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Disney UTV In Conversation With Team Box Office India

BOI: Siddharth, can you introduce us to your team and explain their individual mandates?

Siddharth Roy Kapur (SRK): Rucha, Amar and Manish are creative directors who run their individual production slates, from development to creative to pre-production to post-production to final delivery of the film. Each one of them functions like an independent producer within the system, with their own slate of movies. Dhananjayan, we call him ‘GD’, looks after our South business and is based in Chennai.

Then we have Amrita, who handles all revenues worldwide apart from India theatrical, from syndication to overseas revenues. Gaurav looks after India theatrical and Shikha looks after marketing.

This is the stellar team that has been delivering success after success over the years and will continue to do so.

BOI: Is the team shared between UTV Spotboy and Disney?

SRK: Yes, it is. For example, any of the creative directors could be simultaneously working on a slate of three films, one branded Disney, one UTV Motion Pictures and one UTV Spotboy, as the case may be. Spotboy is a brand that tells the audience ‘this experience might be a little different from what you are used to’. It’s a brand we put on a film which we think is pushing the envelope or breaking `new ground.

BOI: Sid, can you talk about the journey of UTV and team members who have joined along the way?

SRK: We started as a producing studio in 2005. Ronnie’s (Ronnie Screwvala) vision at the time was to set up a studio model in India where you have development, production, marketing, distribution, syndication all under one roof. The idea was to bring the entire life cycle of the movie under one unit, from conception of the idea of the film, to its production, marketing, release and then the perpetuation of the film after the release.

Many of our senior team members at this table have been around pretty much since the early days of the studio. The average length of time each one has spent with the company is around five years, which I think in any creative enterprise, especially in a structured set-up, is higher than the norm. Everyone has been through the ups and downs, and thankfully there have been more ups than downs. We each have a lot of institutional learning ingrained within ourselves, which helps hopefully in taking more right decisions than wrong ones over time. Often, we instinctively know what the other is thinking and that’s a comforting feeling.

BOI: You had one creative head until 2011, and he was replaced by Rucha, Amar and Manish. Also Gaurav joined the team much later. What has each one brought to the table?

SRK: Shikha joined us in 2005, actually just a few months after I did. At that point of time within the industry, marketing was considered to be quite perfunctory. It was about doing a few billboards, doing your listings ads, and having print ads out closer to release. Rang De Basanti changed all that forever. For the first time, there were 10 brands associated with a movie, and co-branded TV spots were cracked with a seamlessly integrated message. We launched a customised Coke bottle with the visuals of the film on it, we had multiple city visits and launched a new clothing line with a fashion show in which the entire cast, Aamir included, walked the ramp! All this now seems par for the course, but was revolutionary back then.

The same year, when we did Khosla Ka Ghosla, we knew it was a small film with big potential so we decided to go hammer and tongs and market the hell out of it. The great part was that Shikha and her fledgling team, at the time, was able to come up with ideas that pushed the envelope and took nothing for granted. That same intensity and passion to do something innovative and different with each film has continued and in fact grown over the years.

Gaurav joined us in 2009, and he brought an incredible sense of science and analytics to the table, when it came to distribution of our films in India. The repository of information we had with us had really not been mined to the extent it could have been. What he ensured was that we have every cinema screen in every corner of the country mapped out and analysed, not just on the basis of the obvious statistics of occupancy and geography, but on the basis of tastes and receptiveness to different kinds of movies over the years. This helps Gaurav and his team to add analytics and logic to their release strategy in an industry where so much is anyway about gut feel and instinct. They apply their experience and knowledge to ensuring that there are no templated release plans, and that each film from a Ship Of Theseus (SOT) to a Chennai Express, is given a very customised and well thought through release. All credit to him.

SRK: Manish...?

Manish Hariprasad (MH): I joined in 2007.

SRK: Manish is really the man behind Disney UTV’s involvement with Chennai Express. He pursued Rohit Shetty assiduously and aggressively, with the single point agenda of making a movie with him. I think Rohit had his perception of what it might be like to work with a studio, since he hadn’t done so in the past. Manish went in and demolished that perception, in a good way, of course.

