Cannes: Disney India's Siddharth Roy Kapur on Why 'Star Wars' Is a Tough Sell in the Country (Q&A)

Siddharth Roy Kapur

Bollywood’s most connected mogul also discusses repping the Disney brand and how to boost stagnating local box office.

In a year when India’s film business recorded almost zero growth at $2.1 billion in 2014 (compared with $2.08 billion in 2013, according to a report by consultants KPMG India), The Walt Disney Company India’s film unit made box-office history.

Disney-UTV India’s PK — a comedy featuring superstar Aamir Khan, who plays a stranger whose childlike questions and curiosity force a city’s residents to rethink their religious and cultural beliefs — became the first Indian film to earn more than $100 million. Siddharth Roy Kapur, managing director of The Walt Disney Company India, has played a key role in the studio’s success.

The seasoned executive has had stints at 21st Century Fox’s Star India network and has been with UTV since 2005, as Disney began acquiring a stake in the company, until its majority ownership in 2012. The 40-year-old is one of the most powerful and well-connected figures in Indian cinema and half of a Bollywood power couple with his wife, actress Vidya Balan.

Kapur sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about Hollywood opportunities in India, how an almost naked Khan helped sell PK and the similarities between the mythology of India and Star Wars.

What were the reasons for India’s box-office slump in 2014?

For the industry, 2014 was a flat year, but for us at Disney, it was a landmark year. We had a spectacular year, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the industry as a whole went through a slump. The quality of content is an issue, especially with ticket prices rising. People are going to be more discerning about what they want to see. The rising cost of talent has been a problem in the past as well. But there are recent signs that this is going through a correction. A lot of budgets are being reworked, and the talent community is realizing that these levels are not sustainable.

On the other hand, Hollywood films seem to be doing better now in India.

Hollywood product is doing well, as seen with the success of Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. The franchise movies are getting made much more in Hollywood and are also performing better in India.

In recent years, the Hollywood studios have ramped up their local Indian productions. How has that changed the film landscape?

Speaking for us, it’s great to form strong relationships with key talent whether in front of or behind the camera. We have a really strong lineup in the coming year, once we address some structural issues of the industry, such as rising prices for talent. We know that local content works better. It can only grow from here.

The Aamir Khan-starrer PK has set records for an Indian film. To what do you attribute its success?

The story was waiting to be told in a very entertaining and humorous way. Tackling such a difficult subject with so much humor got people actually thinking and talking about the issues. As for marketing and distribution, we went all out to see it was as widely distributed as possible both in India and abroad. We were careful not to oversell it. But with the first teaser poster [which featured a near-naked Khan], people knew that this was going to be something to look forward to.

After the Disney takeover, was there a change in strategy in how to plan the studio’s slate and select potential projects?

To start with, there’s not been any change in the way we build our relationships with talent. But I think the key shift has been in focusing on Disney-branded movies as well. That’s something we have worked hard on in the last couple of years with films like Khubsoorat and ABCD [Anybody Can Dance]. Our upcoming titles include Jagga Jasoos with Ranbir Kapoor, historical epic Mohenjodaro starring Hrithik Roshan and Dangal with Aamir Khan. These will be released under the Walt Disney brand logo.

How do you explain the branding strategy?

These films are mostly for family audiences, which is why they are Disney-branded. On the other hand, we brand films under the UTV banner. These include Haider [a remake of Shakespeare’s Hamlet], PK and the upcoming Fitoor. It’s really about the audiences. It’s like how in Hollywood we have movies under the Marvel, Pixar or Lucasfilm brands. So in India, we have the UTV- and Disney-branded films.

For Hollywood studios getting into local production, is it helpful to have a strong Indian partner or to acquire one the way Disney did with UTV?

It’s really about acquiring the right talent internally within the company. Now, whether that happens through an acquisition or the right hires, it’s really about breeding the expertise within the company to understand local cultures and still function as a foreign company. I guess each organization would take its own route.

How much influence does Disney have on decision-making for the India film slate?

There’s a really high level of trust in the Indian team being able to define what the Disney brand should stand for in India. Of course, the core values of the Disney brand would not change. The unique interpretation of the Disney brand in the local culture of India is something that the team here has the authority to go forward with, and that’s based on a high level of trust.

Your most anticipated Hollywood release this year is Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Traditionally, the Star Wars franchise hasn’t worked that well in India. How will you face the challenge?

We look at it as a wonderful opportunity. It is the biggest franchise in the world, and we have the opportunity to define it for India. It’s a great challenge for the team. We will be putting all our resources to ensuring the awareness of the franchise and its performance.

But do you think that, compared with other franchise movies, Star Wars is still a tough sell in India?

It is. But when you look at it, the Star Wars mythology is very akin to Indian mythology. At its heart, Star Wars is a family drama, and when you take that concept and apply it to what really works and resonates in India, there’s no reason why the folklore of the films won’t be appreciated and liked in India.