After the acquisition of UTV in 2012, the Disney brand in India has been steadily changing its perception from that of a banner that makes only kid-centric movies to one that makes wholesome entertainers for the entire family. It’s been a subtle transition but a most effective one, says Siddharth Roy Kapur, Managing Director, Disney India in conversation with Nitin Tej Ahuja and Vajir Singh
Nitin Tej Ahuja (NTA): ABCD was made under the UTV banner but the sequel was released under Disney. Why is that?
Siddharth Roy Kapur (SRK): ABCD as you know was a hugely entertaining and successful family film and since we were actively working on developing family entertainers under the Disney brand, the sequel to ABCD seemed like a perfect fit. As a brand ‘Disney’ has always stood for films that the whole family can watch and enjoy together and what’s more, ABCD 2 in true Disney tradition was a film that was capable of becoming not just sequelable, but a strong homegrown franchise as well. As part of our franchise building for ABCD, we will be launching a dance-based scripted reality show called Naach inspired by the theme of the movie on our youth channel bindass, we have launched the ABCD 2mobile game on multiple app stores, and we have launched a very cool range of merchandise. All this, so that the ABCD brand lives on for its fans across multiple touch points till we bring them the next instalment of the movie.
Vajir Singh (VS): When one talks about the Disney brand, one thinks of child-friendly films or animation films. How do you build the Disney brand context in the Indian market?
SRK: You are absolutely right as that has been the popular perception till now. In the past, Disney branded local films have had kids as the entry point. But today, we define the brand as one that brings great entertainment to the whole family. When you look at the Disney Channel today, it has transitioned successfully into a family channel from a kids channel. The content and the promos of the channel are centred around families, and we actively want parents to watch the channel along with their kids.
This brand philosophy runs across all our divisions from movies to television to consumer products to mobile gaming. We made a strong start with Khoobsurat last year, which was a quintessential Disney film and was very popular with teenagers and young adults, with kids also enjoying it thoroughly.
And now with ABCD 2 we have seen hordes of kids going to watch the film together in their school uniforms on the first weekend when Mumbai was rained out and schools were shut. But for us, the important point is that their parents enjoyed the film just as much. We couldn’t have asked for a better validation of our strategy to brand the film Disney. It is a simple and inspiring story with strong values, great entertainment and a great deal of emotion, and that is how we are defining our Disney branded movies. When you look at the films we have lined up under the Disney brand in 2016, from Jagga Jasoos with Anurag (Basu) and Ranbir (Kapoor) to Mohenjo Daro with Ashutosh (Gowariker) and Hrithik (Roshan) to Dangal with Nitesh (Tiwari) and Aamir (Khan), you will see that we are tapping into entertaining and uplifting stories from many different genres, with great talent backing up each of these movies. Jagga Jasoos is an all-out musical entertainer about a young detective, Mohenjo Daro is an epic action drama in a period setting film and Dangal is a sports action drama with strong emotions and an important message.
VS: How does Mohenjo Daro fit into the Disney brand?
SRK: It is a quintessential family entertainer and will appeal to audiences from 6 to 60. For that matter, even Barfi! could have been a Disney branded film. Dangal is the emotional story of a father and his two daughters. One would not have thought given the perception of the brand in the past, that it could be a Disney branded film but that is how we are defining Disney today. As long as a movie can be watched and enjoyed by the entire family, and it entertains and engages them, it can be branded Disney. At the end of the day, it will be the range and depth of the content that we put out that defines the brand rather than shouting from the rooftops about what we want the brand to stand for. I think as our films keep releasing, people will realise, ‘Oh, even this has come from Disney!’ I think that’s when they will realise that we are talking to the entire family and not just kids.
NTA: So you wouldn’t be making a Delhi Belly tomorrow?
