January 2009 marked Balaji Motion Pictures’ third attempt in the movie business and the first one for its newly appointed CEO Ajit Thakur.
Thakur brought to the table two years of experience at UTV Television as COO and 11 years of experience with Coca Cola (brand manager – Sprite & Fanta) and Unilever (global brand director). On the outside he may seem like a high-flying FMCG man who moved to the media and entertainment industry, but deep down he is a writer.
Over the next three years both Balaji Telefilms head honcho Ekta Kapoor and Thakur have envisioned to place Balaji amongst the top 3 movie studios of the country.
In his first ever interview to the media after joining Balaji Motion Pictures, Thakur speaks exclusively to Businessofcinema.com and throws light on the company’s plans ahead.
Three months into your new job, how have things shaped up for you at Balaji Motion Pictures after your stint in television at UTV?
It’s been a total roller coaster ride. Films are more exciting as compared to television, but it is a different kind of excitement. The first three months have been a lot of hard work and we have made some good progress.
Why did you shift from television to movies in a span of just two years? Would it be correct to say that you wanted to shift internally in UTV Motion Pictures, but somehow that didn’t materialize for you?
I love UTV and I enjoyed my stint there. However, beyond a time, TV got predictable and boring, because there is not much content experimentation on TV. There is so much more one can do in movies. In movies you are the master of your own destiny compared to television.
The timing was just based on the opportunities that came my way. Ekta had a vision and ambition and at the same time Balaji was undergoing management change and shift of focus. So it was a great place to come and start almost afresh. UTV is already doing some great movies, so for me this was a more exciting challenge.
A little earlier in your life when you were with Unilever how did you decide to shift to the media and entertainment industry?
I have always wanted to be a writer. But when I was graduating from IIM, there were very few media career options then. FMCG was a great place to start, so after 11 years at Coca-cola and Unilever, it was just a matter of time when I wanted to take the plunge. Two years back when I met Ronnie a couple of times in London I was very excited by the prospects of coming to the media industry. So it was a pre-planned move, but it just took longer than I expected.
What mandate did Ekta entrust you with at the time of joining?
My mandate was to make Balaji Motion Pictures among the top two – three movie studios in India over the next three years, starting with becoming great producers, but going all the way to marketing and distribution. We want to known for cinema that is popular and meaningful.
Balaji is at a stage of expanding from a TV production house to an all platform content house. We want our presence in movies and new media field. Punit Kinra came in as a group CEO and now there are three CEOs for each of the divisions – TV, Movies and New Media. While other companies in India are already doing this, we are starting out now.
The earlier team at Balaji looked into production, co-production and distribution of movies. Will you follow the same model now?
Right now, we are focusing on production. However, our eventual ambition is to get into distribution and acquisition. Right now we will develop our own pipeline of movies starting with four movies this year and six to eight movies the year after. As many movies as possible will be our own productions. The earlier team was looking more at co-productions and film financing and that is the big change happening now because at the end of it Balaji’s core strength lies in production.
How much of an added responsibility is this on you considering Balaji has seen two unsuccessful attempts in the movie business?
Balaji has seen success with Shootout at Lokhandwala and Sarkar Raj. But this does weigh upon me once a while. The fact remains that not everyone manages to make successful cinema. It is an art and a science. We want to get the science right. In terms of the art, we want to work with the right actors, writers and directors, which will reduce our chance of risk and increase our chance of successful films.
What is the new team at Balaji Motion Pictures like?
We have just finished less than half our recruitment. We have appointed Jordy Patel and Amar Butala who look at development and production. Neeraj Joshi is heading our marketing team. We are now looking for a distribution head and public relations head.
What are the investments in movies for this year?
We are looking at making all types of films. For instance, Once Upon A Time in Mumbai directed by Milan Luthria is budgeted at Rs 35 crores. We have another film with Neeraj Pandey and are looking at signing two more directors. We want to make medium and small budgeted films as well.
What is the genre of movie that you are looking at making with Neeraj Pandey?
It is too early to comment on what kind of a film it will be, but all I can say is that it will be different from what he has made in the past. It will go on floors this year itself and will release early next year.
It is learnt that you are also in talks with Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap. Will it be wrong to say that you are scouting for UTV’s talent pool?
I am a big fan of some of the people that Ronnie is working with. It is no surprise that last year’s all films, which won awards are from them, except Rock On. Ronnie is working with the best people, so there is no harm in looking at the talent pool there. We are also admirers of other production houses, which are doing some great work. We are approaching these directors with a lot of passion, conviction and a clear plan for the next three years.
Which of the earlier movies and deals are still on?
Once Upon A Time in Mumbai was conceived before I joined Balaji, which we are working on currently. All our associations from the past will continue. We are still working with Suniel Shetty’s Popkorn Entertainment.