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Singh says his studio is looking to release one film every two weeks, including local and Hollywood movies, in 2013. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint (Manoj Patil/Mint)
Singh says his studio is looking to release one film every two weeks, including local and Hollywood movies, in 2013. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint

(Manoj Patil/Mint)

Fox Star aims to be among the top three studios in India

Fox Star’s Singh talks on expanding Hollywood’s footprint in India, inking deals with Hindi, Tamil filmmakers

Mumbai: Vijay Singh spent 15 years developing markets in various parts of the world for Tata companies such as Titan and Tetley before setting up Sony Music in India in 1996. In his current role as chief executive officer of Fox Star Studios, Singh said in an interview that there is some similarity between selling tea bags and movies: both require tenacity, a thorough understanding of the market, careful expansion and intense marketing.

Fox Star Studios, which was set up in India in 2008, combines the legacy of two News Corp. companies—the Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox and the STAR network. The company operates somewhat differently from its Hollywood rivals in the country, including Sony, Warner Bros and Universal. Fox Star Studios publicises its Hollywood titles aggressively (these include Slumdog Millionaire, Rio, Avatar and Life of Pi) and gives an Indian spin to American films whenever possible.

Fox Star Studios is now on the prowl for bigger Hollywood and Bollywood game. It will continue to expand Hollywood’s footprint in India (for example, dubbing an upcoming action film in Punjabi), will ink many more co-production deals with Hindi and Tamil filmmakers, and produce more Bollywood titles, said Singh. Edited excerpts:

Did your experience with developing markets for consumer products help with running a movie studio in India?

Experience, by definition, is always useful. With Tetley, developing markets was all about setting up new companies and structuring acquisitions. Sony Music in India was about setting up a content company. That is when I got exposed to the film business, since the marketing of music is synergistic with marketing movies. We did some of the biggest films, such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Asoka and Lagaan. We were able to closely observe the film industry and build relationships that proved helpful.

You spend far more on advertising and publicity than the other Hollywood studios in India, even buying newspaper space if you have to.

We need to expand the market for Hollywood in India. Marketing and public relations are important—it’s not just about paid coverage but also about PR (public relations). We marketed Life of Pi to kids, we promoted it on kids’ channels and did direct marketing in schools. We did extensive previews to get positive ambient noise. For the first time, a Hollywood film’s international promotions were kicked off in India—Ang (Lee, Life of Pi’s director) and his team were present in India. We were the opening movie at the International Film Festival of India. So we set the film on a platform it deserved. Life of Pi earned 23 crore in its first week, which is as good as a mid-level Hindi film.

We also cut a unique trailer for Life of Pi in India—I believe it’s the first time we have done it here. We were one of the first to start sub-titling our films. We found that despite the high levels of literacy, people didn’t get accents.

Apart from extending the reach of Hollywood, you also focused on sinking roots in Bollywood.

To have a viable business on the ground, you need to be a player in Bollywood. We need to be successful in Hollywood and Bollywood, so we need to scale up from where we are. We are looking to release both local and Hollywood films in 2013—one film every two weeks. The local films include eight Bollywood films and four Tamil movies.

We took a conscious decision to start film production with Quick Gun Murugun (in 2009), which was as left-of-centre as possible. That was a small movie, so then we co-produced a big film like My Name is Khan (in 2010). If you work with an international studio like ours, you can unlock assets of the News Corp. group. We took the movie’s stars to Nasdaq, got them on a Jonathan Ross show, and unlocked assets that a Bollywood film wouldn’t have been able to do on its own. It’s been two and a half years since we released My Name is Khan, and it remains the No. 1 Bollywood film ever outside India.

We are hoping to become one of the top three studios in India in the next three years. As far as Hollywood is concerned, we are already there.

How seriously does India take Hollywood?

I am hugely bullish about the prospect of Hollywood in the market. The share of Hollywood in the theatrical business has gone from 4% to around 8%. For the first time, we will be dubbing the new Die Hard movie, A Good Day to Die Hard, in Punjabi, since the Punjabi film industry in general is growing rapidly and a lot of multiplexes have come up.

Hollywood is growing in big cities but also in tier-II cities. The role of the multiplex is important, as well as dubbing. So many satellite channels are showing Hollywood content. Lots of young people are familiar with the Hollywood idiom. As they grow up and acquire disposable income, they will accept Hollywood cinema even more. It’s like seeding, what FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) companies do with shampoo sachets in rural markets, for instance.

How involved are you with your productions and co-productions?

I have to read all the scripts we are looking at. The traffic of Bombay is immensely useful only at this time. Since I spend three days a week in the other part of town (The Fox Star Studios office is in south Mumbai, while the film industry is mostly in the north), I am able to do my reading in my car.

The weakest link in Bollywood is the script. Building a script bank is a priority at our end. We have access to our vaults, and our creative teams are always on the search for directors and writers. In 2013, we have co-productions like Vishal Bhardwaj’s Matru Ki Bijlee Ka Mandola, Murder 3 with the Bhatts and two Tamil releases (Vathikuchi and Raja Rani) with A.M. Murugadoss. After that is Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Bullet Raja, starring Saif Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha. We have just signed Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif for a big-budget film inspired by the Hollywood film Knight and Day. The film has to be Bollywoodized completely, but the spine of the relationship remains.

We are also looking at Tamil scripts that can be adapted into Hindi. The quality of writing in Tamil is far superior to Bollywood; it is more rooted. We are selectively building bridges and relationships with key directors like Anurag Basu, Dibakar Banerjee, Kabir Khan and Milan Luthria. We’re looking at writers and directors who have a rooted sense of cinema. That’s why a Vishal (Bhardwaj) fits in. We will keep looking at acquisition, but the Knight and Day adaptation is a good example of constructing and planning our own productions.

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