SRK: Of course we would, but under the UTV brand. Last year, from Haider to Filmistaan to PK, Kick and 2 States, all these movies were UTV branded. Between August and November this year, we have Phantom, Katti Batti and Tamasha, which are under the UTV Motion Pictures label. Next year, Fitoor and Baaghi are both UTV films. So we are now making movies under two banners – Disney and UTV. The family entertainers will be under the Disney banner and all our other productions will be UTV branded. The efforts of our creative team right now are focused on finding and developing Disney branded family entertainers, because the UTV branded movies come naturally to us anyway.
VS: Why was there a huge gap between a Disney-branded Khoobsurat and ABCD 2 vis-à-vis UTV, which had a release every three months last year?
SRK: As I said, it’s not easy creating and developing Disney branded movies and we are very particular about what we will greenlight. The strategy has worked well for us with both Khoobsurat and ABCD 2emerging successful. Next year, with Jagga Jasoos, Mohenjo Daro and Dangal, we will have three Disney branded tentpole productions in the same year, so the pace is building. As a studio of course, we have been very active. After an incredible 2014 with PK, Kick, 2 States, Haider, Heropanti, Khoobsurat and Filmistaan, this year we released Cinderella followed by Avengers: Age of Ultron, which emerged as the second highest Hollywood grosser of the year and the third highest of all time. We released PK in China last month and the movie ended up grossing $20 million. What’s more important and really encouraging for Indian cinema is that the movie truly crossed over to a local audience and they embraced its theme and content. Now with our first Hindi release of the yearABCD 2, we had the highest opening day, opening weekend and opening week for a movie this year, and it’s still going strong. So I have no issues with a gap in our Disney branded releases, if that’s the end result!
VS: Talk in the trade is that UTV has decided to go slow. What do you have to say about that?
SRK: If doing six to eight films a year is ‘going slow’, then I am happy to! The fact is that we are making bigger films and bigger bets. Whether it is Dangal or Mohenjo Daro or Jagga Jasoos or Fitoor, these are all big-ticket films that are all releasing next year and deserve our undivided attention and focus, both creatively and in marketing and distribution. Later this year we have three films releasing within four months, Phantom, Katti Batti and Tamasha. When you are making big bets you want to make fewer films, but the right ones. Also we have some huge Hollywood tentpoles this year from Avengers to Ant Man to Star Wars, not to mention other really special titles like Cinderella and Inside Out, which we have already released.
NTA: Does the Disney branding extend to distribution deals?
SRK: We really want to focus on creatively developing our movies from inception. So our focus and attention going forward, as it always has been, will be to work closely with talented writers and directors to develop scripts that we are excited about taking ahead, rather than on pure play distribution deals.
NTA: What about the bank of titles you have with Disney internationally?
SRK: We are definitely looking at those and working through our entire library to figure out which of them are the most adaptable to an Indian cultural sensibility. There are actually a few of those films in development with us right now. There is a treasure trove of great stories in the Disney library and we would be silly not to use this resource.
VS: Has the studio’s approach to work changed after the Disney takeover?
SRK: The team functions exactly as it did on the ground, but of course it now benefits tremendously from certain best-practices in creative development, marketing and distribution that have been built and honed at Disney over its more than 90 years of being a studio. Honestly, all we Indian studios in the past have learnt by trial and error. There were things we got right and mistakes we all made, which of course helped us learn and evolve. But there was no established institutional learning in place that we could fall back on, it was all learning on the job. That’s also great in its own way, because it builds invaluable experience and character. But at this stage in our evolution as a studio, for our team to be able to absorb learnings from how they do things over at Marvel, Pixar, Disney and Lucas Films, is simply invaluable. When it comes to taking content decisions, that’s something we do independently here. It speaks volumes for the faith the company has in the India team and of course it puts on us a certain responsibility, which we are happy to undertake.
VS: Since you guys are now involved in a film from the word ‘go’, are the producers still coming to you?
SRK: We have built some great relationships with the most talented producers in the industry and those relationships will continue to thrive and evolve. We will discuss every possible opportunity to collaborate with them on material we are mutually excited about. For now, our focus is on production.
NTA: ABCD’s success is ongoing and international franchises are huge. Is there any other property you are looking to develop?
