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"Skills required to get a film off the ground, market and distribute it are completely different from television" : Nittin Keni - Zee Telefilms Ltd. Film Division CEO

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W ith Zee Telefilms having appointed him as the chief executive of its films division, Nittin Keni currently has movies, movies and more movies on his mind. As head of Zee's entire film business, he is currently looking at production of motion pictures, co-ventures, as well as setting up a domestic and overseas distribution network.

An engineer and post-graduate in management from the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata, Keni was with the National Film & Development Corporation (NFDC), an Indian government-controlled organisation, before joining Zee in the early 1990s. Given his strong grasp of movies and movie business, his big budget venture Gadar-Ek Prem Katha- a period film that was made without sticking to industry norms was skeptically looked at. But with the success of Gadar, he managed to score an ace. Now with his latest big venture Waris, in the pipeline, Keni is aiming at repeating the success story.

In conversation with indiantelevision.com's Trupti Ghag, Keni talks about making movies, the TV-n-movie connect and Zee Telefilms' future plans.

Excerpts:

Why are television software companies, broadcasters getting into film production?

In a sense, television is quite dependent on movies. Be it in terms of software, film related programmes or stage shows. At least once a week, entertainment channels have a movie premiere.

Also, talent in television, be it actors, directors, technicians - aspire to get into bigger avenues, which means the bigger screen. Movies are still considered the mother of entertainment. Cinema is the mainstay; it will remain the extremely important element of the software.

What advantages does a film production company have if it belongs to a group that includes a broadcaster?

The only advantage is that out of a stream of distribution, the satellite distribution is taken care of. Also the broadcaster will ensure a certain amount of promotion. Over a period of time, however, it will have to be paid for in some way, like specific mutual deals could be drawn up where the channel that promotes a film gets an exclusive right to its premiere. But beyond that, I don't see great advantages.

It does not matter if the television company is producing or funding the movie. Both television and films are completely different business.

As for the talent pool, in terms of deployment, there are not great advantages either. A thoroughbred television executive, whether he is programming or marketing or cable distribution, does not have any kind of advantage.

That's quite unlike the normal perception. Often it is thought that if an established television company or broadcaster is backing the venture, the key advantages would be the creative support and the manpower. So what is your core team like? Are there any television people in it?

I still am selecting my core team. Ideally, I would pick out some people from television. But primarily because they are available to me and provided that I can train them for film production.

The only advantage that I can see is that with television people venturing into films one can expect to get in certain amount of professionalism, which is lacking in the industry.

What is the kind of professionalism that we are talking about? Is it just sticking to the budget, deadlines?

Yes, that and also proper planning, structured approach, smooth cash flow, contractual and legal system, which are not prevalent in the industry. Those are the area where a television company or a corporate body could put in some value addition.

"Proper planning, structured approach, smooth cash flow, contractual and legal system are area where a television company or a corporate body could put in value addition "

Does it mean that films also can be completed in the exact budget and time?

It should ideally be the case, but a lot depends on the filmmaker. Personally speaking, I have made films that stick to the budget, while some have gone grossly over budget.

When you look at it, a budget depends on many factors. You can stick to the given budget, if you have all the resources like the talent and the technicians at your command. When a project involves stars, then comes the issue of their dates. Plus the problems with locations, transports, weather, logistics all could make you go over budget.

More often then not, it is the 'star system' that creates problems and the budgets go haywire. Especially when you are waiting for the stars to give you the dates. While the dates issue may be deliberate in couple of cases, sometimes it's a genuine problem.

Also when you have a period film and you have to recreate an entire period, things might not be agreeable and you will have to redo the entire set. But You could make a big budget film with no stars and the budgets would be in control.

Is there a particular genre that Zee Telefilms is interested in? What are the subjects that excite you?

I think it is the story telling that excites me. There is a certain satisfaction that you get when you hear the story and are able to visualize it. What I would ideally like to do is to take a real incident, fictionalise it and make it into a story for the big screen. But I don't think that I would like to make another Gadar - a period film at the moment.

The best story for the large screen is the one with mix of reality and fiction. Reality fiction drama is what I am keen on developing at the moment. When the stories are completely fictionalized, they lack a certain bite...certain excitement.

What were the risks involved in making 'Gadar'?

I think it was total risk. I was working against a whole lot of industry norms. I was trying to do a high budget period film, with a director who was crassly commercial and had not attempted something like that before. The lead actor had a very strong image and the actress was a rank newcomer.

We had a new costume designer along with a couple of other technicians who were new. But most important was that we had a new art director, it was a period film and we needed to create the period correct, make sets, remodeling the look, and the costumes had to be right.

