Berlin Q&A: Disney India Managing Director Ronnie Screwvala

Ronnie Screwvala, The Walt Disney Co India MD
The Walt Disney Co India

Following Disney's acquisition of his UTV conglomerate, the mogul weighs in on the state of Indian entertainment, his company's first Berlinale entry and why an animated movie has yet to crack the Indian market.

Walt Disney India's managing director Ronnie (Rohinton) Screwvala, 56, has been likened to a South Asian version of Hollywood moguls Louis Mayer or Jack Warner because of the way he founded UTV as a humble cable distribution venture in 1981 and transformed the company into the multi-media conglomerate that it is today.

When Walt Disney Co. acquired a controlling stake in UTV last year for a reported $454 million, it was a move long in the making -- Disney first picked up a minority 15 percent share in UTV in 2006 for about $15 million. With its core strength in content creation, from daily soaps to kids' programming, UTV has diversified into films over the last decade, producing a slew of Bollywood hits, such as India's 2012 Oscar entry Barfi! and Kai Po Che, which premieres at the Berlin International Film Festival this week. Screwvala spoke with The Hollywood Reporter for a wide-ranging discussion of the Indian industry, how UTV-Disney plans to augment its strategies and why no big-budget animation has yet to crack the Indian market. 

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The Hollywood Reporter: How has Disney's acquisition of UTV shaped your international marketing strategy?

Ronnie Screwvala: When you look at the UTV film slate, we have always had about six mass entertainments or family movies, and then we have about six movies where we consciously or unconsciously try and go for a different demographic, which can also travel internationally and widen the market. They are content heavy and with a specific vision that can go out to festivals, not necessarily always with the star cast. This time at Berlin we brought Kai Po Che by Abhishek Kapoor (his second film after Rock On!!) featuring a fresh cast. Now more than ever since we are part of Disney, our potential reach is quite big, spanning over 160 countries. However, its not just about marketing but content.

THR: Has the Disney take-over refined your content strategy in any way?

Screwvala: I would use the word 'augmented.' Our first and main focus will continue to be producing content for a huge domestic market and the second largest migrant population in the world, which is south Asian. Of course, we will also look at opening new markets. We can now make movies that can translate internationally with more confidence and focus. If you look at Disney's slate compared to the other Hollywood studios, it stands out because of big titles and strong franchise films which also extend beyond cinemas, to merchandising or theme parks given the legacy of the four brands - Disney, Pixar, Marvel and now Lucasfilm. If we can take the same learning and adapt that for Indian films – such as making Disney-branded Indian films - that would be the second way to have an augmented strategy without diluting our core focus of creating domestic content.

THR: And this automatically leads to the potential of remaking successful Disney catalog titles for India?

Screwvala: It is very much there as a potential idea, but we really have to see what kind of projects can work. It has successfully worked for us in television sooner (the company has adapted Disney's kids programming formats for the group's various channels). But when it comes to films -- especially animation given the strong run of hit titles from Disney/Pixar -- you have to realize that the Indian market for film animation has still not been cracked. Having said that, we now have access to all kinds of film content -- from animation to the franchise titles -- and now we really need to figure out how to adapt them with a really strong idea.

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THR: But don't you think the time has come to address the challenges of selling animation in India? Before the Disney acquisition, UTV did experiment with the mythological animation feature Arjun the Warrior Prince.

Screwvala: I agree and I am all for being extremely open-minded or disruptive or pioneering new ideas. But we need to be clear that there is a practical battle. We have a good pulse of the market given our very strong background in television, which includes Indian kids channel Hungama, which became successful within 18 months of launch. Our learning is that India still hasn't had a generation that grew up on animation. When you talk to people about animation they automatically infer cartoons and not feature films. Animation is really a new word. People think that cartoons are meant to be watched on television and not in cinemas. To get people into cinemas to see animation really boils down to storytelling for the family. Disney/Pixar's Up reached out to family audiences and the 14-24 demographic giving it a wider appeal. So in the Indian context, the challenge would be to come up with a story that appeals to the family and features a well-known star cast for voice-overs. And that means you end up with a big budget movie at about $10 million (rupees 500 million). You only have a three-month theatrical window before it ends up on television and if the audience perception is that they can always catch it on TV -- because its a “cartoon” -- and hence skip going to the cinemas, then you have a problem. Arjun the Warrior Prince was meant to be broad-based and for family viewing but the general perception still was that this is for kids. If the same film was made as a big budget, live action feature with big stars, it would have appealed to the family audience.

