Only one quarter into the calendar year 2019 and Zee Studios says it has reason to celebrate. The Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd (ZEEL) owned movie production and distribution company has recorded five major hits across languages in these three months — Manikarnika -The Queen of Jhansi (Hindi) Kala Shah Kala (Punjabi), Anandi Gopal (Marathi), Kesari (Hindi) and Lucifer (Malayalam), together grossing Rs. 375 crore at the worldwide box office.
This is a fairly impressive box office run for a studio technically less than four years into the business. Having halted its film production after Gadar: Ek Prem Katha in 2001, the company returned to it in 2015 with Aishwarya Rai-starrer Jazbaa, and attributes the recent numbers to lessons learnt on the way.
“There is no specific guidance on budget but we are looking a little more at mid-sized, youth-centric films which don’t necessarily burden the project upfront with huge star or director fees," said Shariq Patel, chief executive officer, Zee Studios adding that budgets are allocated according to the filmmaker and lead cast in question and the budget for an A-lister will differ from the budget for a newcomer or an actor on the verge of breaking out.
“The same script can have a completely different budget (keeping these factors in mind). Of course there are certain films which need the big star cast but the way we are looking at it is if the story is exciting, we will cast it aptly and not wait for the big stars, and instead churn out productions at a faster clip and the right budgets," he said.
The other big focus has been on the people the company is choosing to work with.
“We’ve consciously been looking at selecting the right partners, which means finding the right production partners for anything we are co-producing as well as directors for anything that we are making ourselves," Patel said citing the example of Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions with whom Zee has delivered hits like Dhadak and Kesari and is now looking at another film Good News which will be backed by Dharma, lead actor Akshay Kumar and Viacom18 Motion Pictures, apart from Zee.
Patel said Zee is also looking at getting directors to make films exclusive to them. “We’re talking to directors and have signed four names because the other learning is to control the entire (film production) process ourselves, of which IP (intellectual property) ownership and smart exploitation of rights is an important part," he said.
Zee has roped in Parmanu: The Story of Pokhran director Abhishek Sharma, Bosco Martis from choreographer duo Bosco-Caesar, Housefull 3 co-director Sajid Samji and Toilet: Ek Prem Katha filmmaker Shree Narayan Singh for its upcoming projects.
“The idea is just to choose stories and filmmakers which excite us and who are willing to collaborate with us in the spirit of partnership," Patel said.
Starting with Marathi film Rampaat next month, Zee is looking forward to the release of Sunny Deol’s directorial venture Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas which introduces his son Karan, in July and then Good News will follow in September. Lead cast for the four directors’ films will be announced soon too.
Trade analysts point out that the good thing about Zee at the moment is that it is taking it slow. “It’s a case of slow and steady winning the race. They haven’t been aggressive so far and are only taking up as much as they can handle," said Atul Mohan, editor of trade magazine Complete Cinema adding that while Hindi audiences may be relatively unfamiliar with the Zee Studios banner, they are known for pathbreaking work in the Marathi circuit with films like Sairat, Natsamrat, Duniyadaari, Timepass and Lai Bhaari under the Essel Vision Productions Ltd banner.
The next big step for Zee Studios apart from feature films is its digital content arm Zee Studios Originals which will produce original content and create new IPs for all digital platforms globally. Patel said their first show, a fun take on Bollywood strugglers, has been locked in for ZEE5 while pitches with some other platforms should close within this quarter. When a specific platform commissions a show to Zee, the investment will be the former’s with Zee only putting in seed money of Rs. 20-30 lakh. But the studio is also looking to make its own shows and then pitch to services, where budgets could range from Rs. 1-3 crore per episode.
“Since I don’t check with (a satellite or digital platform like) Zee TV or Star TV or ZEE5 before I make the movies, if we have conviction in certain shows, we would like to make them ourselves and then license or sell them to the appropriate platform," Patel said.