MH: Thanks to my hairstyle! (Smiles)

SRK: (Laughs) Yes, first with his hairdo, because when Rohit saw him with his long hair, he said, ‘Tu corporate wala nahi ho sakta hai.’ This year itself, Kai Po Che and Chennai Express are two of the movies Manish has brought to the table and I think that gives you a sense of the range of his creative range.

Amrita is the veteran at this table, and she has been with Disney UTV longer than any of us, more than 10 years. She is the one person in the studio who has worked across pretty much every division, from production to marketing, to distribution, to syndication, and that has given her a great all round and in depth perspective of the filmmaking process.

When we started our international distribution division from scratch, we were complete novices and had to establish offices in new countries and build new relationships in markets with distributors and exhibitors who had no idea who this upstart new studio was. And today, when you look at all our content so widely distributed across all modes and platforms worldwide, a lion’s share of that credit goes to Amrita. She and her team, with persistence, resilience and an aggressive never-say-die approach, have made sure that Disney UTV content has found its way to every possible platform available, and often to those not traditionally available, to Hindi movies. Her sense of ownership and passion for the studio comes from having grown up with it from its very inception.

As far as GD is concerned, we really didn’t have a South business at all till… when did you join us, GD?

G Dhananjayan (GD): In 2010.

SRK: What GD has managed to do is forge relationships with talent and partners very quickly and to great effect. His perseverance and high energy approach has helped us so much over the last three years in a market where we have had to establish our credentials from scratch. He wears the creative and the commercial hats, and has helped us understand the South business tremendously. Now, we do almost four or five films in the South every year across Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam cinema.

BOI: Now we come to Amar.

Amar Butala (AB): I joined in 2010 as well.

SRK: And in a short span, Amar has managed to identify and snap up rights to interesting movies and books that we are now actively developing into screenplays. A lot of the groundwork that Amar has done in the last couple of years will come into play by next year, or the year after that, with these very interesting slate of movies going into production.

BOI: Rucha is next in line.

Rucha Pathak (RP): I joined in 2006.

SRK: Rucha has been with us for seven years and if you look at the range and quality of the movies she has been involved in, from Life… In A Metro to Dev D, to Barfi! to Paan Singh Tomar, to Welcome To Sajjanpur to ABCD to Chillar Party to No One Killed Jessica, you can clearly see her incredibly strong creative instincts and ability to hone in on content that will push the envelope creatively, while also emerging commercially successful. These are some of the films we are proudest of and it’s no coincidence that Rucha has been involved in bringing each of them to life. They are also films we have developed and nurtured from scratch with the writers and directors. So that’s the team.

AB: Wow, Sid! That was great!

SRK: (Laughs) I think this is the most I have ever spoken about each of you.

AB: Yeah! (Laughs)

SRK: I am done now and I will not utter another word. No more questions for me! (Laughs)

BOI: After Disney’s acquisition of the company, which was a landmark deal, what’s the experience been like… ups and downs? And what was it like before the deal? Let’s start with Shikha.

Shikha Kapur (SK): As far as the integration with Disney is concerned, it didn’t really change the way we function when it comes to creative decisions. Of course, it brought in a lot of changes in processes and systems, but that’s only natural. In terms of ups and downs, as Sid said, we have gone through a great deal of experiences with every film and have learnt a lot along the way. The reason we have had such great marketing muscle behind each film, whether it was a Ship Of Theseus or a Chennai Express, was because of the collective weight of our experiences through the years.

Gaurav Verma (GV): As far as integration goes, there’s an English slate of films that we are also distributing now and that’s quite interesting. But after the integration, as a studio, I don’t think there has been much else that has changed on the India distribution front.

Our network is tremendously strong today, both in reach, penetration and depth of knowledge and experience. As a studio, we are in distribution because we make movies and not the other way around. We don’t make movies because we have a distribution platform available. It is important to always remember that and to tailor your distribution plans to suit the individuality and uniqueness of each film we produce.

