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Star Power

Team Box Office India in conversation with team Fox Star Studios – Vijay Singh (CEO), Shriram Krishnan (CFO), Shikha Kapur (CMO), Aalif Surti (Chief Creative Officer), Rucha Pathak (Head Creative and Development), Rohit Sharma (Head International Sales and Distribution), Kumar Sundaresan (Head National Distribution) and Parth Arora (Head Productions)

BOI: You recently appointed new people in your team. How about introducing them and walking us through their roles?

Vijay Singh (VS): Let me start by introducing the whole team. Shikha (Kapur) is our Chief Marketing Officer; Kumar heads our entire distribution in India; Aalif is our Chief Creative Officer; Rucha heads Development and Creative; Rohit heads International Sales and Marketing; Parth heads production, Sriram is our CFO; and if you need an introduction to me then I think you are in the wrong office! (Laughs)

I have no doubt that we have the best team in the industry. The key message is that we want to position ourselves as a creative studio and our functioning will be all about the diversity of the portfolio that we put together. And the best testament to that are films like Finding Fanny, Bang Bang and Bombay Velvet. No other studio has a portfolio as diverse as this.

Secondly, the significant change that is already showing results is our focus on development. Going forward, it will be all about trying to generate our own scripts and putting together projects from a development point of view. The best example of this is Jolly LLB and Bang Bang, where we start with a script and then assemble the project. So we get a director on board and then we get the cast on board. We also have our own production capabilities to invest in it. Obviously, we won’t be able to do that for every project but the intent is to increasingly move in that direction.

The third thing comes from the earlier point I made about development. I don’t think acquiring films is the route, going forward. Today, it’s all about pushing the envelope. We would walk away from a project if we need to rather than doing a film where you know from day one that your best bet is to break even.

BOI: How will you scale up? Since your focus is on producing, won’t that affect volumes?

VS: An ideal portfolio is having seven to eight Hindi films, and three to four Tamil films. In an ideal space, we would like to give all eight scripts ourselves. Now that may not happen in the next six months and we may engage in co-productions because of our relationships.

BOI: What are the benefits of producing yourselves as opposed to co-productions or acquisitions, for that matter?

VS: Acquisitions is about paying the upside plus price and I don’t think we are in the business of just facilitating projects and not making money from them.

BOI: Aalif and Rucha, is there a mandate for the quantity of films you want to produce or is there any particular kind of cinema that Fox Star would like to be associated with?

Rucha Pathak (RP): That’s one of the good things about Fox Star, that there are no hard and fast rules about the kind of films we want to make since we want to make all kinds of movies – high concept films and full on masala commercial films. I think we have to work in a scenario where we have to figure out the satellite aspect of things and we have to figure out the Censor Board aspect too. But, ultimately, we will be making all kinds of movies and there will be no mandate to make certain kinds of films.

BOI: In the beginning of the interview, you said you have the best team in the industry. What made you say that?

VS: To have a successful building block in place, we need competencies in every function. It’s not about being strong in one area. It’s very clear business sense. We have been around for six years and we have had a huge amount of learning and I think to get to where we have and given the pipeline we have, which I believe is one of the most exciting in the industry, and all this in just six years, is testimony to the route we have taken. We have learnt, we have fallen, we have gotten up again. We have put in a lot in the last 15 months. Rucha and Aalif are now working on projects which will release in 2016, because our pipeline for the next year is already all well-defined.

Every function has to be the best in town. So, whether it’s marketing or development, whether it’s sales, India and internationally, every link we have created, I do believe that it’s the best and if you don’t agree, well… (Laughs)

This is THE Fox Star team now. Any past connection is irrelevant. The fact that all these people are sitting in this room proves we are doing something right.

BOI: Since every function of the business is important, do things start rolling from day one? So, if a script is under consideration, would, let’s say, Rohit offer inputs on its international potential or would you talk about the marketability of the film, and so on?

