‘In-house production is a major focus for Zee Studios’

Media conglomerate ZEEL-owned Zee Studios plans to produce 10-12 movies entailing a working capital investment of Rs 150-200 crore. The long-term strategy of Zee Studios is to create original IPs.

Focussed on script-driven films with low dependence on star cast, Zee Studios has delivered blockbusters like ‘Secret Superstar’, ‘Rustom’, ‘Mom’ and ‘Sairat’ (Marathi).

Helming Zee Studios is an old Zee hand, Shariq Patel. In an interview with TelevisionPost.com’s Javed Farooqui, Patel spoke about the film studio’s growth plans for 2019 across film, TV and digital verticals.


What are the key focus areas for Zee Studios this year?

The key focus areas are just setting the slate for Hindi right, exploring and focusing more on productions. We are looking at doing a lot more in-house productions. We want to control the intellectual property (IP). In Marathi, there is a lot of acquisition-led model which is there, however, we are looking to produce movies in-house. In-house production is a major focus for us.

Our objective is to become a true content creation house where we have complete control over the entire process of film-making. As a studio, it is a difficult task to become a production house. However, we are building execution capabilities for in-house productions. The idea is to get production up and running whether it’s for Hindi, Marathi, digital and of course TV is in-house, in any case.

Apart from that, there will be opportunistic alliances like distribution deals and co-productions that we will do with other partners.

What is your movie slate for 2019?

From the distribution perspective, there are two films which we have signed. There is ‘Kesari’ that we are doing with Dharma Productions. Then there is ‘’Good News’ with Akshay Kumar for which distribution deals have been locked in. We also have a co-production with Sunny Deol called ‘Pal Pal Dil Ke Paas’, which will also mark Karan Deol’s debut.

Then there is a whole bunch of talent that we have signed up and will be announcing in the coming weeks. We have got a fairly interesting mix of projects which are coming up. In Marathi, we have got 3-4 movies that we have signed up with more to be added. ‘Anandi Gopal’ is an interesting Marathi film which will be releasing on 15th February. All in all, we will be releasing 10 to 12 movies across languages in 2019.

What will be the mix of your movie slate in terms of scale?

It will be a healthy mix, as a studio, we will not be focusing on only one kind of film. There is always a portfolio approach and there will be a healthy mix of big, small, and medium. Some of the films that we are looking to sign are smaller and medium which are easier to execute. Big films take their own time because the dates of the key people have to align.

What is the process that you follow while acquiring or greenlight a film?

Basically, it’s the story. How interesting is the story, is the first thing. Then you layer it with how well the story is being told. Sometimes a simple story, if told interestingly at a screenplay perspective, makes the story more engaging.

Films like ‘Manikarnika’ apart from being a great script and great story is also a homage to bringing to big screen India’s first women warrior or one of the key players in the 1857 rebellion. It’s all about the interesting stories and what are the emotions that can be weaved through it.

The talent attached will determine what budget or scale it will be made at unless if it’s a period film. The money spent on a period film will still be high because of the production value that is needed.

Apart from Hindi and Marathi, which are the other regional movie markets you are looking at?

We are looking at Punjabi and we are releasing a Punjabi movie called ‘Kala Shah Kala’ in February. It’s a distribution deal again. We will look at co-production in the coming years in Punjabi and some south languages. We are looking at regional languages with a serious long term vision. We don’t want to get into these markets with a hit-and-run mindset. Telugu is now as big as Hindi in terms of reach in the global market. The reach of Tamil and Telugu is also huge so we are looking at partnering with the right set of people in those markets.

How do you assess the year 2018 for the Hindi film industry wherein a lot of unconventional films tasted success at the box office?

2018 has been a landmark year as smaller films that were high on concept did well at the box office. ‘Stree’, ‘Badhaai Ho’ and ‘Andhadhun’ are the prime examples. 2018 demonstrated that these kinds of films can do big business. Earlier, you had a few sleeper hits here and there. These films have delivered more than anyone expected. Definitely, it’s been an important year to realise that the story and the content are what really works and then it’s the actor and other things that are around.