MH: I feel the biggest movies in the country are actually the ones that families watch together. That is our single-point agenda for the Disney branded movies we produce – to make clean, beautiful, fun, family movies. Let’s take the example of a Barfi! or a Chennai Express. They were as close to being Disney movies as possible, in that they were enjoyed by the family as a unit. That’s the ethos we intend to take forward when we brand some of our movies ‘Disney’ in the future.

But we are still to make progress in technical competencies that Disney has in many fields. So I am looking forward to that. Basically, taking our movies to the next level, technically, where we can draw more and more from Disney’s expertise.

BOI: As Sid mentioned earlier, you have worked on a diverse range of films, from a Kai Po Che, to a Chennai Express. What made you say ‘yes’ to these films?

MH: Kai Po Che was a script I had read a long time ago. It was called Amdavad at the time. I’d been a fan of the script since then but we weren’t involved with this project at the time. When it was brought to Disney UTV, I said this is a film I definitely want to work on. It was great to help Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor) realise his vision. As for Chennai Express, I had loved all Rohit Shetty’s films. I continued to pursue him to sign him, despite his initial hesitation. He said, ‘I will make a film when I am fine with it.’ And I said, ‘We will wait for it.’ We heard Chennai Express, we loved it, Shah Rukh loved it and that’s how it all happened.

BOI: Amrita, your turn.

Amrita Pandey (AP): What has changed with the integration is the way we look at our IP rights, the way we look at windowing our content, and the kind of deals we now have access to on multiple platforms worldwide. The other content we now have the opportunity to work on and syndicate is Marvel movies like The Avengers and Iron Man and Pixar movies like the Toy Story franchise. It’s amazing to watch TV on a Saturday, when you’re watching Iron Man on one channel, Finding Nemo on another, Rowdy Rathore on the third and Vettai, a Tamil movie we have produced, on the fourth. It’s really exciting that our portfolio has increased the way it has in the past year.

BOI: GD, what do you have to say?

GD: Disney UTV is very entrepreneurial in terms of its approach. The management team is always looking for opportunities and making the most of them. It’s not just all about numbers. The team encourages people to go out there and we are now a much more process-driven company, which is good since it has brought in a lot of streamlining.

Externally in the South, I will tell you how Disney brought in more value to the company. UTV already has a great name and they knew that UTV makes great cinema. But when people see ‘Disney’ on our visiting cards, it brings even more value to the brand. When they know it’s ‘Disney UTV’, they know we will be transparent and ethical.

BOI: What was the idea behind starting the South slate with Tamil, then Kannada, Malayalam and now Telugu?

GD: The idea was not to start with Tamil specifically. We were just waiting for the right film. There are over 350 films made across the three languages. It’s about picking up the right projects, not only in terms of the number of films but picking up good cinema.

BOI: Sid, the South audience is very different from the Hindi audience. How do you handle that?

SRK: It’s a combination of two things. GD is from the South and has a deep knowledge of South cinema; in fact he has written books on Tamil cinema. So he is a part time film historian and is well-versed in the sensibilities of South cinema. Apart from that, we have our own understanding of that cinema, albeit limited but steadily growing, that we have developed over the years.

BOI: Just as you have a team here to market Hindi and English films, is there a separate team in the South to market those films too?

GD: Yes, we have our own marketing team. As for distribution, Gaurav’s team has got a set-up in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad.

SRK: So we have one integrated all India distribution team and international distribution team which handles all our releases, Hindi, Hollywood and South. Marketing is very localised.

BOI: Amar, let’s return to your journey with UTV pre and post-Disney’s integration.

AB: What we have learnt from Disney, Pixar and Marvel is what they have done with their franchises. They have created huge global brands out of their movies and have been able to sell consumer products on that strength. They were able to take it to television, and then Broadway too. No one has done this sort of thing in India. This is a great advantage because we have someone to tell us how to get it right.

Also, we can be ambitious about the films we produce because we have in our backyard, so to speak, the best VFX guys in the business.