VS: Absolutely, and this is a process we are going to implement more and more. That process has always existed. When you are a smaller company, one may not meet to discuss everything. So when a deadline rolls around, you re-group and work towards achieving it together. As our oragnisation continues to grow, we are formalising things a little more. Before we green-light any project, everyone offers their inputs. There is a creative input, a marketing input, spends and estimates, and a distribution input too. So we map a low minus and an upside plus so that we are able to see the range of estimates.

Aalif Surti (AS): I have never heard Vijay talk so much.

VS: (Laughs) And I have only just started!

BOI: Aalif, this is like a second innings for you at Fox Star. Can you tell us how things have changed over the last few years?

AS: I have to quote Sridevi here. ‘It’s not a second innings, I was always here.’ No, I was working as a consultant in between so I was still connected with Fox. It’s like home to me. How is it different the second time… The first time, it was like a start-up. It was a very small company, with people walking into each other’s cabins to discuss things. We were figuring out how the industry worked. We are not delusional to have assumed that we could change the industry and show how business should be done.

Over the years, we built up competency and we are now in our sixth-to-seven year. Now we are shifting into the next gear. I agree with Vijay that it’s a great team. Rucha (Pathak) has been a great addition in terms of putting together projects. She has very strong experience even in production design and stuff like that. I think, overall, the people who have been around like Sriram, Vijay, me, Kumar and Rohit, have grown with the company in terms of our competency and then we added a certain competency recently, which has added to the overall team. That’s why I agree with Vijay that we have the best team.

Internationally, whether it’s Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures or even Fox Star International… it’s never about one person but about having the best team. And they really believe it’s the team that makes for longevity. Vesting everything in one person is just too risky.

BOI: Shriram, could you talk about the yesterday, today and tomorrow of Fox Star Studios?

VS: (Cuts in) I can hear the music now.

Shriram Krishnan (SK): (Laughs) When we started, it was such a small team and planning was always a challenge. Earlier, when we were rooting for acquisitions, it was a challenge to gather information from the market. Once you’re familiar with the industry, things become easier, and putting together everything and understanding what works and what doesn’t is much easier now. To add to what Vijay said… we will be able to push for projects, which we identify as breakout films.

At the end of the day, a studio’s goal is to make maximum profits when it breaks out and when it works.

BOI: You guys have been fairly successful in the Tamil industry. What plans do you have in this space?

SK: We are doing three to four projects there and we get lot of support from our partner Vijay TV. This helps us assemble the project better and they have good access with the stars. Moreover, the value of the channel is very high. Again, we are not in a hurry to say that we want to do the biggest and maximum number of films there or only films with superstars. The focus is completely on scripts, unless we all fall in love with a script and really want to make that film.

AS: All our five films have been directed by first-time directors. That made it interesting while choosing the right scripts and casting these films without falling into the trap of whether the director was saleable or not. We just asked ourselves whether he was right for the film. That’s why these films did well.

BOI: In terms of marketing in the regional space, is there is a separate team dedicated to that?

Shikha Kapur (SK): Currently it’s centralised although we do use partners who are equipped with that sensibility. But, strategically, it’s centralised.

BOI: And in terms of creative decisions on scripts in the regional market, what role do you play?

AS: We do it along with the Vijay TV team.

BOI: Bang Bang is the remake of Knight And Day and 21st Century Fox Star is one of the major studios in the world. Is this your first step towards getting your bank over here for remaking?

AS: I am really excited about having access to remakes of Fox films, which you can see in Bang Bang and Fault In Our Stars. I am even more excited about having access to Fox’s unproduced scripts, which I think is an unimaginable concept that… to read scripts they might have written for Tom Cruise to do but didn’t make into films.

VS: (Cuts in) It’s not that they are bad scripts but they cannot do more than 20 scripts a year.

AS: Since they develop scripts over five-six years, they are really good quality scripts written by the best writers in the world. Fox produces films in 11 countries, so we have access to hit films from Brazil, Mexico and other countries. I am really excited about this. And, as Vijay pointed out, this is what we can bring to the Indian film industry, as our involvement in a film project. Besides remakes, this is something we are looking forward to and it is something no other studios can offer.