The money was coming from the corporate bodies so there was no guarantee that the flow would be continuous. Even when we needed the money, we had to go through ten channels. Plus we had to present a progress report periodically. Unfortunately they don't understand that even though it doesn't look like a lot of content, any pivotal scene on print is a progress.

Plus I was dealing only in cheque payments and working with legal documents. Everybody, right from Sunny Deol to the carpenters, the spot boys was paid by cheques. I had opened bank accounts for those who didn't have one. Although a couple of corporate bodies did venture in film making before us, ours was a first complete white film.

People dissuaded me, but I decided not to waver. I had to let go of a couple of people, because they weren't comfortable.

The market value of Sunny Deol then was Rs 25 million, but unfortunately during that time couple of his films had bombed at the box office. So people were a little skeptical about investing in my film. People were offering me ten million and my film costs were mounting as high as 18 crores (Rs 180 million). Therefore I asked every contributor to give out a minimum of three crore (Rs 30 million).

In order to get that money, I showed fifty per cent of the film in rough. It was again not a normal thing to do and everybody from Sunny to my director warned me against it. But I had no option. I had to tell people that it is not a Sunny Deol film, so I am not asking for Sunny Deol's price for one territory. It paid off because they were able to see that the canvas was much bigger and he was just one element.

"When the stories are completely fictionalized, they lack a certain bite...certain excitement"

How do you ideate?

I just keep listening to stories, reading good books, plays, good pieces of journalism. Unfortunately, unlike Hollywood, there is no tradition of getting published work on screen. And there aren't enough published works that one can fall back on. But there are a lot of young writers and directors who come and narrate their line of thought.

It was the same for my last film Gadar and ditto for Fareb. As for my next film Warris, the writer came and narrated two big plots but they didn't impress me, but then he narrated a real life incident and I found my next story. The trigger point, like I said before, is a real life story.

How do you strategise about making and marketing the movie?

In making, one is always on a look out for who is appropriate for the subject. If I need a director for a human drama, I will look out for someone who has handled drama, and the conflict in human relationship. If you are making a commercial film, then you have to look out for a person who knows his craft. While I was on the lookout for someone to direct Fareb, I zeroed in on Vikram (Bhatt). He wasn't old but he had a certain westernized style that the script demanded. You need to match skill to talent.

As for marketing, I try and identify what is special about the film. But I don't think I need to look hard into that. I wouldn't make a film unless I want to make a film.

Is it a television learning?

I don't think so. It comes from seeing masters like Satyajit Ray or Adoor Gopalakrishnan at work. Plus I had a lot of exposure to good films because I used to take the films to Cannes, Berlin, so I have a fair sense of what good film is.

The TRP trend wasn't greatly prevalent, when I was in Zee. So there was no keen marketing at that time.

How has the distribution changed over the years?

Promotion, as a mode of distribution, has changed over a period of time. There was the time when you had the posters at the railway stations and in the railway bogies. Those days are over because television goes directly into the home.

What I see, in the foreseeable future, is that the mode of distribution will change with digital cinema coming in. Movies would be delivered by satellite. The distribution of movies would not be physical by prints but through satellite. We already have 150 digital prints in the country. It is cost efficient as well. The cost of a hard disk is Rs 2500 vis a vis the cost of a print which is Rs 20,000. The movie makers will therefore not remain at the mercy of distributors.

Also, multiplexes have changed the way of distribution.

You already have an inhouse multiplex. So how does that help you?

Very little. In fact, even as Zee's multiplexes grow, there is no great advantage. Even if we club the Zee multiplexes with the others in the country, it wouldn't help as our films are made on a bigger scale. The multiplexes essentially would make the small films with new actors viable, however.

Hasn't the trend already started? But from what I gather, it has met with a mixed response?

Yes, there are people making the films but unfortunately they do not visualize the marketing of the films. Irrespective of the budget of the film, the marketing costs are about a crore and more (ten million). So if you have a Rs two crore (Rs 20 million) film and you have to put in one crore for marketing, then the producer is not in a position to do so. So a lot of these films are not being exploited well.

What happens then is that films are left to the mercy of the distributors. Many times, the films do not get a good opening, except in Mumbai and other metros where you release the film in multiplexes. Even promotion on a channel costs Rs five to six million.

A small film is still not a viable thing; it can become viable if digital distribution comes in. If an association or group of multiplexes is formed, you just need one print for all screens. That is what I am looking at.

What was heard during launch of your film 'Gadar' is that it struck a chord because of the jingoistic appeal of the film?

Why not! What's wrong with that? But jingoism doesn't ensure success. Take LOC or Border for instance. While Border worked, LOC isn't working. I don't think jingoism by itself works; Manoj Kumar tried it but after certain period it didn't work. It really depends on the story.

Lagaan for that matter was 100 years old but it was about the people facing odds and winning.