SRK: Jagga Jasoos is another such franchise opportunity for us. We are coming back together after Barfi! with Anurag, Pritam and Ranbir and now Katrina (Kaif) has joined us too, in a film that has such a universal theme. Kids and families are going to love the film, and the music is going to be quite incredible. It provides us with huge opportunities to build JJ as a franchise across television, consumer products, mobile gaming and so many other avenues. We are really excited about the possibilities.
VS: What has happened to UTV spotboy?
SRK: As I said, going forward the films from our studio will be either Disney branded or UTV branded. Under UTV, they could either go under the UTV Motion Pictures label or the UTV spotboy label, depending on their content. When we launched the brand UTV spotboy seven years ago, the idea was to make movies that were away from the mainstream, but still commercially viable. The definition of mainstream has since changed. What was earlier out-of-the-box is now considered mainstream and that’s great for Indian cinema. So the line between what could be UTV-branded or UTV spotboy branded has thinned a little, and now it will take something very radical to make it UTV spotboy brandable.
VS: Tell us about your creative team.
SRK: We have a strong creative unit, with our two creative heads Suvonkar Banerjee and Sameer Rao leading their respective teams on developing a slate of productions. Our creative team is always in active development on multiple projects, so that we can have a large array of material to sift through to determine what we want to take forward into screenplays and finally into production. That has always been the creative culture at UTV and now continues at Disney India. Dangal is a great example of what we do in our creative team, which is basically taking up an idea right from its inception, developing the story, bringing on the writing and directing talent, actively working with them on a screenplay and finally, presenting it to someone of the caliber of Aamir, who loved the screenplay we had developed and came on board to do the movie!
NTA: You spoke about all studios experimenting and learning on the job. But that experimentation also yielded films like Paan Singh Tomar, Khosla Ka Ghosla and A Wednesday. Do you think an over-emphasis on systems and processes may make it tough to discover off-beat gems?
SRK: I am hoping we never become like that and I don’t think we ever will, because we are actively aware of the pitfalls of too much process orientation and on maintaining the right balance between instinct and analysis. Our values, our core is that we love the movies, and we will always be looking out for the next gem we can back. Inherent in most of our team members is a great love for cinema and the hunger to find the next great idea that can be developed into a movie.
VS: If a writer or director wants to approach you, what route does he need to take?
SRK: It is exactly as it used to be. If you know someone here, you get an introduction through them, if not then drop a mail to the studio account, call on the landline. You will always get through to someone. It’s as simple as that. There is obviously a lot of material that comes in and we have to sift through it and not everyone will get an opportunity to meet us face-to-face. But if it’s something we want to take forward, we will always get back in touch with you.
NTA: UTV was one of the first studios to launch in India. There were many more after that and they launched with a lot of noise. Despite that, UTV has been the most stable. What do you attribute that to?
SRK: We have a strong team with the right core values and creative instincts in place, that we have built over more than a decade. There has been a lot of institutional learning steadily built over time, that we have made sure to retain as our learning lessons for the future. We keep reminding ourselves about past decisions – good ones and bad ones – and that has helped us not make some of the same ones in the future, only new ones! (laughs) But seriously, at the end of the day in this business, there are no right or wrong answers. There are certain things you learn and imbibe, both creatively and commercially, that then inform your instincts and become part of your professional dna. As you said earlier, if you see our track record over the last few years, we made many more right calls than wrong ones, and while it is easy to put it down to chance, I think it has been a result of a decade of learning and imbibing and honing our instincts – from our friends and colleagues in the industry and from our own successes and failures.
NTA: This is also a very personal business, and not just about money power.
How important do you think personal relationships are, not just yours but the entire team’s, for the studio’s success?
