Studios shutting down. Executives getting fired. Obituaries being written for the Studio model. Disney’s decision to pull out, Balaji pressing the pause button, the governance furore at Eros and mega-flops at Fox-Star—all pointers to doomsday for the Hindi movie business. Hundreds of crores, some of it public shareholder money, has been lost.
If you were to pull back from this noise, 2016 looks and feels like a replay of 2010. It’s just that we did not learn lessons from the earlier debacle.
It isn’t the end of the world. On the contrary, I’m willing to argue the Hindi film industry is stronger and more mature than ever. The box office potential is growing on the back of higher ticket prices and more multiplexes. The range of themes that Hindi cinema is tackling has expanded and clearly defined market segments have evolved. As far as revenues go, more room exists to grow. In fact, if you ask a young film-maker, now is perhaps the best time to be in the business.
This doom and gloom seems to be aimed at glossing over bad business models of the players who played it like a high-stakes poker game. An industry whose underpinnings are getting stronger everyday has been portrayed as a game of chance. Rather than design projects to appeal to an audience segment and deliver to a certain potential, projects were padded with A-listers with the hope that face value will carry them through. Result: mega-flops that would have made money had they been cast and budgeted more sensibly.
Back in 2010, things looked awful. The Indian Film Company (IFC) (which had raised a Rs400 crore film fund) and UTV had written off hundreds of crores from their library values after delivering flops. Others too like Balaji Telefilms and Eros had duds on hand. Against that backdrop, I was asked to resuscitate IFC and relaunch it as Viacom18 Motion Pictures.
We had just tasted success with Colors in television on the back of real, issue-based programming. With Balika Vadhu and Uttaran we provided people fare that was distinct from the saas-bahu sagas that had allowed Star Plus to reign the waves for over nine years. Between Fear Factor and Big Boss, we showed it was possible to revive old ideas and inject them with blockbuster appeal. Our research suggested audiences were ready to explore new ideas. So I hired Vikram Malhotra, who came from a consumer marketing background with a legacy-free mindset and we got down to challenge the status quo.
Some lessons emerged that I think continue to remain relevant even today.
Abandon the rearview mirror
The simplest trick (or trap) is to treat familiar talent as sure bets. That also means you ignore the next big thing. The industry, pumped by money from a new breed of corporate Studios took the easy way out. They found directors and actors who had delivered a single hit and backed them without listening to the story they intended to tell.
However, the Indian economy and society was evolving at its fastest pace ever—and with it the tastes of our audiences. If we didn’t keep pace with these changes, it would be impossible to get past the 8-10% success rate that hangs over filmed entertainment. That is why you cannot “fool” your way into a big weekend anymore. The audience can smell a disaster coming and have better ways to spend their afternoons.
So we focused on emerging audiences that wanted real stories. Stories that provided inspiration and resonated with the sub-25 year olds. This led us to green-light movies that broke the mold, at budgets that did not break the bank.
Characters, not actors
Most Studios look at the project and the star cast—not the script. We saw the pump-my-project-with-A-listers-and-it-will-work formula fail miserably. We dumped the idea and focused only the script and the director. All the other trimmings came later. The job was to fit actors to characters, not the other way round. That led to the success of the movies that had strong characters and wonderful scripts to match. Queen, Tanu Weds Manu, Kahaani and Pyaar Ka Punchnama . All four went on to become blockbuster franchises.
Audiences are getting smarter. When they want fantasy, they want fantasy. And when they want a story, they want an honest one. Regional cinema makers had figured this out before Hindi cinema. They were experimenting on low-budgets, but making films that reflect the aspirations of people. Their stories, characters and teams are often more connected with reality. We picked a lesson from them and placed our bets on movies like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Special 26, Gangs of Wasseypur, Pyaar Ka Punchnama and Madras Cafe. It worked. They proved that we were ready for commercial success of honest, hard-hitting cinema.
Films don’t fail, budgets do
So much so, budgets had become the epicentre of a film-maker’s universe to deliver big at the box office. But with the sub-25 year olds dominating the Indian box office, we saw this change. Stories sell. Stars sell, but only when backed with good stories. Budgets needed to be cognizant of this.
But if you have a story to sell and a good reason to ask people to leave their homes to watch a movie in a theatre? Then pull out all stops. We noticed that the woman-as-a-hero theme was doing well on television. So we back Kahaani. It was a small-budget, non-conventional film. We backed it with some aggressive marketing and distribution, Vikram and team turned this hitherto untouchable film into a box office spinner that inspired confidence in a new generation of film-makers.
Finally, a studio needs to work more as a producer that gathers the best talent around a project as opposed to having a large team on the payroll. If you treat your money like every rupee matters, so will your director and your executive producer.
