Even as the Indian movie business undergoes an upheaval in terms of budgets, production values, and a new set of studio-director-actor relationships, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures is creating an interesting space for itself. It is focusing on scripts that are edgy and experimental but also help maximize returns on the studio's portfolio of movies. Proof: It released just two films in 2014 but made a neat sum. Together the movies earned 178 per cent return on an investment of Rs 45 crore (RoI) at the box office.
The studio believes that less is more, says head Ajit Andhare. In 2014 it made Queen (Rs 61 crore) and Mary Kom (Rs 64 crore). Queen also went on to win a host of awards. In an earlier interview to this newspaper, Komal Nahta, trade analyst had said: "Viacom18 has hit the bulls-eye. The studio got the costing right along with the content, which gave it a chance to rake in high profits."
Not all its movies rake in the moolah but as Andhare says it is all about managing risk. He says: "We see risk in two tranches - creative risk and financial risk. We prefer being aggressive in taking creative risks, but when it comes to taking financial risks, we remain conservative." For example Mary Kom was an aggressive creative risk. Even though it starred Priyanka Chopra, the film was not expected to draw in a huge crowd given the popularity (or rather lack of) of female pugilists in the country. However, made with a conservative budget of Rs 18 crore, the studio not only made a profit, it also earned around Rs 15 crore worth of publicity through brand tie-ups.
Not all its movies make a mark at the box office however. Dharam Sankat Mein, although critically acclaimed is an example. About choosing the scripts to back, Andhare says: "For us, it is about remaining relevant. The sauce gets old very fast in this business. So whether it is making a Bhaag Milkha (Bhaag) or a Tanu Weds Manu, it is because we want to make good movies. In the process if the studio 'sets trends' then I guess we will continue doing so." He however asserts that the studio will steer clear of the 'deployment approach', where a a fixed number of projects are taken on and then mechanically deployed.
Involvement from the scratch, smart execution and savvy marketing are other notable features of Viacom 18's operations. Right from Kahaani and Tanu Weds Manu, the studio has been innovative with its marketing. Think the 'Missing - Arnab Bagchi' posters for Vidya Balan starring Kahaani or the marriage reception ambience at select malls and theatres for Tanu Weds Manu. "The first step is to identify the target audience and then develop a plan to talk to them specifically. It is a simple case of speculative versus scientific approach. You need to know how many people to target in order to get "x" number of people in the screens," says Rudrarup Dutta, Head of Marketing, Viacom 18 Motion Pictures
The studio also taps heavily into non-traditional and digital media. For Gangs of Wasseypur, digital became the lead marketing medium, since the content was niche and believed to appeal to an urban audience. The other medium used was radio as it would be an effective way to popularize the unusual dialect spoken in the film. In the more recent Gabbar is Back, posters with anti-corruption messages were plastered on spaces that are a part of the regular urban commuter's routine. The film has made Rs 84 crore (still running in theatres).
Viacom 18 is the thinking man's studio says Andhare. Well that is for the audience to decide, but maybe there is a script in there: on how a television studio managed to break into the big and bombastic world of Bollywood.