SRK: If you are able to come across as authentic – I am deliberately not saying ‘sincere’, ‘transparent’, ‘honest’ as those qualities should be a given – then you can build lasting professional relationships in this business. It means that not just are you a pleasure to deal with but you are also not afraid of having blunt and frank conversations, in the interest of the movie you are working on together. Everyone here is working towards the common goal of making a great movie which does really well commercially, and if they realise over time they are going to get value from an interaction with you that will help their movie, and not just bland amiability, that is the most important thing. If you keep saying ‘yes’ to everything, you will be looked at as someone who doesn’t have an opinion and is in client servicing mode, and if you keep saying ‘no’ to everything, you will be treated as a corporate suit who doesn’t understand the art of film-making. You have to strike the right balance and that will earn you the trust and respect of your colleagues.
VS: Do you think a personal rapport with everyone helps a company grow?
SRK: It does but I don’t want to put too much weight on that, on just personal rapport, because at the end of the day everyone is here to make a great movie and be successful at it. So a personal rapport works only to a certain extent and no more. If you are being authentic, if you believe in what you are doing, if your team believes in what you are doing, if you are transparent with people you work with, if you are clear with them on what works for you and what doesn’t, and if you fight the right battles at the right time, you will build a lasting personal rapport with people in the business. You must know when to compromise and when to put your foot down. I think that is what creative people and the whole fraternity really respect in the long run.
VS: Ever since you joined UTV, what changes have you witnessed in the industry? And where are we heading?
SRK: As far as the industry is concerned, we speak to each other much more on industry issues and are able to represent ourselves much better to the government and the bureaucracy. I think things have become much more transparent and streamlined within the production model as well and that makes the industry that much more credible.
Among the things we really have to focus on improving is the cost-efficiency of films, which has been a long standing problem. It’s something we have been saying in interviews for years, but unfortunately it bears repeating. There’s also no doubt that the quality and range of our commercial cinema has improved, but when you look at the polarisation – and you guys know this better because in your last editorial you referred to it – it is clear that the successful films are nowadays doing even better in success that in the past, while unsuccessful films are tanking without a trace on Friday itself. Audiences have become so discerning that they will only come out to watch a movie that they have heard great things about and one that they are assured they will have a good time watching. They have no patience at all with mediocre fare and will just not give it a chance.
VS: They don’t want to waste money.
SRK: Yes, not at all. And it’s not always just about the quality of films. Films like Mumbai Meri Jaan and Filmistaan are really great films but the audience is so discerning about their money and their time, that they would rather watch films like these on television or on home video at their leisure. When they have to buy a Rs 200-ticket, it has to be a fully immersive, larger than life and an entertaining experience. Else, they will not come out to watch it in a cinema hall.
VS: Do you think, all the producers should go to the exhibitors and ask them to assign different ticket rates for films like Filmstaan or Mumbai Meri Jaan?
SRK: We have discussed it with them and there has been a lot of debate. But we have to appreciate their point of view too. They have a fixed capacity utilisation per show, their costs don’t differ whether they are showing a big movie or a small movie, or with the show timing, whether it’s a morning show or a night show. The utility costs are the same. Of course, the F&B costs are up to them but the cost of the utilities and their fixed costs don’t change. So they want to maximise their installed capacity. That’s the debate and dilemma that they have to face when it comes to differential ticket pricing.
I believe we should look at what happened in China in the last seven years. Seven years ago we were neck to neck in number of screens. Now PK in China has released in more cinemas than in India and it is considered a limited release there! They have 36,000 screens and we are languishing at 5000-6000 screens that are really usable. China’s exponential growth has been made possible by the support they receive from the government. I also think that we as an industry need to collectively focus on and make a strong pitch to the government about what the soft power of our cinema can do for our nation. Instead of milking the industry right now, if we are given the right incentives for growth, then pretty soon we could be contributing 1.5 to 2 per cent of India’s GDP instead of the meager 0.5 per cent that we do now. I think the government and the bureaucracy needs to be shown the potential that we have as an industry to really take the India story forward around the world. And we, as an industry, must also take some of the blame for not being able to communicate that.
So coming back to your question about differential pricing and platforms for smaller films, that can realistically happen only once we can build enough screen capacity instead of the severe crunch we face right now. As against 130 screens per million people in the USA, and 90-100 screens in China, we are still at just eight screens per million people in India. There is just no comparison