Viacom18 Motion Pictures is keeping it edgy, relevant and breaking new ground. With a slew of successful women-led films such as Kahaani, Queen and recently released Mary Kom, the studio is on the verge of its next release, Margarita With A Straw. Ajit Andhare, COO, Viacom18 Motion Pictures, talks to Sagorika Dasgupta about marketing strategies for unusual films like these and their attempt to break new ground in international markets with ‘universal’ stories Kahaani, Queen and now Mary Kom… Viacom18 has had quite a successful run with women-centric films.
Yes, we have. Allow me to point out that our film Tanu Weds Manu too was a woman-centric film. While R Madhavan played the hero in the film, the focus was on the lead pair and Kangana Ranaut had a meaty role and portrayed a strong woman who captivates the boy. So we have done two three more films where a woman was at the heart of the story.
It works at several levels. First, at a business level, you can keep the cost in check but the film must be in the profitable zone. Also, the breakeven point is much lower. More importantly, it allows you to narrate a different kind of story. Our typically hero-centric stories deal with scripts that are as old as Bollywood films are. With a woman as protagonist, the kind of stories you weave are different. You can tell new kinds of stories and today, new and different stories are in vogue. The audience wants a new story which is also in the genre of commercial cinema. This allows you to be creatively different. Therefore, what works for us is the combination of business and narrating unique stories.
Since ours is obviously a hero-centric industry, how difficult is it to promote women-centric films, in terms of marketing, distribution etc?
It is challenging. With the number of screens allotted to Queen, the opening the film took was Rs 1.7 crore on Friday. Since it had earned that much on day one, there was a large number of movie-goers who had watched it, and it would therefore benefit from strong word-of-mouth and viewer endorsement. So it managed a Rs 10-crore weekend. So despite the fact that it didn’t open all that strong, we still managed good business over the weekend. That’s how we overcame that challenge.
Take a look at Mary Kom. The film notched up a Rs 30-crore weekend but we had focused on a strong build-up before its release. It therefore took a much bigger opening. Kahaani didn’t open very strong but, again, that film too grew by word of mouth. Thus, there is no template you can apply to these films, even if they are women-centric. You have to adapt a unique marketing strategy and treat each film differently. For some commercial films, you depend solely on star power, especially for hero-centric films but for women-driven movies, every marketing element is different and that element becomes the central theme of your marketing strategy. This should answer the question – why would people want to watch your film?
With Mary Kom, it was clearly the athlete herself and with Queen, it was around the character Rani, and how despite the odds, her life turns out to be magical. With Kahaani, it was about a pregnant lady in search of her husband. So the theme was the curiosity. As a studio, we have to look for that special element in every film and that is both challenging and exciting for us, rather than having a hero-oriented film and merely putting out a poster shot of the hero and waiting for the big bang to happen! So we are quite excited about the women-centric films we do.
But you haven’t always had a 100-per cent strike rate with these films, for instance, with Aiyyaa and That Girl In Yellow Boots.
Speaking of Yellow Boots… that was a very niche film. I wouldn’t put it in the same zone as some of these other films because, all said and done, it was a noir and unique film. With Aiyyaa, I honestly don’t know what happened with that film because it happened much before I joined the company. There are two important things… the story has to be really good so that the product stands up to scrutiny. Ask yourself whether that was the case with Aiyyaa. So it’s not enough to just do a woman-centric film and market it well. In fact, Aiyaa was marketed very well, everyone heard about the film, the trailer and the songs were a rage. But take the case of a bride, you can dress her up in the most beautiful dress and the whole jing bang but after the ghoongat has been removed by the audience, the face that is revealed has to live up to expectations. If the film doesn’t stand up to that, it is a case of too much icing on the cake but the taste not being good enough! The product has to be right and wherever we have done that, we have met with huge success.
Your next release is Margarita With A Straw, whose trailer suggests it is quite a controversial subject. Also, the film is not entirely in Hindi. Won’t it be tough to get the audience to vibe with a film like that?