Align with talent
The real problem in the business is that talent takes the money off the table upfront whether or not a movie succeeds. So we structured contracts with Directors as partners where we could lower the upfront costs of the project with a bigger share of the film’s profits.
Vikram and I had a simple rule. Each time we backed somebody we were working with for the first time, we’d ask: “Is he somebody we can chat over a coffee or a drink over the next two years and beyond?” If the answer is no, how do you expect to collaborate and create magic when you don’t even know what your film-maker is about!
Working with the directors, we took compelling scripts to actors who had since realized that their long-term success hinged on selecting the right scripts and directors and were willing to take a reasonable part, if not all, of their remuneration once the film saw profits.
For example, with a brilliant debut in A Wednesday, Neeraj Pandey, one of the finest film-makers in the country today, had few takers for his next movie. But we aligned and enabled the super star Akshay Kumar to come on board what seemed like an unlikely film at that time (Special 26). History was made. Neeraj and Akshay are now a formidable duo.
Moral: Present irresistible scripts to actors and leave them with no choice but to ensure costs are controlled and money is spent on the film, not on the face.
Create a blend of head and heart
Some of the most creative movie companies in the world are run by people with a background in business and finance. So long as analysis and instinct are balanced, all is well. The flaw in the past was in that committees took decisions. Nobody was accountable. Scripts and films need to be green-lit with a strategy in mind that seeks to answer: Does the film fit the commercial and creative objectives the studio seeks?
The man at the top needs to have the conviction to stand by those decisions and see them through. I recall how not many people were willing to support Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. But we had done our homework. Apart from falling in love with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s vision for the film, our audience assessment told us it was time for a true, inspirational story aimed at the youth. What emerged is a movie that people will remember as a landmark biopic.
It’s not just a project. A film needs constant support from the studio. When word spread we were building a company that welcomed progressive directors and stories, a virtual exodus of film-makers happened at other Studios. So often we see director and producers meet with Studios to discuss budgets, cash flows and production schedules. If only the same amount of meetings happened for script readings, casting, and locations among other things, things would be different.
A director does not have all the answers and a studio head and the team must step in wherever needed to see the film through. Most Studios failed because the only time they ever saw a film was a few weeks before it got released. At Viacom18, I recall the team spending countless hours with directors, in edit rooms, and always there to back up if need be.
Visibility is not engagement
Film marketing is all about engagement not visibility. In 2010, marketing a film meant a few ads in entertainment dailies, and ads on music channels on TV. It meant a lot of noise and visibility, but little or no connect with the audience. We asked why not turn this into a competitive advantage?
So we got in someone with a background in consumer products and services experience who was a huge movie buff to spearhead the marketing function. We aligned our marketing and creative functions and started looking at projects with a different lens. That gave us the confidence to green-light Gangs of Wasseypur —we felt we could market the film appropriately and it turned out a genre-breaking film that would become not just a cult hit in India but made people notice India (and Viacom18!) all over the festival circuit.
Distributing a film is not just releasing a film in theatres
It’s about the right theatres, the right show timings, holding in-theatre screenings for word of mouth films. Studios always took great pride in their ability to distribute a film and get the maximum number of screens or theatres to showcase their productions. We asked what for?
The real deal lies in understanding how a film will behave with its audience and then creating a bespoke distribution plan around it. Here’s how we did it. If a film is focused on the youth, then try to get more screens at theatres around colleges and in cities where the student population is higher than average; more morning and afternoon shows so that kids can go in groups from their colleges, etc.
If the film appeals to women or families, like Kahaani, then more evening and night shows so that ladies of the house can step out after their chores for the day are done. And once released, understand that some films will only grow and sustain themselves on word-of-mouth. For that, you need to inspire confidence in the theatre owner to run it for that extra weekend.
In sum, don’t try one-size-fits-all strategies on films. This is not a homogeneous product business. Customize or die!
Films will flop. For all the examples of successes that I have used above, we had our share of failures too like Aiyya, Department and Bittoo Boss. However, in a business where success comes in single digits, we delivered an exponentially higher number of hits than flops. This was built on the back of strong fundamentals, inspiring talent to give their best and having the conviction to stand by our decisions.
It’s a hard business. That is why, on any given Friday, you can emerge as an inspired genius or a bloody fool. The challenge is how to be the former more often than not. Of course, several movies genuinely miss the mark—but you can avoid “self-goals” that arise out of burdening them with a budget far beyond their appeal. What’s heartening is that ever so often, a sensibly-made movie comes along. It defies gravity, beats all expectations and teaches us a new lesson about our audience and how they like stories to be told. And therein lies the charm that keeps our film-makers going.
Haresh Chawla was founding chief executive of Network18. He is now partner at India Value Fund, and mentors several start-ups.