It’s not easy to become the number one studio in India, and it’s even harder to hold onto to that position. CreativeFirst sat down with Vijay Singh, CEO, Fox Star Studios, India, to find out what it took to make it happen, and how he plans to keep the studio at the top.
It used to be a filmmaker’s goal to reach the 100 crore club, but now the bar has been set to the 1000 crore club. In your opinion, what has made is possible for a film to reach this height?
Clearly the bar needs to be a 1000 crore worldwide revenue. We just released Sanju, and it’s well on its way to create a new benchmark at the box office. Baahubali’s box office numbers has demonstrated that we need to look at films that cater to a pan-India market. As an industry, our goal should be to produce at least five or six 1000-crore films every year.
Two factors make it possible. It all starts with the pitch of the content. You have to make films that will appeal to a pan-India sensibility. What I believe will really move the needle in the future is marketing and focus on emerging markets such as China and Saudi Arabia. In China, we’ve already experienced success. A lot of Chinese distributors are extremely interested in Sanju. So I know we will be releasing there. Saudi is another big opportunity since the government has started the process to allow multiplexes to open. There’s a lot of groundwork being done by various companies that are keen to set up exhibition there. I believe that by 2020, Saudi Arabia alone can contribute as much as the entire Middle East does today. Indian films work there because they do have cultural similarities and connect with the audiences there.
Digital is another opportunity for films – and we need to view it that way: as an opportunity not a threat. We know the business model is changing. For revenues, we have largely been reliant on cable, satellite and theatrical. As the digital environment matures and monetization possibilities emerge, it will become an additional revenue source for films, and ultimately good for the financial health of the industry.
Sanju has been a smashing success like several other Indian biopics in the past. Given the past trend, and also the team on Sanju, how confident were you about its success? And did you expect it to perform the way it did?
Fox Star Studios has emerged to be the number one studio in the country and Sanju is the number one film of 2018 so far. The number one film from the number one studio is a nice place to be. It’s a great validation of the strategy we’ve adopted so far.
Lately, biopics have been doing well. Fox Star Studios has released several biopics like Neerja, Dhoni and now Sanju.
With Sanju we knew Rajkumar Hirani is a hugely celebrated director, storyteller and master craftsmen. Further, we knew that this was a film that would have a massive connect with audiences. But to be honest, did I know this film would do 300 crores? The honest answer is no. What’s amazed us is more than that: it’s the massive love the film has got, which does of course translate into numbers. It’s already the fifth largest Bollywood film ever, and we know we’re going to be in cinemas for another three or four weeks, so I’m aiming for it to become the third biggest Bollywood film ever. What makes it even more spectacular is that the film did not release on a festival or holiday weekend; we released the film during a normal period with a U/A rating.
Are these extraordinary box office numbers encouraging filmmakers to take bigger financial risks, investing more money in a single film to get greater returns?
I think yes and no. Given the success of Baahubali and the realization that we need to make pan-India films means yes, of course we are looking at larger subjects to make bigger films. But, equally we believe the market is segmented and there is an opportunity to create content for different segments that exist within the multiplex and single screen audiences.
Are we seeing higher box office numbers across the board or only on the upper limits (i.e. are small budget films getting more visibility/hitting more screens, thus having higher returns than perhaps they would have 5 years ago?)
Yes, the environment is getting more competitive with digital content and platforms emerging. However, I think all of that is good because it’s another revenue stream to consider, and it puts the pressure back on filmmakers to create better content.
To get huge numbers pan-India, you have to show the audience something they haven’t seen before. Traditionally, we relied on an actor, but Baahubali showed us that a big idea is as good if not better than a big actor. When you look at Hollywood, they’ve had huge success even with animation whereas in India, we haven’t seen a successful animation film yet. Now that we are competing with the digital domain, the story has to have something bigger to attract the audience to theatres. If you’re trying to make a big visual spectacle, you’ll need more than the average film’s budget.
Does the arrival of OTT platforms threaten the success of future box office collections?
If you go by FICCI data, it suggests the industry’s had minimal growth in the last few years. The good news is 2018 has started out really strong and I haven’t seen a year like this in a long time. The diversity of content that’s gone out has helped that. We had Sanju now, and then a few months back Baaghi 2 which is a completely different film. Diverse content is working at the theatres and that’s a good sign. The jury is still out about this year’s growth, but we are off to a great start.