Has the economics of film business improved?

The economics is improving as the number of revenue streams have increased from what it was earlier. There was a time where we had Cassettes then Cassettes became DVD and now DVD became streaming. The revenue streams have increased and the competition has ensured that the content producers also get a fair value. However, as the value rises so does the costs. If this is the revenue potential then I as a filmmaker, actor or producer feel that I also deserve a slice of the pie. So, it is a constantly evolving revenue model and pricing is never in a vacuum.

How do you exploit synergies within the group considering ZEEL has a big presence in the movie broadcasting and music label businesses?

We work very closely with the Zee movie channel and music label teams. So anything that we are greenlighting there is a constant discussion. When we are budgeting we discuss ways of underwriting the costs and then we get a broad idea of the revenues that can come internally. But for us, we still have to chase the box numbers because that is what determines success. So, for me, the barometer of success is how we can increase the footfalls at the multiplex.

What are the advantages of being part of a media conglomerate?

There are advantages but there are times when we are not able to extract the right value for our content being part of the media group. If I am doing A-list films I know that it will be on ZEE5 or Zee Cinema. I can push them for a price but then the risk remains within the group. Ultimately, if you amalgamate the balance sheet we are the only studio that is not de-risked because everything is consolidated under one group. The other way to look at it is that I may be able to extract more value if I sell different rights to different buyers. Here at least I don’t have to worry about where the ancillary rights are going to go and there will be a value attached to it.

What was the thought behind forming Zee Digital Studios?

People want to watch compelling content on multiple screens. Today, everyone is consuming everything on all screens. There is a huge opportunity in the digital space due to the explosion of so many over the top (OTT) platforms. Our parent company also owns ZEE5 which is going to be a primary client for us. However, the mandate for us is how we can talk to other OTT players as well and truly be a digital content provider. We are not averse to creating a show and licencing it to other platforms. We are looking at both commissioning as well as licencing models. We have already produced two shows for ZEE5 and there are talks for a few more.

Right now, we are in a state of development and we have got about 4 to 5 different concepts which are developed in-house, which we have funded and got up to a certain stage. Few of them will be done for ZEE5 and some of them will be sold to other OTT platforms. For me, the idea is how to maximise the revenue and create enough content that has takers on other platforms.

How many web series do you plan to produce this year?

We have already got 4 to 5 which are at advanced stages where the scripting is almost done. Now, we are in the process of attaching the directors. All of these shows are homegrown, we have done the investment and got it ready and now we are talking to directors and showrunners to execute and bring it to the screen. I am hoping that in the coming years we will at least have 4 – 5 products between shows as well as made for TV movies from the digital studio in the next financial year.

How are you scaling up Essel Vision Productions Ltd (EVPL)?

We are very strong on non-fiction piece like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and Dance India Dance and events like Zee Rishtey Awards, and Zee Cine Awards. The focus now is to get the fiction piece back up to the speed. We are little lacking on that front in the last year. We have recruited Tanushree Gupta from Balaji Telefilms to get the fiction piece moving. We have got one show for &TV which is commissioned and is being shot right now. We have got a few more approved by Zee TV and &TV and preparation for that are happening. Over and above that, EVPL has got a studio in Jaipur which is being utilised for producing shows. We have got two shows running over there simultaneously and one for an outside producer. Four more films are being shot there. The idea is to how we get more shows produced out of that vertical or business centre as well.

What is the plan for Essel Vision on the regional side?

On the regional front, we do a lot of Marathi shows as EVPL is basically Mumbai based. We are focusing on Marathi as it is easier and the costing of Hindi, Marathi can be done over here. We own the format ‘Love Me India’ that was done for &TV. Now, we are looking at taking it to the other regional channels of Zee itself.

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