The new COO of Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, the rebooted film division of Viacom’s India joint venture, talks about the company’s restructuring and production plans.

Following a stint at Balaji Motion Pictures, Vikram Malhotra joined Viacom 18’s film division last year to oversee its restructuring and ramp up its production slate.

A joint venture between US media giant Viacom and India’s Network18 broadcasting group, Viacom 18 previously ran Studio18, which distributed Hindi films and international co-productions, and UK-listed investment vehicle The Indian Film Company (IFC). However Studio18 was hit hard in the downturn that derailed Bollywood in 2008 and has since been relaunched as Viacom 18 Motion Pictures, while the Indian Film Company was bought out by Viacom 18 and delisted.

Malhotra recently unveiled the company’s new slate which includes Anurag Kashyap’s two-part gangster musical Gangs Of Wasseypur, Puri Jagannadh’s Buddah starring Amitabh Bachchan and David Dhawan’s remake of Bollywood classic Chasmee Badoor. The company has also launched a new production banner, Tipping Point Films, to create films that appeal to urban Indian youth.

Before joining the film industry, Malhotra was head of worldwide marketing for Kingfisher Airlines and also held marketing posts with Lever-Johnson, Tata Communications and UB Group.

How does film production and distribution fit into the new Viacom 18?

The vision of the two partners is to become a dominant player in the Indian entertainment space. We’re well on the way in TV but motion pictures was also identified as a significant contributor to that ambition. Our earlier foray Studio18 had its share of successes in the early part of its existence, but towards the second half when the industry was in crisis, it had a higher share of those issues and challenges. It was largely acquiring products and distributing or trading them which meant that at any point in time it didn’t have creative or marketing control.

So we looked at the business model, and what is happening in the market, and identified some improvement areas. All around us are new filmmakers, new audience segments, a new emerging sensibility – so we thought it was time to relook at the business model.

How has the film division been restructured?

We’ve gone from an acquisition mindset to becoming a full-service studio model, which means we operate across the value chain from concept and development to production, to marketing, to distribution – we’re becoming an integrated player across all these areas.

There are three cores areas that we’re building competencies around:

We’re deeply engaging with the creative content process – generating our own ideas and scripts, retaining talent to work for us and being involved at every step of the creative and production process.

Building audience understanding is also something we need to focus on – we want to create content that the audience wants to view now or in the future rather than content we think will work. So we’ve commissioned what is probably this industry’s largest market research – an eight-city users and attitudes study.

At this stage I’d also like to share our fundamental philosophy. I think as a country, as a movie-going audience, we’ve moved away from the one-size-fits-all kind of films – I don’t think we can generalise and say that a particular film will appeal to the entire country. There are examples of films that cut across large catchment areas but they’re few and far between.

And the third area is building strong relationships and that’s where we leverage the benefits that our partners have, which range from access to a talent pool, a co-producer who has the most efficient line production abilities, or a distributor with the best marketing information systems.

Is the international market outside India a focus for you?

Yes because the kind of products that come out of our stable in 2011-12, quite a few of them have international leverage potential. We look at the international business in two distinct buckets – one is films that will appeal to the Indian mindset which means NRIs largely in North America, the UK and UAE, and the other kind is films that would appeal to a global sensibility.

This is where Tipping Point comes in – if it seeks to work with a more international kind of sensibility, it would automatically become a filter for us to present these films globally. So our distribution plans are being rolled out in a manner where we cater for both these markets, but for the second kind we need to work with international partners and leverage their capabilities.

How do you think the Mumbai-based film industry is faring right now?

I see three generic things which are my personal perspective after having spent 18 months in the business, so I’m still an outsider looking in. One is that there is no clear trend, which means there is no guarantee of success based on what worked last weekend, three months ago, one year ago. Fortunately that takes away a lot of the rear view mindset this industry had.

The second positive sign is that there is an addressable market. Films like 3 Idiots and Dabangg have shown us that if the content is right, and pitched right, there is an addressable market that is larger than what we conventionally thought it was.

The third thing is that I think the Mumbai film industry, and this includes me, is extremely inward-looking. We are barring examples of creative brilliance like LSD, Udaan, Dhobi Ghat. I think we are a little scared to innovate – and I don’t mean experimentation in the arthouse form but I mean the ability for us to relate towards what is really going on.

I don’t believe India has a lack of writing or directing talent – absolutely not – the Hindi film industry is not giving enough access to talent, or a platform to showcase what they’re doing. If all goes to plan, Viacom 18 will give the industry seven new directors and I’m happiest about that contribution because it’s putting our money where our mouth is.

Do you think the industry will become less star-driven?

I certainly hope it goes in that direction. It’s clear that the time of packaging films is over – the formula of a big star, big director and foreign locales doesn’t work any more. I’m not against big budgets, or stars and their fees, but if you package wine in the most expensive bottle, it has to have the quality to match.