We all need to get used to the fact that the audience wants to see content across multiple screens. If you get fixated on this idea that theatre is the only place where people want to see content, then there’s going to be a problem. People want to see content on the go as well as in the theatres. I genuinely believe these two things will coexist. It’s not going to be one against the other.
The localised version of Deadpool 2 went to prove that investing in localising content can pay off. Do you see this becoming a trend? How does it affect/change the way a studio considers the viability of an international film in the Indian market?
I am very confident that Hollywood films are really going to grow in the Indian market. If you look at the last 5-10 years, an entire generation has been watching it through television. As they become adults and have disposable incomes you know there will be a natural inclination to see Hollywood content. Deadpool 2 is a great example of how we can maximize monetization: Localizing content to reach various regions in the country is absolutely critical. With this particular character, there was a real opportunity to leverage the character across languages with a well-known actor, Ranveer Singh. I don’t necessarily think that’s always important, but when there is a really great fit like this particular example, that’s where the synergy happens.
The last few years have seen a change in the tide for Fox Star India; the last few films have performed outstandingly well. Is this because of a shift in the type of content, a change in audience preferences or a change in marketing and communication? Or is it a combination of it all?
I think the last two years have been very significant. Four years ago, we were consistently the number two studio. We adopted a three-pronged strategy to become the number one studio in the country. Firstly, our big focus is on home productions. It is critical to do more home productions so we can control the value chain – from creative writing to release of the film, development of a script bank and working with the best people and partners. We all know making a film is not easy. Development is hard work, but the thing that gives me great confidence is that we have a script bank and readymade material we can pull out. Films like Jolly LL.B and Neerja are testimony to that development. We have an exciting line up for the next fifteen months with twelve or thirteen films, four of which are home productions. From a home production standpoint, basically, we are doing an Indian adaptation of Fault in Our Stars which is titled Kissi and Mani. We’re also working on Rajkumar’s next film, India’s Most Wanted. We’re doing another book adaptation, The Zoya Factor with Sonam and Dulquer. We’ve just finished shoot on a really interesting comedy film with Kunal Khemu. That’s all to say, if you want to be a dominant, number one studio, you have to create various kinds of content.
Secondly, we need to be working with the best creative production houses in the country. We are consistently working with Dharma for the last four years. Subsequently, we started working with Sajid Nadiadwala and we had these two big hits (Judwaa 2 and Baaghi 2) and now we’re working on his next two films, Houseful 4 and Nitesh Tiwari’s next film.
Thirdly, marketing and distribution strategies need to evolve with digital disruption. We’re clearly seeing that the old ways of marketing are no longer relevant. We are continuously innovating and investing in digital marketing tools. Our goal is to understand digital consumers better and map out the consumer journey and profile so that we can reach them more cost effectively and with greater impact through various digital platforms. We have a consumer insight and analytics department that is crucial for this. I should know which consumers are a part of which segment. If I want to target someone through digital marketing, it’s important to know the kind of films the person likes, so I can give him content he is interested in. This results in better conversion rates.
A lot of young, independent studios and creative outfits are popping up. What would be your advice for them on their way forward?
I wouldn’t say a lot of independent studios are coming up, but there are a lot of independent production houses coming up. There is a distinct difference. My view is that in a couple of years, there will be 3-4 studios and everyone else will be a creative production house. I think consolidation is good because it allows people to do what they do best. Production houses will be left to do what they do best, and that’s the creative process. They won’t have to worry about things like marketing and distribution.
Are there any steps individual filmmakers should take to be part of the efforts for better content protection?
This is a huge issue, as we know. MPA has done some great work, but piracy remains a huge problem and efforts need to be taken by the entire industry, with everyone working towards eradicating it. More importantly, it needs massive government support. To share an example of Sanju: we took a John Doe order which then got ISPs under pressure to ensure they block any film. But why should it be an individual film effort? The Government of India should provide continuous protection for all content and intellectual property. I don’t think it’s a filmmaker’s individual responsibility, but that of the government, film associations and tech companies like Google and Facebook. The Tamil Nadu and Telugu industries have demonstrated that, as an industry we need to come together for effective content protection. They’ve come together far better than the Hindi film industry.
How is the Digital Crime Unit, Maharashtra Cyber working for Star?
The Maharashtra Cyber Digital Crime Unit has proved to be a success story for all stakeholders involved. The unit has devised 6 enforcement actions which create deterrents and throttle the pirate revenue chain. We see this initiative as the first step in establishing a cooperative model between government and industry, that encourages sharing of resources, streamlines investigative operations and enhances the efficacy of enforcement actions.