With a film like that, we are not really looking at huge revenues from the domestic markets. For me, it’s a universal story with an edge. To me, somebody in France, Germany or Greece should watch this film. We are looking at those markets. We are not green-lighting films purely through a Bollywood lens. All said and done, Bollywood is a really small industry. So, if you can make a universal story which can relate to every human being, I think you have a much bigger market to participate in. Margarita With A Straw is our attempt to knock at the doors of international markets. It’s already been done with films like The Lunchbox, whose global territory business outshines its local business.
Is that why you took Margarita With A Straw through the festival route first?
Yes. It is a film which clearly should take the festival route first and get noticed globally. It’s way ahead of its time compared to the films made in India. And that’s the job of cinema, to push boundaries, open up new conversations and talk about things that are taboo. If cinema seeks them out, it makes for new conversation. And if that conversation gels with people, then it finds success. That’s what this film is about. It’s very commercial in its sentiment. Of course, its narrative is very universal and never been seen in Bollywood. I think we need to widen the horizon and make it appeal to the world.
With Mary Kom, our goal was to complete its theatrical run since it’s still playing in cinemas and it is very difficult to predict what clicks with the Oscars. We had a good run with Bhaag Milkha... last time, but The Good Road was selected as the official entry to the Oscars. So that’s an area that is a little difficult to understand. But let’s see. It’s a huge honour to be selected for the Oscars and it also gives your film major currency overseas. The attention the film draws in the overseas market is much more significant. But for films to succeed for an Oscar nomination, the grammar needs to be different. Since a lot of commercial, mainstream films do not make it through, they might warm up to a film like Margarita With A Straw.
The festive period is upon us yet there are no releases from your studio.
We have several, actually. We have a film tentatively titled Rahasya, which is based on a real-life murder case about a girl that everybody knows about. We are working on the release of that film. It’s a thriller and an exciting project, and is slated to release in November. Then there is Santa Banta, which we are trying to find a good window to release. With all the big films lines up for release, this is not a good time to find a good release window for a smaller film. Then, of course, we have Gabbar, which will release early next year. There are several projects in the works but they are all works in progress.
Since there are no more big films from your company this year, how would you sum up 2014 for you?
The important thing is to see whether we been profitable and we are on course. It’s important for Gabbar to perform well, which is actually part of this financial year for us to achieve our target. Overall, if you look at our track record, we had Queen this year and Mary Kom, and are very satisfied with the way it has gone. I know that as a year goes by, people will look at how many films we have produced. But this is not a rat race, where we should keep churning out numbers. In fact, it is the last thing you should do when running a studio. Keeping your eye on the number of films can lead you to make many wrong decisions. It is important to look at the quality of films and how effective they are with your audience. You need to give your films time. We are making fewer films now but we are doing pretty well in terms of numbers and returns.
How would you describe the performance of your Hollywood slate?
It has done wonderfully. Our Paramount slate has made us one of the top eight countries for Hollywood. In India, the numbers are small. But our films this year, like Transformers, Hercules, Noah or Ninja Turtles have done well. It has been an excellent year for all our Paramount films. Transformers turned out good numbers. In fact, one of the reasons we had fewer Hindi titles was because we did a lot more of the Paramount work.
Why haven’t you announced any film on the regional front?
Many studios including us have touched upon regional markets. But we have to be more selective about the markets we enter. The Punjab market has no satellite, so monetisation becomes tough. The Marathi and Bengali markets have their challenges in terms of scale. The markets that have scale are Tamil and Telugu. So you need to understand those markets very well.
I think once we build that understanding, we should participate. Otherwise, it becomes a case of a lot of enthusiasm without results. We need to be selective as it’s harder to understand those markets, where the audience is different, their appreciation of content is different. We released Kahaani in Tamil and Telugu but did not meet with much success. It is a challenge to take something, remake it and then pace it in the right spot, where the audience likes it. We need a better understanding of the market before we give them our content.