Not too many people familiar with the Bollywood business model would have placed their bets on Fox Star Studios in 2015. The movie production and distribution company, a joint venture between American movie studio 20th Century Fox and media and entertainment company Star India, had just delivered a resounding flop in Anurag Kashyap’s period crime drama, Bombay Velvet. The film, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Anushka Sharma, made for around Rs125 crore, managed less than one-fifth—Rs23.67 crore—at the box office. Coupled with other big-ticket disappointments like Brothers, Shandaar and Hamari Adhuri Kahaani, the picture seemed less than rosy for the entertainment company.
Two years later, the tables have turned and how. Fox’s six releases this year have earned about Rs440 crore in domestic collections alone. These include three of the year’s biggest hits—Akshay Kumar’s satirical comedy Jolly LLB 2, Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt-starrer Badrinath Ki Dulhania and Dhawan’s action comedy Judwaa 2— steadily catapulting the studio to the top of the game.
“Among the studios, Fox is right on top,” said film distributor and exhibitor Akshaye Rathi. “I don’t think there’s any other studio doing as well as they are.”
The turnaround for Fox, Rathi added, happened two Diwalis ago with Sooraj Barjatya’s family drama Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, which made Rs210.16 crore in box office collections and remains the highest grosser for the studio in India till date.
“Before that, all the films they had worked on were part of the bad patch. After that, they’ve had a lot of successes, including Kapoor & Sons, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Neerja, so it’s been a great run so far,” Rathi said.
But the turnaround for the studio that set shop in India around 2009 wasn’t easy.
“There’ve been huge learnings over the last 7-8 years but I think most significantly, we’ve gained clarity on what our objective is and how to get there,” said Vijay Singh, chief executive officer, Fox Star Studios.
It’s a multi-pronged strategy, he said.
“The first is that it’s all about content, everything begins and ends with the script. It is all about building a robust script bank, and therefore ‘development’ has become the heart of the company,” Singh said, adding that today stars can only help open a film well. “It is about developing different script ideas and genres not just for this year but in a way that if two years from now, a trend is moving towards, say, realistic cinema, we’re able to mine our script bank depending on what consumer insights we have.”
Singh spelt out Fox’s ambition quite clearly—to consistently rank among the top two studios in India.
“We believe that scaling up is critical to achieve this objective. Our ambition is to do 10-plus films every year,” he said. In which case, the second part of their strategy comes in, which is about fostering relationships with home-grown production houses like those owned by Karan Johar, Sajid Nadiadwala, Rajkumar Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
“We completely recognize that this industry is relationship-driven. If we have to scale up, we have to adopt a variety of different business models to get there,” Singh said. That means home productions like Jolly LLB, co-productions like Neerja, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil or Judwaa 2, and strategic alliances with those they believe are the best talent in Bollywood, like Johar’s Dharma Productions, where Fox partners with the local producer’s entire slate of upcoming films.
“If we want to do 10-plus films, we can’t do all of them in-house. These are production houses that have an enviable track record and bring a certain kind of storytelling with the specialization that each one has which, in turn, augments the portfolio of films we offer to the audiences,” Singh said.
That’s where lessons, as far as budgets go, come in too.
“A successful film is also one made at the right budget,” Singh said. “Budgets go haywire because of actor fees which are very large and inadequate pre-production planning. Over the last five years, one of the things we’ve consciously tried to do is bring in a more balanced risk and reward model. If a film is a hit, all stakeholders in the film must benefit. And with actors, there should be a combination of fixed fee and backend (share in profits depending on the films’ box office).”
Quite evidently, the lessons are paying off.
“More than anything else, it was about the improved choices or acquisitions that Fox made,” Rathi said. “It’s very important to associate with the right kind of filmmakers to score at the box office. The money for which they acquired Bombay Velvet is largely the same amount for which they acquired Ae Dil Hai Mushkil or Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. One is a semi-abstract, art film by a filmmaker who caters to a niche audience, while the other two make the most universal films possible for Indians across the world. It’s these choices that resulted in a turnaround and then of course, a bigger focus on great content. Films like Kapoor & Sons and Neerja come at a smaller cost and have the content to reach out to a significantly good audience.”
Lastly, Singh said Fox wants to be looked upon as the company that offers the strongest and most transparent marketing and international distribution for Indian films. On one hand, being part of the Star broadcast network gives them unparalleled access and reach, while on the other, leveraging the theatrical muscle of Fox is equally valuable.
“As always, having made a good film, it’s all about leveraging marketing and distribution competencies, so that every film can be monetized to the fullest. I can categorically say that we offer the best marketing and distribution solution across the industry, be it in India or internationally,” he said.
All of this should help the upcoming slate, which includes projects like the Sanjay Dutt biopic starring Ranbir Kapoor, Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer Drive and Tiger Shroff-starrer Baaghi 2 among others.
“Yes, there has been a conscious roadmap to our strategy,” Singh admitted. “I think the learnings (for foreign studios) have been that we’ve gotten to recognize that the film business in India has been there for a hundred years. The studios were new to India, film was not. So the studios had to come in and learn and that is why, our measured approach in the first few years was the right thing in hindsight. Learnings come through successes as well as failures and we clearly have learnt from the latter.”