THR: The Indian television industry has seen a lot of successful adaptations of international formats, so does that offer lessons for film content creation?

Screwvala: I don't fully agree with that. When we talk about local adaptations, you are really talking about reality shows or game shows [such as the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire]. But 90 percent of successful TV content in India consists of domestic soap operas which appeal to the masses, beyond the metro audiences. If you look at films, 2012 is probably the first time that Hollywood marginally increased its market share in India at about eight to nine percent (from prior  figures of six to seven percent). Hollywood did well because there were many tentpoles, franchises and sequels – from The Avengers to Batman to James Bond. But that still doesn't say much because within the Indian market, if you look at Hindi movies, even they don't break into regional markets such as South India where local films dominate. So it all comes down to strong local preferences. Its not like Europe where local product could not withstand Hollywood's domination leading some governments to give grants to filmmakers to create local content.

THR: The Hollywood studios are now increasingly active in producing Indian films with the likes of Viacom18, Fox Star Studios and now Disney. How do you see the studios changing the landscape?

Screwvala: It is a mixed bag if you see how the studios are producing and originating content here. I haven't seen any of the studios create their own Barfi! (India's 2012 Oscar entry) or (the biopic) Paan Singh Tomar or Kai Po Che (which premieres at Berlin). And that is a differentiating factor when it comes to UTV/Disney and the others. The UTV/Disney fit works because UTV Motion Pictures was already very strong in producing and creating its own films beyond just co-producing, acquiring or distributing titles. Until the studios really get into producing their own titles, instead of just partnering with a director or a producer, I think the jury is still out on how this will play out for the industry. We also partner on some projects every year, but we also originate and incubate our own original titles.

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THR: Moving beyond film, you recently established a social work initiative called Swades. How did that come about?

Screwvala: Its a personal, family initiative -- we earlier had a foundation called Share, which worked at a smaller level and that has now been rechristened as Swades (also the name of UTV's 2004 film starring actor Shah Rukh Khan as a successful NASA scientist who returns to his native village in India to help the community develop). Since the Disney transaction, one had a personal viewpoint as to what one wanted to do outside media while still being active in the business. My wife Zarina and daughter -- who recently graduated from film school -- are involved in this as well. It is very ambitious and important for us to to take this cross-country. There are a lot of non-government organizations (NGOs) working in various fields, so we set out to see what we could do differently. From our initial research we found that most of the social work is not inter-connected. So if kids want to go to school, they can't because of issues like transport or electricity or water. So the challenge was to create an NGO that was scalable, which is why we adopted over a million people and over two thousand villages. More importantly, the idea is that after we do the development work over say, five years in a village, we should leave it as a self-sufficient community which need not require any further social work. It is going to entail $200 million (rupees 1 billion) for the first leg of five years. We are putting in half of that and are confident of raising the other half.

THR: Looking ahead, what is in the pipeline from Disney/UTV?

Screwvala: We are active in four verticals: TV (which includes nine channels including the Disney network), consumer products, new media and gaming (via Indiagames), and film. Again, this is quite unique for any multi-national in India since most of the others are typically active in one or two verticals. Our film slate has a good mix, as we started off the year with the sequel Race 2 followed by India's first 3D dance movie ABCD (Anybody Can Dance). We brought Kai Po Che to Berlin. Our next Bollywood tentpole is Himmatwala and in the works is Chennai Express starring Shah Rukh Khan, directed by Rohit Shetty. We just started filming director Prakash Jha's Satyagraha, which also features (Bollywood icon) Amitabh Bachchan. Then there's Ghanchakkar starring (top actress) Vidya Balan. On the Hollywood front we have three tentpoles this year -- Iron Man 3, Lone Ranger and Thor: The Dark World. I'd say we have a good mix lined up.