BOI: How does it work? They send you the texts of the script?

AS: We have the access and we also get the actual script. We have a really good equation with the Los Angeles office and the flow of information is smooth. They are always buying the rights to books, sometimes a year and a half before the book hits the market. So they have access to a lot of material. For instance, in the case of Bang Bang, if Sidharth Anand had bought the rights to the Hollywood film from another source, he would have had access only to the DVD of the film and the script that is available online. But because the film is an official remake of a Fox film, he had access to all the drafts of the script, which had characters that didn’t work for the Hollywood version but which might suit Indian sensibilities.

Bang Bang is quite different from the original film and we have included quite a few interesting elements because had access to a lot of material. So when we do an official remake with the studio, it can add plenty of value to the process.

BOI: Speaking of Bang Bang being a Hollywood remake, how are you positioning the film in the overseas market?

RS: The target audience is obviously Indian and when pitch it, we highlight the fact that it’s Bang Bang and not a remake of Knight And Day. The Indian audience overseas is also star-driven, so if there is Hrithik (Roshan) or Katrina (Kaif) in the film, the audience will come to watch it, regardless of whether it is a remake of Knight And Day. So I don’t think it is a negative aspect of the film.

We have got such an amazing response from Bang Bang, from Japan, China, Turkey and Germany, solely on the basis of the teaser trailer. This is quite rare because we released My Name Is Khan in the international markets six months after the film’s theatrical release in India. So that is the level of excitement, not just among the Indian diaspora but beyond that as well.

VS: What we don’t get full credit for is that with My Name Is Khan, we opened new markets for Bollywood. After that, a lot of films released in markets like Peru and Lebanon. So we are always looking to see if there is an incremental market that we can open up, which obviously comes from a commercial rationale. It helps the industry as a whole.

BOI: You have three different movies lined up – Finding Fanny, Bang Bang and Bombay Velvet. How are you promoting each one?

SK: We are treating Bang Bang as a big action, romance, which features the two hottest looking people in the country. I don’t think it gets bigger than that. The idea is, how much can you stress on marketing and differentiating films. A lot of films have released in the past but there is something unique about it. And that was the intention of the trailer. We wanted to say you have not seen anything like this before apart from the chemistry, you have not seen action being represented like this before. I think we have been quite successful in communicating that and that pretty much is now the final idea.

I am going to be extremely shameless and say that we are targeting everyone, not the youth, not the family audience. We want everyone in the house to watch this film and you will see that play out in terms of how we texture the campaign.

As far as Bombay Velvet is concerned, it is a little too early but that strategy is going to be extremely different from that of Bang Bang. It’s got Anurag Kashyap and that’s the interesting mix about Velvet. It’s the marriage of Ranbir (Kapoor) with a director like Kashyap. That campaign is just about to start and we will be launching the trailer soon.

What Finding Fanny, Bombay Velvet and Bang Bang embody is the culture we stand for. Fanny, Velvet and Bang Bang are examples of the kind of content we would like to represent. Coming back to Fanny, the trailer received an amazing response, and we are launching the campaign by inverting a few marketing campaigns. We will start the campaign 17-18 days before the actual release of the film, and that will be a part of all our city tours and visits.

BOI: Shikha, you’re the new entrant to the team. Do you agree with Vijay that this is the best team in the market?

SK: (Laughs) Of course I am happy to be here. It’s very liberating to be able to be associated with so many different kinds of movies. I am in the industry for the passion of the movies. I changed my first job because I just wanted to work on Rang De Basanti and I chucked up everything for it. So, yeah, I am passionate about movies and I think this is a brand which makes movies that cut across every genre. There is diversity in the stories they make and they reach out to a varied audience.

BOI: Rucha, the same question for you...

