Ajit Andhare (AA): Let me begin with introducing you to my team – Rudro (Rudrarup Dutta) heads marketing, Pradeep (Pradeep Prabhu) heads finance, Jyothi (Jyothi Kapur Das) is in charge of creative, Ramesh (Ramesh Mundra) is part of the business finance team, Shivaji (Shivaji Dasgupta) heads the creative and production aspects as well, Neeraj (Neeraj Goswamy) heads distribution for both India and overseas, and Jayesh (Jayesh Muzumdar) leads the regional business and commercial operations for us.
BOI: Let’s start by understanding how Viacom18 works.
AA: The work flow is extremely collaborative here. This is very important because, when making decisions in this business, it is tough to be correct every single time. However, I must add that our strike rate is great and I have to give credit to the collaborative nature of our team. So, if one person is overseeing something that the others are not, we tend to follow up with a third person. The freedom to do things plays a very important role. One is never sidelined or bracketed for having a mind of one’s own. Thoughts and ideas that stem from professional experiences are always welcome.
The work flow has to be led by the creative team, which is the prerogative of Jyoti and Shivaji. It is their initial assessment that sets the ball rolling for the next step. If they believe a project merits a second look, then a second assessment is lined up with all the HODs. This provides a holistic view of the project, which is then not limited to creativity. Thus, the distribution team assesses the reach of the project and the marketing team figures out the marketability of the film.
Instead of taking a spot decision, we sleep over it because there are many competing ideas. Sometimes, there’s more than one script in the same space. In such a scenario, we would typically bring about a contest to assess which one stands out the best.
BOI: When you have these extended meetings, are there polarised views or does everyone tend to be on the same page?
AA: Let’s just say that love-at first sight happens more in films and less in filmmaking. Collective love-at-first-sight is rare! (Laughs)
Rudrarup Dutta (RD): Usually, there is plenty of debate and we encourage that because it always helps to have different viewpoints. But when we finally agree, we work together on it as a team. Rarely does everyone agree on something in the first instance.
RD: The first thing the marketing team analyses is – fundamentally, is this a good script and does it keep you engrossed? Does it have that audience traction? Once that is cleared by Jyoti and Shivaji, and we have a range in which the film must fit, we try and figure out the story that can be built around it. So a really good script that doesn’t have a pitch or hook will not do the business we want it to do. This is where Ramesh and I come in, to determine the scope of the film.
We know we can craft the story and make it larger than its potential. Some films have big stories and some have big names. So we work on the content and its commercial viability. After that, it’s about negotiating with brands and tie-ups.
BOI: Neeraj, what issues do you consider in the initial story sittings?
Neeraj Goswamy (NG): What I generally look for is the amalgamation of all the things that add up after 15 months, when the film is due for release. The dynamics of the film distribution business have changed drastically over the last few years. We have to keep in mind that there is a whole flood of releases every weekend.
Also, now-a-days, filmmakers and talent are involved. It’s annoying sometimes but it’s also good because everyone can share their viewpoints on what we can do. It’s even better now thanks to digitisation of cinema halls across the country. Now a same day-date release is possible. So in terms of distribution, we have no pressure.
As a studio, we have a steady flow of films every year. We have about 15 films in Hindi, some Hollywood films and now also some regional films. Hence we try and maximise this strength. I look at making a release as tactical as possible. Since there is a flood of content these days, we zero in on the right release date, followed by how many screens the film should go to and how many prints should be circulated.
In India, we also have the concept of E-cinema. So it is the right permutations and combinations to envision how a film will pan out 15 to 18 months down the line.
BOI: Ajit, when green-lighting a film, do you bear in mind that you may already have three stories of the same genre in your portfolio? Alternatively, if a film is really good, do you go ahead with it anyway, even if you have tried that genre before?
AA: If a good script comes our way, I don’t worry about slotting it. But, typically, a portfolio approach for a studio means you mathematically minimise your standard deviation. Fundamentally, that will only happen when you’re picking up concepts that are different from each other. It’s important to maintain a balance although the most powerful deciding factor is the script itself. Does it excite you? Is it a story that Viacom18 should tell? These are the questions I keep asking myself. And then, of course, the second part is balancing your portfolio when there is only one kind of cinema, which is reflected in our slate.