BOI: Rucha, it’s your turn.

RP: After the Disney integration, same as we were before, we have carried on with our passion to tell good stories. When I joined, Rang De Basanti had just released and it was a huge high to be part of the studio that had produced a film that made such a difference. With tickets being so expensive, people want more bang for their buck. The Disney brand is a family entertainment brand and it’s a great opportunity for us to create cinema on which we can put the Disney brand.

To add to what Amar said, we’ve been travelling a fair amount to understand their model, and we have noticed that movies are the smallest part of the big picture in terms of consumer products, gaming, all kinds of media.

BOI: Apart from backing diverse films, from a Kai Po Che to a Yeh Jawaani…, UTV has a perception which is not strictly corporate… a very friendly nature.

SRK: I don’t think we perceive ourselves as a corporate so to speak; we all just love movies. We could each be doing other jobs, as marketers or distribution people or syndication executives, and even creatively there are so many other avenues that one could be working in, whether television or advertising. But we have each consciously chosen to be here doing what we do, because we have a shared passion for movies. I don’t think in this business, you can afford to be strictly ‘corporate’ because the template for that is a 9-5 job and a more structured “work-life balance” as it’s called. But I think when you so dearly love what you’re doing, your “work” is very much part of your “life” and vice versa. We love the spontaneity of what we do, the passion it involves, sometimes the sheer randomness… because it’s exciting to be a part of something that is indefinable and amorphous and constantly changing and has so many moving parts you’re trying to control, and the huge high when something really works, and a low if it doesn’t. So no, we don’t think of ourselves as “corporate” but rather as a passionate group of like-minded individuals, wanting to make great movies and wanting to ensure that these movies are given the best platform possible to achieve their full potential, creatively and commercially.

BOI: How are calls to co-produce a project taken, vis-a-vis owning the IP?

SRK: In the case of co-productions, we share the IP. So it’s not that we do not co-own the IP. A co-production happens when our sensibilities match someone else’s. So in the past whether it’s been for example Dharma Productions, Aamir Khan Productions or most recently Red Chillies Entertainment, when we are comfortable collaborating with a production house and share a vision, is when a co-production comes together.

BOI: UTV has produced many indie films, managed to make them viable, and is always on the lookout for a lot of festival films too. How do you maintain a balance between these small films and the potboilers?

SRK: We have done this instinctively in the early years and it’s now part of our stated strategy. We like to have a mix of all sorts of cinema on our annual slate. In most years we have a really interesting mix of mainstream commercial entertainers and films that push the envelope creatively.

BOI: What about the challenges in marketing and distributing a film like an SOT or a Chennai Express?

SK: We don’t apply just one template to a film, be it in marketing or distribution. For example, for SOT, we had one focused medium of communication and that was online. We launched a PR campaign along with an online marketing campaign. We began with a five-city release and treated the first week of the film as an audience “trial phase” and then pushed the film harder and further as it grew into a 37 city release.

GV: We have been distributing films for many years now, so we have a good understanding of what sort of film works where. We don’t stick to a strategy that says ‘this film will go to only so many cinemas.’ We speak to exhibitors to gauge the market and then take a call on release strategy. This is what we did for SOT and Paan Singh Tomar. For Chennai Express, we went as wide as possible. We went wherever there was a cinema screen. (Laughs)

SRK: Now THAT’s a strategy! (Laughs)

SK: Carpet bomb!

BOI: Amrita, internationally, how difficult or easy is it to distribute films like these?

AP: Well Barfi! went to the Busan and Hong Kong Film Festivals, Kai Po Che went to the Berlin Film Festival, and mind you these are also very commercial films for a South Asian diaspora audience and have done well not only in India but everywhere. So what’s amazing is that we have been able to have a 360-degree approach and have seen that commercial success and presence at festivals doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. We have taken these films and made them commercial. A lot of people are now interested in knowing who the filmmakers are. We have evoked a lot of interest from distributors who wonder when so-and-so director’s next film is releasing. Now even a filmmaker can become a star!

