Vibha Chopra, Head of Global Syndication & International Film Distribution for ZEE Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, talks to Titas Chowdhury about tapping the China market for Hindi cinema, the new emerging markets and distributing regional films internationally
With films like Hindi Medium, Secret Superstar, MOM, Beyond The Clouds and AndhaDhun earning big in the Chinese box office, do you think China has now become a receptive market for our Hindi films?
Our content is resonating with the audience in that market. China is a growing market in terms of screens. India faces challenges when it comes to the number of screens. We have about 7,500 operational screens but China has about 60,000 screens. In China, we are able to reach a much wider audience. Because of this, our content is well distributed there.
Do you think that much like in India, the star powers of Aamir Khan and Ayushmann Khurrana pull the crowd to the theatres in China?
I don’t believe so. Ayushmann wasn’t ‘the star Ayushmann’ when AndhaDhun had released in China. It was his first film that released there. Aamir is a crowd puller there as well. He has spent a lot of time and effort in developing that market and other markets for himself. If you look at other films such as a Hindi Medium, the Chinese audience didn’t know the star cast. It was only the content that drove it. AndhaDhun picked up because of its content. MOM was also a testament that it was the content that resonated with the audience there. Nobody knew Sridevi, Akshaye Khanna or Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who were the key drivers behind the film. The Chinese market is content hungry. If you give them good content, they’ll watch the films irrespective of whether it has a big or a small star.
After China, which do you think is the next emerging market for Indian cinema?
Apart from the markets that we have already explored like UK, USA and UAE, Saudi Arabia is the most emerging market. It is not yet where China is. But I do see that it is opening up. At one point, China was also a close market.
Territories like Poland, Turkey, Russia and The Netherlands have also opened up to Indian cinema. What is the reason behind Zee Studios International targeting these markets?
Digital content has a huge role to play. And when I say digital content, I mean content that’s travelling on its own to countries that all of us didn’t know it was travelling to. Today the limitation is just on the theatrical distribution of content. Content will be distributed only when I theatrically play a film in a country. We are restricted by knowing what another country might like. So studios like us were not open to countries like Poland, Turkey, Russia or even Japan and Taiwan for that matter. From a content perspective, we’re truly becoming global. Our content is now being sampled in different parts of the world. Wherever there’s a similarity in content or we know that certain kind of content will be accepted in certain markets, we cater to them. It is both supply and demand. If there is a demand of a particular type of content, we will supply it to them. If you look at Indian cinema per say, it’s not clichéd anymore; it’s not just about song and dance. Indian cinema in itself is evolving and catering to a wider audience, which we also probably are not realising. There are certain kinds of movies which appeal to the Turkish audience because we share cultural similarities with them. Kesari just got released in Japan. Saaho will be releasing in Russia. Because of the diversity in our content, we’re being able to reach out to far bigger markets that we couldn’t earlier.
Zee Studios International directly distributes films internationally. What is your criterion of choosing films for international release?
When I pick up films, I try to wear the hat of an audience so that I understand what section will like and enjoy a particular film because it resonates with them. Our selection of films is self-explanatory. Hindi Medium talked about the loopholes in the education system of our country. The story is very Indian in nature. If you look at the markets of USA, you’ll see a similar trend that you see here. People just want to make sure that they are putting their children in the best of the schools. They don’t mind commuting for three to four hours; they want their children to get the best of education. The theme on which Hindi Medium is based is not just a heartland problem; it is more of a universal issue. Then there is Bareilly Ki Barfi which also has a universal appeal despite being very heartland-ish at the core. There the girl is trying to find her identity in a man’s world and she’s going out here to find true love. With Raazi which clicked with everyone because of its content, I realised that we cannot just pick up films that are only male-centric. With Veere Di Wedding, we realised that women need and should have a voice. A family spending ten to twelve dollars for a film is huge. So you’ve to make sure that you pick up content that is worth their money.
Today the language barriers have blurred. Apart from Hindi films, regional films from India are striking a chord with audience across the world. How do your strategies change when you are giving international releases to regional films?
I agree with you when you say that language is no barrier today. As audience, we’re watching Marathi, Tamil and Telugu content. Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam films have picked up well in the international markets. When we’re distributing them, the approach is a little different. Here you are not only catering to the Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam speaking audience; you know that Hindi and non-Hindi speaking audience will also watch these films if they are good. From the first weekend onwards, we try and get other language speaking people in the film. The film we pick is probably one of the top grossers in the US box office. We experienced that with Ajith’s Nerkonda Paarvai. Now more and more people are watching films in other languages than their own. We wait till the first weekend to see how a film is being received and how many non-Tamil, non-Telugu and non-Malayalam audience are coming to the theatres to watch them.
What is next?
Our ambition is to distribute and acquire more and more markets. But we plan to focus on regional content. This year we want to up the number of Malayalam and Tamil films from what we distributed last year. We are actively getting into smaller markets such as the Philippines and Thailand; we are acquiring their films and distributing them to the world. We realise that they make great movies. Like you said, language is something that’s inside our head; good films are good films.