BOI: When you finally green-light a script, what do you factor into the pricing and budgeting of the film?
AA: As a studio, our goal is to deliver profits, like any other business. So I think the question you should ask is, how do we make a profitable film? As far as profits go, you need to figure out the various ways you can monetise in terms of revenue streams. Our primary concern is the right costing of the film. Most films struggle in this aspect because they are not budgeted right. If the crew or director costs too much, you might rethink the economics.
That is something Shivaji cares about deeply and something I ask myself all the time. If we don’t get that right, two things will happen. One, the film gets made but it feels like a mistake. Second, your film will be watched without any appreciation and your mistake cannot be rectified. Getting the budget just right is very vital, both while acquiring or producing a film.
BOI: Jyothi, creatively, what do you look at while selecting a script?
Jyothi Kapur Das (JKD): If I were to watch the film, would I be intrigued enough to buy a ticket and then recommend the movie to five friends? That’s engagement and that decides whether I am interested in listening to a story or a line that someone is pitching. Stars and technicians are values that add fluff to the core story.
Things have changed so much in the last few years. The audience is heterogeneous and cinema is so varied. We’ve watched A-listers deliver more unconventional roles last year than during any other year. Filmmakers can no longer think, ‘I have a big star in my film, so I am sorted.’ The content has to be awesome and engaging. It’s only after many criteria are met that we let the film go through the first filter. Next, we bring in our colleagues. We do not let them engage if we feel a film is not up to the mark.
Shivaji Dasgupta (SD): Yes, I reiterate what Ajit has said. After the selection of the script, we need to cost the film in terms of stars and other aspects. The film has to appeal to the audience but we also have to recover the budget.
AA: The moment of truth is when the audience walks out of the cinema hall. That’s when it’s make or break. What is the feeling among the audience? Would they recommend the film? If they leave the cinema hall with a good feeling, you have won.
BOI: Filmmaking is a collaborative process. You have to get actors, a director, and technicians involved. There is a delicate balance that has to be maintained. How involved is the studio?
JKD: Shivaji, do you want to answer that? (Laughs)
SD: We monitor every single step, from the script, to pre-production, recce and casting. We are very involved in the casting process and with technicians. We are totally hands-on during pre-production. While shooting, there is at least one person from Viacom18 on the sets, who reports on the nitty-gritty of the shoot. So if there is any deviation, creatively or budget-wise, we are in the loop. We monitor everything!
BOI: Typically, how smooth is the process?
SD: Oh, very smooth because we work hand-in-hand with the direction team, with the actors and the technicians.
AA: This ensures clarity about two things. One, we are very clear that we are not making the film; second, the person making the film, the director or the creative partner, is essentially the one with the vision for the film. Our vision remains what it was when they sold us the script during the narration. Films are a passion for directors; that’s how we look at them. That’s why there are no clashes, as such, because everyone is clear about their respective roles. On the other hand, we know how to build the desire to see a film and that is where we step in.
JKD: Many of us have worked behind the scenes in the industry and most of us have been on the sets as professionals, as technicians. So we already have a relationship and knowledge of how both sides function. We bring this experience to the table in the very first few meetings with our partner. We are not like a typical studio, which simply believes in investing money and leaves the co-producer to make the film and release it. We are there, holding their hand and assisting them any way we can.
RD: Fundamentally, once the film is signed, our marketing team starts researching our target audience. After finding the right audience for that film, our job is to make it appealing to them so that they connect with it. What does the film have going for it? What is the kind of response we are getting for the film? These are some of the questions that the marketing team debates very intensely.
Then there’s the central marketing strategy that is discussed with the co-producer and actors to find a consensus. Everything is in line with the common strategy. I believe we have brought in a campaign feel to marketing a movie. It’s not about one poster, one promo, one trailer but a very progressive and consolidated campaign.
