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Last Updated: Sun, May 22, 2011 19:42 hrs

UTV is trying different permutations to market movies of different genres overseas

The Indian movie industry (including Bollywood) is said to produce twice the number of films produced by Hollywood or the American film industry. It sells nearly three times the number of tickets. But there is still some way to go before the largest movie industry by volume mints money from markets outside India. While American filmmakers are staring at a global box office with more than 70 per cent ticket sales coming from markets outside the US, Indian movies still sell the most in their home country.

But change could be in the offing. Indian studios are re-thinking the ways of catering to an audience outside India, both expats as well as foreigners.

While it would take some time before the content of movies are tweaked during their making to suit foreign tastes (something Hollywood is increasingly doing), players such as UTV Motion Pictures are adopting interesting ways to distribute and market their portfolio of Hindi films for a more relevant match in overseas markets. The year 2010 proved the merit of its international strategy with no less than nine films grossing half a million pounds in the UK and seven grossing $1 million in the US, both key international markets for Indian films.

Old & new
More often than not, the international audience for Indian films comprises Indian expats living abroad. This audience has lapped up family dramas and romantic comedies starring A-list Bollywood actors. UTV Motion Pictures Senior Vice-president (international distribution) Amrita Pandey says, “Markets such as the UK, Australia were often skewed towards traditional family dramas.”

Pranab Kapadia, the president of marketing and distribution, Eros International, which is one of the oldest distributors of Hindi movies in the international circuit with over 30 years going for it, agrees. “The Indian expat community settled abroad for a few generations is very particular about its culture and want to cling on to it. As a result, they prefer dramas steeped in traditional values that Indian societies are associated with.” Kapadia points out that while movies from the stables of Karan Johar might fail in the Hindi heartland of India, they are sure hits with the expat population overseas because they revolve around similar trials and tribulations.

Pandey explains how things might be changing: “The year 2010 has been a landmark year not just for us but for movies from other studios as well in international markets. Nowadays, it is difficult to cross the one million dollar mark in the US theatrically, but many have done so.” While 2010 saw movies such as Rajneeti, No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ) and We are Family doing well for UTV, the previous year saw it raking in money from Peepli Live among others. “The thing to remember is that the performance of these films in India has no bearing on their collections abroad because the criteria are different. It all hinges on how relevantly we market the movie in another country,” says Pandey.

Take Rajneeti and NOKJ which did well at the Indian box office but lacked the traditional cues for success overseas. Rajneeti was a multi-starrer political thriller, unlike family potboilers, while NOKJ was a female-centric movie on a real-life story that did not concern the audience outside India.

Challenges ahead
“There are two main challenges in showing a film abroad — one, you have to get theatres or exhibitors to accept your film because your film will be vying with not just Hindi movies but other language films and Hollywood releases. Two, you have to get the audience to come to the theatres with your marketing because often they don’t want to venture out of their homes for a theatrical release and would wait for it to be beamed to their television sets or streamed on their computers,” points out Pandey.

Unlike the US, which has a lot of screens, countries in the Gulf or Australia don’t have too many theatres; thus vying for show-times becomes a task in itself, says Pandey. However, established studios such as UTV, Eros and Reliance Big Pictures have an understanding with some theatre chains abroad. “It is always about the slate of films one has,” informs Pandey, implying that a distributor’s strength lies in numbers — the more the number of films you have up your sleeve, the better will be your bargaining power. But instead of relying on the usual strongholds of Indian movie theatres in foreign markets, UTV is trying permutations and combinations for its various genres.

UTV’s theatre strategy was tested with NOKJ. UTV convinced theatres in central London, not the usual sites for Bollywood releases, to show the issue-based movie. Ditto for Dhobi Ghat, which wasn’t shot like a Hindi feature film. For these films, the central London theatres were among the top 3 grossing sites. “Had we released some other Hindi feature film, these places might not have featured even in the top 10,” explains Pandey. The subject of one (activism and female-led) and the treatment of the other (stylised docu-drama) ensured that they clicked with the audience — a mix of Indian expats and foreigners — who would flock to these screens. Taking out ads in mainstream UK newspapers also helped drive traffic to these theatres.

UTV is wary of indiscriminately placing prints of its movies. “We can’t release too many prints, since at the end of the day the cost per print has to be recovered by both us and the exhibitors. So, the trick lies in choosing the correct locations,” says Pandey. It also helps if the studio gets its timing right. “If a movie can get an uncontested run in its opening week, then we need even fewer prints,” says Pandey.

Release timing
UTV found out something interesting with Peepli Live in 2009. The movie was released during Ramzan in West Asia (a major market for Indian releases) — a time when the majority of the population abstain from merriment and hence, don’t come to theatres. Potential blockbusters are held back for the next week of celebrations of Eid. UTV replicated the release timing with its remake of the Julia Roberts-starrer Stepmom, titled We are Family. “It was again a female-lead movie which is not usually popular with Indian expats. We underlined the hooks that that would work for the overseas market — that it was a Dharma (Karan Johar) production, a Stepmom remake, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor starrer. We also played a lot on the fact that it afforded an emotional ride,” says Pandey. As a result, the movie was the third largest grosser in the UK, after My Name is Khan and Dabangg.

“What worked wonders in the Gulf was that the film got almost two opening weekends in terms of sale,” informs Pandey. The week of Ramzan, when producers think twice before releasing their movies in West Asia, gave the movie a free run with viewers who were not constrained by religious sentiments, while the next weekend of Eid saw even bigger crowds milling around for tickets. It also helped UTV pave the ground for its movie ahead of Eros’ release of Dabangg a week later.