Was there any resistance from within the industry when you started off?

None whatsoever. If somebody is really talented, and can prove their talent, then the industry accepts you. But one thing is true, in the film industry there is far more acceptance for success than talent.

It is a common knowledge that box office lacks accountability. Since Zee Telefilm is liable to its share holders, how do manage your accounts?

As far as the audit system goes, the auditors look at the production. All the dealings that we do are contract bound and done through cheques, so auditors have a clear sheet before them. Once you give it to the distributor, your shareholders don't have a say over the proceedings. So with Gadar and Fareb we handed it over to the distributors and charged them some money for it.That ends the matter. Now since we are planning to get into distribution, we will probably be doing that.

What is the system that you will be following? How would you ensure transparency?

We have got an ally- Rajshri. Luckily, they are the cleanest of the distributors. Our job is now to give confidence to our shareholders. For that we will be modernising our offices. We are going to computer link all the offices, so that on the day of the release, the information is transmitted to the producers and distributors alike. So there is no question of tampering with the data.

Are you planning to move south?

Zee has Padmalaya into its fold so there is a plan to move into the Telugu market.

How different is Southern cinema from mainstream Hindi cinema?

The Hindi film is a small market but regional markets are very strong. Telugu movies are strong, followed by Tamil movies. Malayalam is slightly more artistic. Karnataka cinema is one, which is not up to the mark in terms of quality and the production but still they are far better then Marathi, Gujarati and Bengali cinema. Hindi movies hardly get 15 per cent share. The market is bigger than adapting Hindi movies into Telugu by dubbing.

Is Zee planning foreign collaboration?

We have one film One Dollar Curry with French makers. We are looking to make crossover films, but we aren't keen on English movies. The focus will be rather on Indian stories. I am working on a script with Jagmohan Mundra. One with Vijay Singh is almost complete.

Earlier, I made a film with Mira Nair, Salaam Bombay. I would look out for these kind of films, to collaborate with the NRIs and the foreign makers.

What are the revenues generated by the film division? How would you compare it with Zee's total revenues?

I still don't have the actual figures. But if you calculate, I think it would be nothing, maybe two per cent of the earnings.

Would you be making telefilms for Zee? From what I know you started the telefilms genre with 'Phir Teri Kahaani Yaad ayi', 'Fareb', 'Aisi Bhi Kya Jaldi'. Is there a market for telefilms?

No, there is no market. Zee has tried to revive with Kambakht Ishq, Star has tried it. But the question is - will people want to see a telefilm. I don't think they really see a need for it. Unless there is a separate position in the minds of people, it won't work. People still think of telefilms as an extension of a serial. With digital cinema coming in, probably there will have semblance of movie.

What's next?

We are certainly going to be looking at overseas distribution and production. As for Waris, it is a story that requires a big star because it is high drama. I am waiting for a big star. I had approached Aamir Khan but it didn't work out, while Shahrukh Khan had health problems.

What is the plan of action for overseas distribution?

It is not really clear in terms of concept. We are looking out for distributors in US, Canada, UK, Middle East, South Africa and the Far East. We cannot have our own as it would be difficult to manage, but probably we could collaborate with other distributors.

How much has the international market grown?

It has grown by leaps and bounds. With the break up of the USSR, the market was dead, there were certain countries which had banned Indian cinema, like Singapore, Korea, China and others like UK were too mainstream. They were open to only small markets in UK, Mauritius, Fiji. But with the multiplexes culture, the scenario is rapidly changing and there is more acceptance.

What do you think about the trend of television production houses getting into movie making?

Any body can venture into film making provided they have the requisite funding.

So why are production houses getting into making movies? And what would you offer out of your personal experience?

With movies, they increase their area of operation, influence. But what they have to realise is that the kind of skills that are required are completely different. Even though you might have state-of-the-art studios, the movies do not look good if they are shot solely insideon studios.

Skills that are required to geta film off the ground, make it market it and distribute it are completely different from the television programme they make. There is a certain amount of glamour and aspiration to reach to a bigger audience.

There are a couple of corporates like Pantaloon, Singhania, Sahara who are getting into films. But it seems like it isn't a completely thought through process. There are disturbances with the budget; it is not in sync with what the market is seeking currently.

How is 'Bhagmati' doing? When are you planning to release it?

I saw the rushes and I am not happy with it. It is a very difficult film to market. People don't realise the difference between cartoon and animation. Plus it is an Indian story. I am trying to make it as crisp as possible but I don't think it will be ready till April.

Do you mean to tell me that the market is not ready?

The current distribution system does not really suit an animation film. People treat animation lightly, they confuse it with cartoons. While cartoon is just computer graphics, animation has a lot of layers.

The market is not ready for animation.

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