That is why every communication of ours has a multi-plan flavour. So we look at media planning, creative work and how we push the audience to watch the film on the first weekend. But our job doesn’t end with the opening weekend. There are many other things we do that are path-breaking. We also have to condition the audience and create a certain kind of expectation. That’s the approach to any film we do.
RD: He decides whether we should be spending our money or not! (Laughs).
BOI: You spoke specifically of marketing. So if the first copy is not working at all, do you tweak the content at this stage?
RD: Definitely. I am very happy to say that our partners have been very cooperative and trust our judgment. Yes, there have been times when we have made changes, discussed these changes and finally worked on the inputs we have given.
AA: At times, we have made significant changes too. You don’t always roll with your first copy.
SD: We have added stuff and we have re-shot scenes in many films. It’s a mutual decision.
BOI: What happens after Rudro comes to you with a plan?
Ramesh Mundra (RM): The first thing I think of is, how does that align with the feasibility report? Then I make sure it’s not just a marketing plan but a marketing and distribution plan because both go hand-in-hand. Basically, how will the numbers that are forecast align with Neeraj’s plan?
BOI: How difficult is it to work with a co-producer and an actor-co-producer?
JKD: A lot depends on whether the actor is successful. Of course, actors do come with tailor-made roles and while we appreciate the content, we very much value its quality. Every film has to go through the feasibility process. Shivaji figures out whether the budget is justified for the kind of content the film has. Ramesh and Jayesh figure out the returns we are likely to get. That is a process that is compulsory and it doesn’t matter who brings the script.
It’s a bonus if an A-list actor, a good actor, or someone who has a lot of goodwill in the industry comes along. But it doesn’t make a difference to the actual project because it is business and we are here to justify the bottom line. That means, it has to be profitable for everyone, and it can definitely not be a loss-making project. We cannot have hysterical leaps of faith because a big actor has come up with a script. It’s really all about the merit of the content.
AA: We say ‘yes’ only once in 12 months. At any given point, there are one to two projects in our portfolio. And, again, it’s not about saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an A-lister. As Jyothi said, we say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a project, NOT to an A-lister. That project might have an A, B or Z-lister. I think we have too many big star-driven films. So we try to find films that will perhaps push the star and the director into different orbits after the film releases.
With so many actors turning producers, they have realised that resources are finite. They have also understood the equation and how it works. In a way, it helps, because if someone has not worn the producer’s cap, he might just think that X, Y, Z can do everything.
BOI: How difficult it is to handle an A-lister because, today, promotions are full-on?
RD: It is easy to discuss business with an actor-producer. They know it’s their film and how important it is to promote their film. We discuss the kind of push a film will get from the promotions.
BOI: Neeraj, how about you?
NG: Our interaction with actors is minimal. Like Ajit said, our strike rate with working with A-listers is very low as we are a very content-led company. Projects get finalised and the distribution strategy is shared at that point of time. Even when we are green lighting the film, we have a certain structure planned for the film, we are laying the ground for 15 months later when the film will be ready for release.
If I were go to a filmmaker and say, ‘Sir, main aapki film 2,000 screen mein daal raha hoon and its very important. Now, what do you want to do?’ We use that kind of logic with them. Some of them get it. Gone are the days when they had no clue to any of this. So in terms of convincing an actor, your last film might have done 1,500 screens but you might want just 600 for this one. If this works, it will help at the box office. And if a film is profitable, we will take it higher.
Jayesh Muzumdar (JM): There is no difference between Hindi and regional films.
BOI: But the Telugu market is very different from the Punjabi or Marathi market. How do you keep track of the unique sensibilities of each market?
JM: I think it all depends on the kind of talent generation, who we are associating with. Yes, they have a different audience. We need to understand the kind of talent that works there. A lot of people don’t know that we have an office in Delhi and another one in Chennai and that we release Hollywood films in regional languages like Tamil and Telugu. We monitor our work consistently and there are people keeping track of talent. We keep tabs on what is happening there, what the stars are doing, what films are releasing all the time.
BOI: Where does regional cinema stand in Viacom18 Motion Pictures’ scheme of things?
