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Small players take big leap behind the scene

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

The world’s largest film industry, by volume, has got its Act I right. Now it is trying to build a professional eco-system. Business Standard takes a look at the people, trends and attempting to be the change.

is the founder of a curious little company. It hatches films. iRock Media, a ‘film development’ company has been operating out of a small office in Oshiwara, Mumbai, for almost three years. It has eight full-time writers on its rolls, with an equal number freelancing. All they have done for most of three years is write scripts.

Once a script is ready, Jain “attaches the director and star cast to the film”. Think of him as the outsourced pre-production arm of a large studio that puts together the whole project from the idea stage. A fully loaded project — with director, producer and cast — is offered to a studio. The studio can then fund, distribute and market it, functions that studios are best with.

The first of these, Ragini.MMS, a small-budget horror film, will be co-produced by Ektaa Kapoor’s Balaji Motion Pictures. It goes on the floors this month. Among other iRock projects close to takeoff are films Johnny Gaddar, with Sriram Raghavan as director, and Manorama Six Feet Under, directed by Navdeep Singh. iRock is also working on a slate of films with Studio18. Over the next two years, the firm hopes to develop 10-18 projects. In most cases, it will physically produce the film.

CONCEPT
What exactly is iRock doing?

It is not a production house; production is incidental to the project it develops. It is not a film retail, distribution or marketing company and it is definitely not a studio. Its core, says Jain, is development. Which company is the Hollywood equivalent of what iRock is attempting to do? “Pixar,” says Jain without blinking an eyelid.

That’s ambitious. Co-founded by Steve Jobs, Pixar is known for developing award-winning animation films with great stories, such as Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Animation films take a long time, lots of trial and error, and money to develop. Incidentally, no Pixar film has ever flopped.

iRock’s attempt at being the ideas factory for Indian films seems audacious. Some of the largest studios in the country, Yashraj or UTV, can do 8-15 films a year, through a combination of acquisitions, co-productions and own productions. It is almost impossible to develop a dozen scripts in-house in one place over 12-18 months. Eros, the only one to hit over 100 films in 2009-2010, is spending close to Rs 400 crore a year, largely on acquiring films. Considering that well-funded studios struggle with project development, what is Jain’s logic for trying this?

His reasoning is based on two things. One is the need for talent to drive scale. One of the big things holding up the film industry’s growth is the lack of talent at the backend — writers, producers, casting directors, et. al. “Growth is not happening faster (considering the amount of capital raised) because if a production company has 10-15 projects, it needs as many line producers, writers, et. al. But since there aren’t enough people, the same team works across projects and that slows things,” says he.

The other is the need for time and staying power. A good script and film project takes two to three years to develop before shooting can commence. That means either the writer works on his own money, developing something, and then tries to hawk it to recalcitrant studios or he gets employed by an iRock, which pays him a salary while he is writing. Almost all his staff of 25 is on fat salaries by industry standards.

TANGIBLES
iRock has now reached a stage where, “We can create 5-8 great scripts a year,” says Jain. Also, depending on the deal with the studio, his writers and staff get a share of the revenues. “My dream is that all of them should get bonus cheques,” he says.

Much of his belief on the need for a firm like iRock is born of Jain’s experience as vice-president, India, for Hollywood-based Hyperion Pictures. It made Marigold, starring Salman Khan and Ali Larter. The film took all of four painful years to make and bombed. But it taught Jain many lessons. “One of my biggest learnings was that there is a huge need for (a firm like) this, to create a transparent eco-system,” says he. It is, he reckons, an idea whose time has come.

He may be right. At last count, India had about 10 well-funded studios, both Indian and foreign, hungry for good local projects. iRock could fulfil that need.

The other thing it has going for it is that it is fully funded and co-owned by Manmohan Shetty’s Walkwater Media. The former Adlabs founder has one of the best instincts and network in the business. He financed a slew of alternate films in the 1980s, from Hip Hip Hurray to Ardh Satya. The last big film he angel-funded was Rajneeti. He launched the first multiplex, the first round of digital cinemas, the first Imax in India. If Shetty, officially the chairman of iRock, thinks there is an opportunity here, then chances are that there is.

Now all iRock has to do is get the films right. That is when it will really rock.

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