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Vikram Malhotra, CEO of Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, talks about taking a huge leap of faith – rebranding, what cost-cutting really means and not being a “straight-jacketed” company – with Sagorika Dasgupta

Why is the company rebranding itself?
Viacom 18 Motion Pictures has a redefined vision. As Studio 18, we have had our share of successes, which include three of India’s top ten grossers. We have also had our share of challenges. The group continues to aspire to become the largest player in the motion picture business in India. But we have rebooted, keeping in mind the evolving forces of the industry, ever-changing audience trends and a redefined way to do this business.

Our new brand is not just a rebranding exercise. Viacom 18 Motion Pictures reflects two things: One, a rebooted organisation and two, a deeper integration into the Viacom 18 Network to be able to leverage those synergies and strengths.

There was a certain brand loyalty with Studio 18 and the films that the production house churned out. Won’t people take time to accept the new name?
The attempt is to take that positive equity forward and leverage it as Viacom 18 Motion Pictures. As with any rebranding, there will be gains and in some cases, there is a legacy you have to leave behind. Fortunately, because the perspective on the business remains fundamental, it will be easier to take the positives forward. As far as the brand equity of Studio 18 is concerned, clearly as corporate brands they are not audience influences at this stage yet. So the two reasons I mentioned earlier justify the brand change more than an argument to retain the old brand.

With this rebranding, what are the key areas the company will focus on?
Viacom 18 Motion Pictures becomes a full-service motion picture company operating across the value chain. From concept development to production to marketing and distribution, we will operate across all these points in the life cycle of a motion picture. It gives us the ability to be better integrated into the process and to unlock value at all these points.

Fundamentally, there are three pillars to this business model. A strong development agenda, which means nurturing fresh talent, working with best-in-class talent, building our capabilities. Second, break through marketing, which also falls back on building a better consumer understanding; understanding and analysing evolving trends better. Third, building strong and sustainable relationships, whether with writers, actors, directors or co-producers. These relationships would make our business sustainable and also de-risking our business by not experimenting too much.

Do you plan to enter the exhibition space?
Not at the moment.

What about animation films or VFX and post-production?
If we get the right projects in the animation space, then that will definitely be a part of our agenda. As part of the Viacom 18 group, we have Nick, our kid’s channel. We have a focused agenda of working with Nick, leveraging their insights into the kid’s domain and co-creating and marketing content with them. We are developing in some areas but there’s nothing lined up for this year. At some point, integration into post-production is on the cards.

You are going to work with a lot of new directors. Why this initiative?
Under Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, we will launch a brand called Tipping Point Films, which will create content for the Indian urban youth. This audience segment a higher evolved sensibility than the conventional movie-goer. We believe this segment is large enough and growing at a rate where we would like to have a presence in it. Tipping Point Films’ will nurture and develop a lot of first-time, fresh talent. We will hand-hold this fresh talent, giving them the right opportunities, financial security and an environment where they feel at home.

You are remaking a lot of films like Seeta Aur Geeta and Chashme Baddoor…
(Cuts in) Let me quickly clarify, there have been industry speculations about Seeta Aur Geeta and Viacom 18 Motion Pictures. But at this stage, there are no such plans.

Are you saying you do not plan to produce the film at all?
Well, there are no such plans at the moment to produce it in the way in which it is being speculated. We are reserving our decision to see and determine our level of involvement, if at all any. But at this stage, we are not making Seeta Aur Geeta. It’s pure speculation.

So what about plans to cast Katrina Kaif in the lead with Abhay Deol and Akshay Kumar playing the roles of Sanjeev Kumar and Dharmendra respectively?
I don’t even know what the reasoning behind those rumours is. They are just rumours. We are not involved with this project as is being reported so I don’t know how to comment on that.