RP: I think the most exciting thing about Fox is the fact that there is no constraint in the kind of films that one can make. That’s a dream for a creative person because to limit creativity limits the kind of films you make. India is the kind of market that is looking for good content, for real creative films. Today’s actors are looking for good scripts, and different kind of cinema, and I don’t mean art-house cinema but different in terms of how much you can push the envelope.

The younger stars are a different generation and that was exciting for me when joining Fox. Here’s a place where you can collaborate internationally, get a lot of experience and creative material that an international studio has that can actually be brought to India. The best example is Bang Bang, in terms of script, creatives and technicians. It’s a great blend.

BOI: Vijay, Fox started with My Name Is Khan, which started with a bang. Can you tell us about the journey from The Bang to Bang Bang?

VS: (Laughs) Since we were very clear that we wanted to play a long innings, we decided to get our distribution in place. In year one, we focused only on Hollywood and distributions and I am very proud of the distribution we have set up. Then, I started meeting with people in Bollywood. The general attitude was that we were a ‘Hollywood studio’, as if we were firangis or something. They felt we wouldn’t understand Bollywood. Naturally, we wanted to make an impact and show that a ‘Hollywood studio’ could do it. That’s why we did My Name Is Khan. We said let’s show the industry that we had the right film. With that film, we demonstrated that the right film could add a lot of value, and we opened up markets.

But that was not a long-term, sustainable game because we were paying all the upsides. We also realised that we had to get our hands dirty. But before getting into production, we had to understand hota kya hai isme. To that extent, we may have been firangis. So we were, like, what if we get into co-production and we did mid-level projects. We did Force, Dum Maro Dum. We said, let’s partner with people who understand Bollywood.

We worked with people where we could oversee production because we wanted to understand that aspect. Next, we had to manage our own production but we did not dive into a big film. So we did Jolly LLB and, simultaneously, we decided to do Tamil films as well. About 18 months later, we learnt what we needed to. Then, we were put to the test and so we did Bang Bang, Finding Fanny and Bombay Velvet and that’s where the entire team comes in.

One of the reasons we went to the Bhatts is to understand how production works. We started working with the Bhatts when they were at their lowest and I think that was a pivotal point. We asked ourselves who in the industry understood high-concept films. We may not approve of them and we may not understand them but we wanted to work with someone who understood the importance of high-concept films and who were the sharpest producers in town. Frankly, no one does it better than Bhatts.

Full credit to them and to our team that we have maintained the same relationship that we have done four films and have three productions in future along with several ideas that are in discussion. We worked in the true spirit of partnership. It was about pooling creative ideas. So if Raaz 3 was their story, Murder 3 was our story, Citylights was our story and Mr X is their story. With Raaz 3, we brought in the Avatar 3D guy.

RS (Rohit Sharma): With My Name Is Khan, we had to deliver the kind of numbers that no other film had internationally. We stepped up with the phase one release of the film, where we targeted the diaspora market and, in phase two, the nontraditional market. That, in turn, opened up markets, which no other Hindi film had done before. After setting that benchmark, the next step was to take smaller films to these markets.

For example, Jannat 2 earned over a million dollars, the highest solo international release for Emraan Hashmi. Bol Bachchan notched up four and a half million dollars, the highest international collections for an Ajay Devgn-Rohit Shetty film at that point. Force too earned over a million dollars in collections, the highest for a John Abraham film. Then we had Raaz 3, which clocked $ 1.25 million. None of these were a typical NRI, traditional family-centric film but they helped us to strengthen our distribution. We proved our strengths in terms of distribution with these films.

Our next few films are very exciting and we will flex our distribution muscle, with Bang Bang, Bombay Velvet and Finding Fanny since there are many non-traditional markets we will be exploiting in the next six months. If you look at international business right now, the growth for our films will come from the Middle East, which is growing at 30 per cent. The US is growing at 10 to 15 per cent and the UK is stagnant. These three markets contribute 75 per cent of international box-office numbers. The rest of the markets are South East Asian markets. Pakistan is growing a little, about 20 per cent, but the growth has to come from the other markets, like Japan, China, South Korea or even Europe. We will be focusing on these markets with our upcoming releases.