AA: It’s very straightforward. Regional cinema was not on our radar last year, so that’s a new step for us this year. Second is scale. You can do a regional film in many ways. You could make a South Indian film and say ‘we did regional cinema’. But we are not doing that. We are doing Bengali, Punjabi as well as Marathi cinema. And we are not chasing just one or two markets. We can lead innovations there like we did a 3D film in Marathi called Zapatlela 2.
BOI: Viacom18 is the only studio that hasn’t worked with any of the three Khans. How important is it for you to work with at least one of them? Or is it a deliberate decision not to because you watch the budgets of the films you make?
AA: That is a consequence of our portfolio strategy. We do work with stars and, last year, we worked with three of them. So, for instance, we worked with Ajay Devgn on Son Of Sardaar and we worked with Akshay Kumar a lot more. So if we haven’t worked with the Khans so far, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in future.
BOI: When deciding whether to take up a project, does your studio consider a director or an actor’s box office record?
AA: Of course, we do. We look at the successful projects they have collaborated on. This provides clues to common skills and is part of the assessment of the product. But it is only one aspect and not the only factor we consider.
BOI: Does their track record change after collaborating with Viacom18?
AA: We like to think like that! (Laughs)
JKD: Ajit has brought in a lot of streamlining to the processes. So everyone is much more responsible about their approval or rejection of content. Our responsibilities are much more clear-cut and we have to take greater ownership of our decisions. So, for instance, with screenplay… everyone offers their opinion and there is engagement.
NG: Ajit has been helping me with the distribution layout that we had planned over the last couple of years. We haven’t been aggressive enough. So, over the next couple of months, the graph will rise significantly.
JM: Monetisation is also in focus, especially satellite rights, and Ajit’s television background helps us monetise on our product. For example, our Punjabi film Paaji In Trouble (Bhaji In Problem)… It had never crossed our mind to dub it in Hindi for its satellite release.
RM: My accounts sheets are neater now and working with numbers is more intense.
RD: Our process is much stronger. Everyone is more acutely aware of their respective roles and of what needs to be done. We work as a team and while finalising a project, if someone says ‘no’, everyone knows exactly why. So, processes have been streamlined and that is a big achievement.
BOI: Ajit, it’s your turn now. Tell us about the strengths that each one brings to the table.
AA: When we talk about Rudro, we are trying to make marketing very, very strategic rather than being tactical. I honestly believe impactful marketing can be done at a much lower cost and we are discussing this all the time. How we can achieve a marketing multiplier? So when I look at Rudrarup, I see a multiplier there.
Finance is almost completely a monk-like Buddhist Empire. And Pradeep is the perfect finance person. The problem with being a monk-like person is it is difficult to interact with him. However, that is not the case with Pradeep. He is a great asset in terms of what he does with finance and the role he plays in the team. Jyothi clearly leads content development in terms of what kind of content we are putting out as a studio. It means being deeply connected with the outer world and that is where the value lies. That’s where you find concepts and scripts, and that value cannot be found in the confines of an office. Someone needs to dig deep, build the right kind of relationships, find the right kind of stories, and ally with the organisation. That is what Jyothi and Shivaji do. And they play it very well as it adds to the efficiency of the search. Every studio does this but the point is who does it best? Who is the eagle that spots the fish? They are our eagles.
Ramesh is the bright guy in the team. He is very nimble-footed and he makes sure that discussions are balanced. He keeps everyone on their toes. He is our watchdog.
Neeraj, of course, looks outwards at the trade and is the bridge between what you see on paper and what finally translates into revenue. The biggest role he plays is to sit in on meetings and judge the kind of revenue a film might generate. That comes with a lot of experience. That also comes with a certain detachment from a project. He is a reality check.
Jayesh heads the regional foray so he has to be plugged into the regional world. He has to assess talent and build the right relationships with the right people and ensure that the regional wing is adding value and not becoming a resource seeker but contributing to the business. I think we are becoming a much more calibrated, rational business without compromising on the creative expansion that Viacom has always been associated with.