Coming back to the question of remakes…
It is not by design that we are keen to remake a lot of films. But it’s just that the right projects have come to us and we’ve nurtured them. Chashme Baddoor is a classic and we are remaking the film in contemporary form. And we have the father of comedy, David Dhawan, directing it. But I promise you it will retain the essence of the classic with a David Dhawan touch. There’s also Players, which is the official remake of The Italian Job. Again, a brilliant concept and fantastic directors. We are Indianising it for the Indian audience. But there is no specific remake agenda. We have not set a specific number of films to remake. If we get the right project and the right talent, we will be only too happy to attach ourselves to it.

In a column you wrote for Box Office India, you had talked about the lack of writers in the industry. Is that why you are remaking films?
It is not a fashion statement for us to do remakes. We don’t lack good writers, we lack the platforms to showcase that talent. Some of the films that released last year like Udaan, Dabbang and Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai were all results of brilliant writing. We just need to nurture and leverage that talent in an organised manner and we are doing our bit to do it.

You are planning to release Tanu Weds Manu (TWM) during the upcoming cricket season. Won’t that affect the film’s business?
I am of the firm belief that a film will always draw the audience if it is appealing, connects with the audience and is targeted at the right audience segment. For instance, if a film is focused on school and college kids and you release it during exams, that is a no-go area. Distractions or the so-called “clutter of cricket” is a myth that’s been blown out of proportion. Sure, it takes away eyeballs if it’s a film that requires five crore people to watch it. But if it’s a film that is sharp focused to a defined audience who does not have a core connect to cricket, I don’t see it as a hindrance. On the contrary, it is a great opportunity to present the film in a clutter-free environment.

Along with TWM, there is also Shaitan lined up for release during the cricket season.
That’s right, we have Shaitan lined up for an end-of-March, early-April release. And then we have other films scheduled for the post-IPL season. But given the opportunity of the clutter-free environment of the IPL and the fact that we would like to catch the early part of the summer vacation, we are thinking of pulling one more film forward and releasing it during the post-IPL season.

Which film would that be?
I cannot disclose that at the moment as that release will stun a few people.

We saw a lot of big-budget films not doing well last year. What are Viacom 18 Motion Pictures’ plans to control costs?
I come from a school of business where regardless of how the last year was, costs need to be kept under control. I have a very simple way of doing business: Minimise costs at all times and maximise revenues at all times. Budgets and cost-control are not correlated. A small film if poorly controlled can go out of gear. A big film if nicely controlled on costs can deliver handsome rewards. At our company, we provide feasible viable budgets for our films. We don’t chase films as big budgets or small budgets; we enter into projects looking at their creative ability and commercial viability.

Cost-control is a discipline we bring to the table by virtue of operating across the value chain. We thrive on strong financial processes without them being bureaucratic. We are creative at heart but a 600 pound gorilla in our demeanour, muscle and network! That’s the combination we are seeking. We are not a straight-jacketed corporate but are fast and flat and lean and humble. We are not coming here as the big daddy of media; we are doing business in a way that is sustainable.

You plan to release Gangs Of Wasseypur (GOW) in three parts. Rakht Charitra followed a similar pattern. Is this a new trend for the industry?
Gangs Of Wasseypur was conceived as a film across two parts. If there is a possibility to create and leverage films to three parts, we will do it. It is a property film that spans three decades of a saga. Anurag had originally conceived it as two parts and depending on how happy he is with the film, we will view the extension to a third part.

The two-part strategy is not like Rakht Charitra. That was an engaging film and my compliments to the director and producers. GOW is a story that spans a time period on the lines of The Godfather. We are not following a trend; it’s just that the story needs to be told like that.

How will you space the two parts?
They are being shot together. Anurag finishes both films together. Depending on the audience reaction to the first film, we will accordingly take a call. We should be able to release the first part in July/August.

Will you be looking at new genres like horror and 3D films?
Yes, we have developments in the paranormal space. Nothing in 3D though. We will do 3D films only if we feel it justifies the script and content, not because it’s fashionable to do 3D. We are currently very happy with what we are doing.

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