BOI: And how much participation is there from the Fox distribution network?

RS: They are involved with two major territories – the UK and the US – as well as the Middle East, where we distribute our films via the Fox distribution network. So that is around 75 per cent. We will exploit the rest of the markets on an ongoing basis. If there are certain markets where we feel that a film has a greater potential to release through the Fox office, then we go ahead with that. For example, we dubbed and released My Name Is Khan through our own offices in France, Germany, Spain and Italy. To date, that is the only film that has been dubbed and released in these markets. Even 3 Idiots and Dhoom 3 were not dubbed and released there.

VS: And while we are obviously leveraging our international offices, the entire strategy, thinking and the planning is done here. It is not like we send the product and that’s it they will take care of the rest. In addition to that I would say that we have the strongest distribution through Europe and surely internationally but also specifically in the Middle East. I have no doubt that we have the strongest overseas distribution network. And we get the best access to these markets. Like in Middle East as everyone distributes their film there through Gulshan and we are the only ones here who have Gulshan as well as the Fox distribution network there. So there is nobody who can do it better than us.

BOI: Parth (Arora), since production is going to be massive thrust area, do you think you can manage things singe-handedly because you can be present only on one set at any given time?

Parth Arora (PA): The idea is to upscale the team. Like, Bang Bang was a big production so we had two executive producers on board taking care of schedules as we were shooting back-to-back. We had one EP taking care of one part of the schedule and the other taking care of the second. Once we start doing more films, this will happen in future too.

BOI: Since you have a pretty strong line-up, do you perceive a difference in how the market reacts to you as a studio?

Kumar Sundaresan (KS): Definitely, and before going into that, I would like to add something to what Vijay just said. For distribution, we have never had separate teams for different markets, South, Hindi or Hollywood. It’s always been one team and it helped us get acquainted with the three markets. There are many concepts that we take from here to the South and Hollywood too. So we pool the learning from each market, which is a big plus.

We have learnt so much by releasing small Hollywood films. Contrary to what people think, it is more difficult to release a small Hollywood film compared to a big film. When you release movies like that, and that too successfully, you learn to handle films of different levels. For instance, we released Fault In Our Stars and The Grand Budapest Hotel and made money. We have learnt so much from this and this is being appreciated by the industry including exhibitors, which adds value for us.

VS: I would like to add a couple of points to that. First, just six months into the year in the Hollywood line-up and we are the number-one studio. Secondly, it’s all about pushing the envelope in terms of innovation. For instance, I think our studio played a very important role in the 3D revolution. The ultimate credit has to go to the plexes but even they wouldn’t be able to do it without the content.

KS: 3D and 2K… When I moved to Mumbai and joined Fox six years ago, exhibitors Shravan Shroff and Alok Tandon called me and enquired about digital changes and whether they should they invest in them. Today it is 100-per cent digital. I think Avatar changed a lot. Ice Age had 11 3D screens all over India and, with Avatar, the number grew to 52. By the time Life Of Pi released, the number grew to 200-250. And with Ice Age, we dubbed the film in Tamil and only for the 3D format. Today, there are about 53 3D screens Tamil Nadu.

Ice Age did more business in Tamil Nadu than X-Men. The minute it started to roll, others started screening those films. With more and more 3D screens opening, they started screening Avatar, Life Of Pie, Ice Age and other films. So we have Avatar to thank for the 3D revolution we pushed it hard, and with Raaz 3 coming up, I think we have widened the space. We did the same thing in the South with the 2K revolution.

VS: I think it is an exciting phase and I can feel all the positive energy. We are not claiming that we know it all but we sure are willing to take the risk. It is a test for us to work together; it is a shot in the arm.

BOI: Can we say, ‘move over six-pack, Fox Star Studios has got an eight-pack’?

VS: (Laughs) That’s up to you guys to decide!

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