Sony's Man in Mumbai on Bringing Hollywood to Bollywood (Q&A)

Sony Pictures India managing director Vivek Krishnani - P 2015
Courtesy of Sony Pictures India

Sony Pictures Entertainment's Vivek Krishnani on taking on taboo subjects with Bollywood production 'PadMan' and leveraging the likes of 'SpiderMan: Homecoming' to expand Hollywood’s share of the Indian box office.

Sony was the first Hollywood studio to go Bollywood with 2007's Hindi drama Saawariya. This Friday, Sony Pictures Entertainment India's latest Bollywood effort, the co-production PadMan, opens worldwide. A real-life drama tackling the offbeat (and in India still taboo) subject of menstrual hygiene, PadMan was directed by R. Balki, and features Bollywood stars Akshay Kumar, Radhika Apte and Sonam Kapoor. Sony co-produced with Bollywood banner KriArj Entertainment and Mrs Funnybones Films, the shingle run by Kumar’s wife, Twinkle Khanna, and is handling worldwide distribution.

The feature is part of a broader move by Mumbai-based SPE India to ramp up its local slate.  After PadMan, SPE India announced its next co-production, Umesh Shukla's 102 Not Out, which stars Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan (who made his Hollywood debut in The Great Gatsby) and veteran actor Rishi Kapoor. Sony will release the father-son drama worldwide May 4. Up till now, with the exception of Saawariya, SPE India has largely stayed out of local production, preferring to release third-party Bollywood films.

But Vivek Krishnani, who previously worked at Fox Star Studios India and Sony's Indian television arm Sony Pictures Networks Productions, has been pushing the studio deeper into Bollywood since taking over as managing director of SPE India in 2015. 

Speaking to THR's India correspondent Nyay Bhushan, Krishnani says he sees major opportunities in India, both for homegrown films and, increasingly, among audiences hungry for Hollywood fare.

What kind of trends have you seen in the Indian industry since Sony produced Saawariya more than a decade ago?

Over these years, we have seen the growth of structured studio systems, whether they are Indian or foreign studios. There are far more professionals in the business now and great Indian production houses have been leading the charge. Constructive partnerships are forming between these production houses and [Hollywood] studios. I think the studios are lending support to the creative effort and at the same time, they are also bringing their own input by, for example, opening up new markets (for Indian films). There is more diverse content and a larger amount of risk-taking. On the other side, there has been expansion with large growth in the number of multiplexes in India. Hopefully, we will see this more professional and structured environment continue.

Sony is handling worldwide distribution for PadMan and given the movie's offbeat theme of menstrual hygiene, what is the overseas potential of the film beyond the Indian diaspora?

While the immediate focus is the diaspora and the Indian market, in phase two of our distribution, we plan to expand its release beyond traditional markets. In fact, in Russia, PadMan will be the first Bollywood film to open day-and-date with India with a subtitled version. In March, we plan to give the film a wider release covering 23 cities with a dubbed version. In Europe, we are already opening in France, Germany, Austria and Luxembourg, which is really the first time an Akshay Kumar film is getting such a wide release in those markets. Similarly, in the Middle East, beyond diaspora territories such as Dubai, we are are also opening, for example, in Iraq. In Africa, we are opening in markets including Congo and the Ivory Coast. Our promotion activities are also reaching out to wider target audiences. For instance, [the film's co-producer] Twinkle Khanna recently addressed students at Oxford University, with her speech focusing on menstrual hygiene.

How do you view the Bollywood market for China given that films like Aamir Khan’s Secret Superstar have done well there?

We are definitely looking at China and there is a huge opportunity. For now we don’t have a confirmed release plan for PadMan, but I am sure the Sony machinery will be able to work it out. PadMan can have universal appeal because half the world’s population is female and the film is tackling a subject which has been considered taboo worldwide.

What is Sony’s strategy for its India slate?

We are looking at four to five films a year, either acquisitions or productions, which can also include regional cinema [beyond Hindi-language Bollywood]. We are not rushed, we want to focus on content. There could be years where productions may not be ready and we may pick up titles, and there will be years where there is nothing available to pick up, which will increase our focus on our content. Our objective is to be a production studio and groom talent.

India’s independent scene has been growing, as highlighted by titles such as 2012 breakthrough The Lunchbox, which was acquired for U.S. distribution by Sony Classics. How are you looking at the Indian indie space?

I think a film has to be really dictated by its script and content. We are not shying away from the indie scene.
It really depends at what stage you get involved with a film. Sony Classics distributed The Lunchbox [picking it up at Cannes after it premiered at the festival], but hypothetically, we could be part of a film right at the start which can travel globally. Traditionally, the Indian landscape has focused on a few big actors, so you have to look at content which differentiates. We would eventually like a mix of films which have star support and, on the other hand, back films which are more content driven. Our primary focus is the India market with local content and how that goes global is phase two.

How does Sony demarcate between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Pictures Network Productions, the film arm of Sony’s Indian broadcasting group?

It's something like we have internationally with multiple Sony entities such as Screen Gems, Columbia and TriStar. Sometimes the content may overlap, but everything is routed through the Sony distribution network. We are attempting [to scale] and are also looking at regional Indian cinema and that will be a differentiator.

As seen in the U.S. and other markets, digital platforms are disrupting the film industry and audience habits. How is that playing out in India?

The digital impact in India is still a way to go, but we are not writing its impact off. We are seeing a change in consumer habits with a migration toward OTT platforms, but the first impact is on TV. As far as movies go, it will put pressure on creating the right kind of content, because if its not exciting, audiences will say they would rather catch it later on digital than at the cinemas. So content makers have to think out of the box to increase [traffic at] theaters, which is the challenge. But you have to realize that India is still a very under-screened market in terms of cinemas, especially compared to China.  So if screens go up in India, depending on the right content, [traffic] will also increase.
[India has about 11,000 screens serving a population of 1.32 billion, while the U.S. has over 40,000 screens for a population of 323 million. China has over 31,000 screens for its population of 1.38 billion.]

India is still dominated by local films leaving Hollywood with a minority market share. What is your assessment for this segment?

The Hollywood market has actually seen growth over the last few years. A decade ago, it used to be around 5 to 6 percent market share, then it expanded to 9 percent and now it's close to 13 percent. For us, this growth has really been on the back of great content including tentpoles and franchises, and even high-concept films like Baby Driver. The horror genre is also growing as are kids' films. We had a good run with Angry Birds.

But again, the biggest challenge is the fact that India is a very under-screened market. There are so many films releasing and getting dates is a new challenge. We are hoping that multiplexes continue to grow and give us the reach and depth in more cities [beyond urban areas]. However, on the other hand, there has been progress in 3-D screens, which are now at 950 compared to less than a hundred about a decade ago. We have also expanded the appeal of Hollywood films with dubbing. For instance, we got Bollywood star Tiger Shroff to dub the Hindi version of Spider-Man: Homecoming. For Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, we got writers to pen the dialogues for the Hindi- and Tamil-language versions reflecting local nuances. The dubbed versions of Jumanji contributed 40 percent of its India box-office take. [India does not report official box-office figures, but estimates indicate that Jumanji had a strong opening weekend in India, collecting about $4.5 million]. Our 2018 slate also looks good with Venom and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.