GV: I would like to add that if you are backing a film and a studio like Disney UTV comes into the picture, people feel confident about that film. So, you see, that too comes into play.

BOI: Since UTV is a huge brand, do you think people decide to watch a film on the strength of that brand? Have you achieved that yet?

SRK: No studio in India has that kind of blind faith in the minds of the audience yet. I think the only studio brand that has that kind of a pull worldwide is Disney. When people know it’s a Disney film, they are promised a certain kind of entertainment. That’s because Disney is a consumer brand as well, and one of the most loved and admired ones. With UTV, we like to believe that there is a certain credibility attached to a film and the audience knows that their good experiences with the brand will be many more than their bad ones.

BOI: But in the South, even the names of editors on film posters can draw the audience to watch a film.

GD: Talent always commands a high level of respect in the South, whether it’s Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan or even a Prabhudheva. But that’s also happening in Hindi films these days. Like Rohit Shetty has become a brand.

BOI: Since we started by asking Sid what each one of you brings to the table, let’s conclude by asking each one of you what Sid is like as a boss and the best part about working with UTV.

RP: He is a cool person to work with and he makes filmmaking interesting by letting you meet and engage with a lot of different people and a lot of interesting minds. Sid brings that a lot to films. He is also very approachable and we gravitate towards also being more open and more approachable.

AB: The best part about working with Sid is he lets you work independent of him. So you can go ahead and tell him the movie you want to make, who you want to make it with and you can have a very honest, sensible and logical conversation with him about it. Also, the complete transparency we have in the team in terms of distribution, marketing and production. And I think both successes and failures are treated without too much fuss. And that’s a good thing.

RP: I want to mention that people often tell us that other studios don’t return their calls. It’s not a mandate with us but we always revert to people. And Sid leads by example. So, if I call him, he always returns my messages and calls, come what may.

GD: I have been working for 15 years and Sid is the youngest boss I have had in my entire career. But in terms of maturity and balance, he is the best. He doesn’t carry forward yesterday to today. Like, yesterday, we had an argument about something but he doesn’t bring that baggage to our next interaction. More than anything, his maturity is amazing for his age. We get a lot of people who take decisions emotionally and get carried away but he is very balanced. That’s why I believe he’s the best boss I have ever had.

AP: I can’t top that! (Laughs)

BOI: You have to say more than that.

AP: Someone recently said, Sid is very gentlemanly, a great person and a professional. And I agree. I think he is a superb leader. It beats me how he can be so patient. He replies to things at lightning speed. If you ask me something at 1 am, you won’t get an answer till 7 am. But he replies immediately. The fact that he is so well respected in the organisation and by the team reflects on the kind of boss he is.

MH: I have worked with a few CEOs and I have always felt that ek din, main CEO banunga aur chill karunga till I worked here and saw Sid working so hard. But apart from that, he has a sense of humour and we work in an industry where there are ups and downs. People get depressed and they get ecstatic. I have seen him happy in happy moments and I have seen him calm even when things aren’t going right. And that’s a great boost for everyone who works here.

BOI: Gaurav, what’s he like on a Friday when a film has opened well and a Friday when a film has not opened well?

GV: I get that same 10 o’clock SMS on a Friday. I think he is happy when the film does well but if it doesn’t he’s not drastically different. He is very inclusive. I don’t see that kind of equality and empowerment anywhere else in our industry. That level of transparency comes from the top and trickles down to the very bottom.

SK: I have known Sid since he was heading marketing and I was working under him. So we have known each other for eight years. As Gaurav said, he is really cool because he lets you be. I have seen a lot of ups and downs over the last few years. And while I have given up more times than you can imagine, Sid has always stood by and said, ‘No, you can do much more’. He has faith in me and that has kept me going. He is always there during a rough phase and always tells us not to get bogged down.

BOI: So Sid, how does it feel now?

SRK: (Laughs) Warm and fuzzy! No, but seriously, I couldn’t have asked for a more accomplished and committed group of individuals to work with.

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