Hindustani, which came out in 1996. The marketing activity shifted to Varanasi, but “Spice Bhaasha was born on that platform No. 6”, Choudhary said. A network of four regular staffers and stringers in cities such as Rapiur, Patna and Chandigarh handle requests for coverage from the Hindi media.

Micro-marketing, as Choudhary calls it, is the next big idea for Spice. As Bollywood extends its footprint across the country, the interest in Hindi cinema across Indian language media network far outweighs coverage in the English press and television. Choudhary sees the need to tailor content to specific age groups and cultural sensibilities beyond the metros. “Increasingly, this business will become like electioneering; it will have constituencies, and we will need to communicate with specific constituents,” he predicted.

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