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‘The Spy Universe is going to be a big focus area for Yash Raj Films’

Widhani, who is only the second chief executive of the group in its 50-year-long history and a confidant of chairman Aditya Chopra, spoke about balancing creativity and business and why the studio does not wish to share intellectual properties (IPs) with others

Akshaye Widhani, chief executive of Yash Raj Films  (Mint)Premium
Akshaye Widhani, chief executive of Yash Raj Films (Mint)

NEW DELHI : Following a series of box office flops in 2022, since the reopening of theatres post-covid, Yash Raj Films, one of the oldest and reputed studios in India, has finally tasted success with action drama Pathaan and is now increasingly focusing on the spy universe and franchise films, chief executive Akshaye Widhani said in an interview. Widhani, who is only the second chief executive of the group in its 50-year-long history and a confidant of chairman Aditya Chopra, spoke about balancing creativity and business and why the studio does not wish to share intellectual properties (IPs) with others. He also discussed the plans behind allocating 500 crore for web series. Edited excerpts:

After the lull following the covid-led disruptions and finally the success of Pathaan, how are you focusing on business and creativity?

We are storytellers by heart and have been for the last five decades. We will always continue to be creative first. It’s not a numbers game for us. We’ve learned post-pandemic that it’s not about how many films you release but the kind of films you put out. We suffered last year — 2022 was a tough year. A lot of the films were designed for the pre-pandemic period when audience tastes were different. That changed, and things have evolved rapidly since then. Going ahead, the Spy Universe (a universe of interconnected films whose plots will cross over, including existing and upcoming instalments of Pathaan, Tiger and War) is going to be a very big focus area, and franchise films will take up a major portion of our theatrical slate. At the same time, we are going to continue to look for stories we feel can command space in a theatrical environment. We have only announced Tiger 3 for now but are getting ready to lock our slate for the coming years. We will make announcements in due course, and the Spy Universe is going to become a larger part of our strategy.

Is it in line with the global trend?

Yes, because audiences are coming to theatres and rewarding us if we give them experiences they have not had before. Making big films is not easy. It’s not about how much money you put in but how you spend and plan it. Globally also, franchise and universe are the key buzzwords lately, and it will be a part of our focus, too.

Are small or mid-size films dead?

The only thing that is dead is bad content. To put it simply, the kind of content you put out will define the success or failure of films. For us, the story has become the star of all future content. It’s something that we all have to take seriously. We took a lot for granted and, as a nation, we are very loving of our stars. So, when they do their best work, they get love. But sometimes they have gotten away without doing their best work also. Now, the stars also have to do their best work. I think if 2022 has taught us anything, it’s primarily that a huge star needs a very good story for a successful film. And it’s worldwide, not just in India.

2022 was a bad year for you. Was it due to bad decisions on your part, or that it didn’t work post-pandemic?

The content was designed for pre-covid days, but when they were released, our audiences expected more from us. That’s how I’ve looked at it.

Are you planning to produce a fixed number of films every year?

We have always done three to four films every year. It’s not a numbers game for us. We have nothing announced right now for 2024, so it could be a leaner year than 2022 or 2023. The strategy is we must put out the best version of a film, and our audiences demand and expect that from us. Today, they consume a lot of Hollywood content, and when a consumer gets certain technical effects, VFX or action design from one industry, they are right to expect it from other industries as well. So, we have to work harder with much smaller budgets and more limited resources.

Look at S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR, which has been able to extend Indian cinema to newer audiences. Now, with Pathaan, we’ve been able to follow up. Last year, we dubbed two films of ours into south Indian languages. We believe that as we enjoy Tamil and Telugu films here, they will hopefully enjoy Hindi films more as we go ahead. So, the aim is to widen the audience size within India as well as internationally.

You said Pathaan was the widest Bollywood release, what was the revenue-sharing model internationally?

Yes, we had Pathaan released in over 100 countries, and it received a great response. We have almost done $48 million in the overseas box office. While it varies from country to country, on average, we get around 35% of the gross box office from international distribution. China is different, and it depends on who your partner is. You can either take a higher upfront minimum guarantee and no revenue share, or you can take no guarantee and enjoy the spoils.

All your movies are with Amazon Prime Video in India, but the docu-series, The Romantics, is on Netflix. Are we going to see a new deal?

We don’t have any exclusive output deal, but we work with preferred partners. So Amazon is our preferred partner, and we’ve been working with Amazon since the day they came to India in 2016. We’ve never looked outside that relationship, not because of a signed document. They were very supportive last year when we had a tough year, and this year, we’ve been able to deliver back to them with Pathaan. Tiger 3 is also with Amazon. Similarly, our TV rights deal was with Sony for many years, and since 2019 it moved to Disney with War. The Romantics (a documentary on the YRF legacy) streamed on Netflix because we thought it would give us a much wider release.

What are your plans for the web series genre?

We’re very excited about telling stories in the digital medium. The Romantics was our first effort there. Now, we have one show nearing completion: The Railway Men. Another will go into production by the end of this month. We have a few shows lined up for later this year and next year. We are continuing to do what we know, which is creating content, and then at the right time, we will talk to partners.

We’re used to working in a certain way and would like to continue doing so. There’s been a lot of demand for our content. But we’re not a company that’s looking for upfront money or to make a quick buck. We’re here for the long run. If we find a home for our stories tomorrow, we’d be more than happy.

Have you earmarked a specific amount for funding a web series?

We have done an internal allocation and set aside 500 crore for creating shows and telling digital stories. It’s not like all this money will go in at once or only into a specific number of shows in development. There is no rule on how much we must invest. But from internal allocations, that is the budget we have set aside for YRF Entertainment, which is our digital storytelling brand. Our simple focus is to consolidate our theatrical content and tell stories in a digital medium. Right now, these are the two foremost priorities of the studio for the next three years.

What is your strategy for web series? Do you think bringing in big stars is the right way?

I don’t know what is right or wrong, but that’s not our way. We are not looking to make digital shows with the biggest movie stars. We look to make the biggest films for theatres with the biggest movie stars and tell great stories. We’re looking to tell the best stories on digital with the right actors for those shows. It doesn’t mean we’re not working with film actors. But our mandate is not to sign the biggest movie star for a digital show. On OTT, people consume content for the story. That’s where the stickiness is. It’s a time of great learning because audiences can consume content on so many platforms they are spoilt for choice and decide whom they want to love and reward. You can see digital actors in films; you are seeing film actors in shows. In three years, our landscape may look very different than it did pre-pandemic or it does today.

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Updated: 26 Mar 2023, 10:46 PM IST
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