New Delhi: In a country that continues to look West for technical inspiration for its movies, media services company Prime Focus Ltd has chosen to show the world how it’s done instead. From an editing suite started in a garage in Mumbai to a global creative and technological facility delivering animation, VFX and stereo conversion, equipment rental and post-production services to Hollywood spectacles—Captain America: Civil War, Spectre and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice have been their most recent outings—and Bollywood blockbusters—Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Bajirao Mastani and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo to name a few—there is little left for the firm to conquer. It clocked profits of Rs108.4 crore and employed nearly 7,000 people in FY 2015-16.
In an interview, Namit Malhotra, founder, executive chairman and global chief executive officer of Prime Focus, talks about entering production with animation film Here Comes The Grump, in collaboration with Latin American studio Ánima Estudios and slated to release in 2017, triangulating India, China and the US to create a global consumption market and why working in India isn’t the same as catering to Hollywood. Edited excerpts:
Why did you decide to get into film production at a point when there is a crisis in film corporates globally?
It’s not like this is intellectual property we’ve developed ourselves or that we’re actively producing films. It’s fundamentally driven on the back of certain intellectual property that Ánima own and them looking for an animation partner to create it. We’re still getting paid our fees for providing our services. From a financial standpoint, we both agreed there was a lot of upside if we produced it for a certain price and quality.
We’ve always been dynamic about these things. We’ve looked at strategic partnerships that would further the business or help us act as a collaborative partner with potential customers, where we think there is more than one opportunity to do something. The second point is that the client feels assured that the product delivered will be of the highest quality.
How did you think of a creative solutions company in the 1990s when Indian cinema was not particularly known for its technique or effects?
There was already a legacy from my grandfather (cinematographer M.N. Malhotra) and father (producer Naresh Malhotra) being very eminent in the field and I aspired to be a filmmaker myself. I had a chance to watch Jurassic Park in 1993 and had a conversation with my dad on why we weren’t making films like that to which his point was we don’t have the technology or talent to. It was very similar to these start-ups we see in India today driven by technology, we tried to do the same on the film and creative services side. We set up and worked primarily as an editing studio but by virtue of the structure we followed, we were able to do more than just that. Like if we were editing a television show, we could also do the title sequences or music videos. It became revolutionary at that point. Once we got comfortable with the technology, then frankly it was a matter of learning a new software, applying your creativity in a different way.
So you started in Mumbai and then expanded pan-India and worldwide?
Absolutely. I literally started in my garage in Mumbai. 1995 onwards, we grew in India and then in 2005, I saw the information technology boom happen and IT outsourcing became the biggest trend in India. Coming from a business family, the one thing I knew was you can’t really outsource creativity. From a technological standpoint, we had a lot of consistency, now it was really time to leverage that in the West and bring the world back to India. So we started buying companies in the UK followed by North America, creating this global one-stop platform. That seemed to resonate with people in the West because we were not selling India as a destination, but as a solution. We were offering our creative talent in America and the UK.
Is there a difference in working with talent from Bollywood and Hollywood?
There is a lot of difference culturally and in how people approach their work. The work that we do here has been done there for decades. In India, it’s new so filmmakers are not as well-versed with what needs to be done or how it’s going to be done. They just want it done for a price. In the West, it’s not about the price, it’s about them feeling convinced that you will be able to deliver the goods; they give a lot more credence to your overall creative capability, how you actually organize, communicate and present the work. Everything has to do with structure and protocol which is not necessarily the case in India.
What are the major challenges in meeting those global standards of technical finesse?
I don’t see it as that much of a technical gap. When we do something, we do it pretty well. But if you see, the biggest movies of the year in India continue to be romantic comedies. So you’ve got a star-driven system where effects are not the focus of the film. In Hollywood, you’re not going to be able to make an Interstellar or a Mission Impossible or an Avengers without giving a lot of importance to how the visual look and design of the film are going to play out. What we’re producing in India is fit for a purpose. When you switch genres or want to make a film on space travel, that’s when you really have to step up.
Now that a lot of Bollywood studios have their own technical solution facilities, be it Red Chillies or Yash Raj, where does that position a company like yours?
This is something that has always existed. Either people see it as a business, if I’m making a lot of effect-heavy movies, I might as well do it in-house and control my cost. Or it’s driven by the filmmaker finding it creatively liberating and stimulating. But over a period of time, it’s not the most sustainable or focal point. You’re focusing on what you want to do in terms of the next film, not on the captive consumer. Obviously Yash Raj is a big name and Shah Rukh Khan’s company is massive, they can absolutely afford to do the business. But it’s never a core part of what they do. Ultimately people see a Shah Rukh Khan film and enjoy it, that his company did the VFX doesn’t make a difference.
What are your most important markets today and any that you plan to tap immediately?
Clearly, Hollywood is the biggest part of our business today. India continues to be, what I call, home territory. It’s where we built our entire business from and the future of how we work in Hollywood also has to do with how India evolves in that field. I see China as an emerging opportunity for the kind of work that we do. By triangulating China, India and America with massive consumption on the back of each country, you’re pretty much covering global content consumption.
How fast is the company growing and is there a figure you hope to close the year on?
I think we’ve grown quite substantially. We’ve created Rs2,000 crore of revenue this financial year and we’re almost 8,000 people worldwide. For the moment, I’m happy that everything we said we’d do or had laid out as a metric, we’re on track with. We’ve serviced our debts and commitments and not compromised on our growth in the process. It’s time to look towards the next levels in terms of scale and capability.
I would like to see the company evolve into more of an institution and do some groundbreaking work. But at the same time, carry the strength to be a very long-term player. Those are the next 5-10 years that I look at. I’m really looking at the company becoming a powerhouse in terms of not just the creative work it does but also from a financial and balance sheet point, become a top-tier entity that has good earnings and employees and long-term prospects for people who are a lot more secure and stable in what is otherwise a volatile industry in the world.