Once the distribution is figured out and theatres blocked, UTV turns to savvy marketing to bring in the crowds. “Cutting new promos, if necessary, and highlighting the right hooks for the audience are two ways in which we try to make the marketing more relevant,” points out Pandey. Rajneeti, even though it starred the popular pair of Katrina Kaif and Ranbir Kapoor, was not centred around them and neither were they seen romancing each other in the movie. UTV harped on how the multi-starrer was high on content and was not just a Ranbir-Katrina movie in its promos. For NOKJ, UTV highlighted a sister’s fight for justice, “an emotional hook that people look out for,” adds Pandey.

These bolster the publicity that studios generate when they take the movie stars closer to their international audience — through stunts, surprise visits or even manning of ticket counters by stars during paid previews. Releasing a film overseas can cost Rs 3.5-4 crore for a blockbuster, Rs 2-3 crore for mid-budget movies and less than Rs 2 crore for smaller films, according to industry experts.

Film festivals
UTV has also been actively promoting its movies at international film festivals such as the Berlin Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival. “The festivals help us enter new territories such as East Europe, Korea, Taiwan, South America, European markets such as France and Germany, where theatrical releases of Indian movies were unheard of,” says Pandey.

Peepli Live’s popularity in the festival circuit made new countries evince interest. “We got to screen the movie in 8 to 10 screens in Germany, a Poland-based distributor asked for prints. As a result, we cast our net wider to include arthouse cinemas which played foreign-language movies aided by the international critical acclaim it got. It ensured that Peepli Live was not restricted to South Asian viewers,” Pandey had said in an earlier interview. Peepli Live had raked in $1.1 million internationally, comparable to a large Bollywood release. While UTV services the UK, US and West Asia with its own marketing team, it works with local distributors in the newer markets.

Other platforms
Where theatrical releases don’t make financial sense, UTV, Eros and other studios are reaching out through the digital platform and TV deals. Pandey puts the price of TV rights for an Indian film in new territories at $5000 - $25,000. “Markets such as those in Southeast Asia are very well wired. Hence, reaching out to them through IPTV and the internet is viable,” says Pandey. For now, UTV is concentrating on older films which have had their theatrical run to release through TV deals. It inked a deal with Korean media firm in Seoul for exclusive terrestrial TV rights for five movies from its older catalogue such as Jodhaa Akbar, Wake Up Sid and so on. It has also tied up with Zee Network for a limited period for movie telecasts of some of its dubbed movies across Zee’s international channels as it has with Al Rai TV in West Asia for satellite rights.

Kapadia of Eros says, “Markets such as Greece and Romania would not see theatrical releases anytime soon because the investments won’t get recovered. But we reach out to a bigger audience through digital platforms.” Eros supplies directly to portals such as, a movie rental website, which offers services to European countries. It has tied up with cable networks such as Fox, Time Warner in the US and telecom providers such as Etisalat in West Asia for pay-per-view or video-on-demand services. “We also have our own website. There are also aggregators who further tie up with telecom operators with multiple services such as broadband, DTH and so on to channel our movies.” Such digital distribution, Kapadia feels would also stem piracy and Pakistan is next on its list for such forays.

Foxtrot routine
Foreign studios that have come to India to co-produce and distribute Indian movies are also turning on the heat in international markets. Fox Searchlight, for example, has made My Name Is Khan, to which it had international distribution rights, the top-grosser in international markets (it clocked over $4 million in the US and £1 million in the UK). Not only did it have the credentials of a Shah Rukh Khan-Kajol star cast and Dharma Productions, Fox aggressively pushed dubbed and subtitled versions in unconventional markets such as South Korea (where it reached the top three in box office collections with over $2.5 million after spending $ 1 million in promotions), Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Iceland, Portugal, Indonesia and Egypt in a phased manner.

Fox had shorter edits for the movie for markets which were not used to long Hindi movies. Around 62 per cent overseas box office collections were from non-traditional markets (excluding the UK, US, UAE and Australia). UTV released Rajneeti in Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands, with about 5-10 prints (as opposed to 50-60 in other markets) and struck TV deals in Italy (with Italian broadcaster Radiotelevisione Italiana. “The audience in the US is the most experimental because there is a huge young Indian population, while European countries veer towards typical Bollywood potboilers. In Korea too emotional drama is preferred,” says Pandey.

Indian film festivals are also hosting increasing numbers of buyers from new markets such as Pioniwa and YTV from Japan and The Match Factory and Beta Films from Germany in the Mumbai Film Festival. However, players such as Eros are wary of the appetite of the international audience; Kapadia says, “It is a task for people to leave the comforts of their home and spend on high ticket prices at the theatre for movies. So, there is an appetite for the four top films in a year with top actors but movies of other genres get waylaid. Digital is the way to go for these.” Kapadia estimates 15-20 per cent of a movie’s revenue coming from international markets which goes up to 30-40 per cent for blockbusters from Karan Johar or Khan-starrers.

Also, content tailored to an international, non-South Asian audience is still a far cry away. Experts point out that such crossover movies will lose out on the audience back home since there is still an over-riding preference for three-hour long action and romance films, a demand that can’t be ignored in a low profitable industry (the Hindi movie industry is less profitable than the south-Indian language movie sector, though it accounts for the bulk of Indian movie ticket sales). So,studios such as UTV would have to be on their toes marketing new genres to its international audience, a task substantially more difficult than in India. For now, at least volumes from the uncoventional movie segments are looking up.

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