A relatively new entrant, WSG Pictures has already made its presence known with its debut offering Dharm, one among the seven films that were screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
In an interview with Businessofcinema.com’s Sanjay Ram, WSG Pictures CEO Sheetal Talwar talks investments, plans and productions that are underway for the company.
How did WSG Pictures come about?
I was a banker and used to get up every morning and wonder which way I was headed. Bhavna’s (Dharm director) producer backed out of the film because he felt it was too bold and honest. That was when I felt that we should be looking at cinema beyond the so called Bollywood ride.
Overnight, we took a decision to put this company together, and to do it in a way that would use our intellectual capital to make a professional film company. While the corporates were entering, they were all still going with the same Bollywood films. Only the source of funding was changing.
As a marketer I thought there must emerge a new market and there has to be a more interesting way to fund it; and the relevant opportunities. This is how the whole journey started.
Was this an easy decision to make?
No because one needs to unlearn a lot of things that we have already learnt.
Primarily, unlike in the corporate world, your word has no meaning. People are looking at making that fast buck off you. It’s a deal making business; everything is a proposal or a deal, which is not the mindset we were used to. Today, maybe, we are attuned to that mindset.
Also, we were lucky we found some very good supporters, we found Peter Anshnin of Asia Entertainment Finance Associates (AEFA); who is a supporter, business partner, friend and mentor. We got the support and the blessings of people like Adlabs’ Manmohan Shetty, who I regard as a role model for anyone who wants to enter this industry and is not from within the industry.
We went out with a vision, of wanting to make cinema for the international markets. The fact that we showcased our film at Cannes and have are of the seven films to be selected in a year when there has been great cinema, is in itself great.
What was the core plan when you launched WSG pictures?
The plan was to enter the European market with the first film, since those are the non traditional economies. With the second film, if we can get the European market as the natural precursor because of having attained a market there, we would then want to move to the American market. That would be a huge break for us; which is what we have tried to do with Good Sharma, by taking a main line cast like Billy Conolly and Joan Allen.
The third plan is to see how we can use all that to create a sort of fuse in markets, so that markets are seamless. My belief is that markets are not going to be split geographically but by platform. Convergence means the markets will differ, the geographical spread will go, which is where we hope to be.
To help us with our plan, we hired Sandeep Akhina, a former Coke employee, who is going to be the CEO for our new media ventures. It is going to be a critical piece in making sure we move ahead.
By saying you will focus on films for an international market, wouldn’t you be ignoring the existing Indian market?
Let me correct that. We believe that the traditional Indian producer looks at 80 per cent of his revenues from India and the rest from other areas. We are just saying that we will reverse the trend. We are happy with just 20 per cent of our revenues coming from India and 80 per cent from the rest of the world.
Of course, India is important, we live here, and we want to be recognised here. Does that mean that we are making films that won’t be released in India? The answer is ‘No’, that’s why we have tied up with Adlabs for this film as we are looking for a large release. But we believe that a major part of our revenue is going to come from the west and our current attempt is to do that.
What is the investment that has been pumped in so far into WSG Pictures?
Approximately Rs 3.5 million (Rs 35 crore) is what has gone in till date.
We know that there is a market for the films you are making, but exactly how sizeable is it?
I don’t have the exact numbers offhand, but seven per cent of the world market is non Hollywood cinema; which is huge. Currently, we have a miniscule portion, even if we move to one per cent of that, which is what Iranian cinema did, it is humongous. We are talking of a billion dollar market.
What is the investment to revenue margin for such ventures?
That’s a very critical question. I believe cinema is about IPR (intellectual property rights) creation. Will you break even on the first Friday of the month? No you won’t and that’s not what we are looking at.
We are looking at cinema, which will give us 25 per cent return over a 12 month period and we believe that over an 18 month period we will have got our huddled rate, which is 25 per cent per annum. That is how we will define our investment objectives.
Are there any other films that are under production?
We are currently editing a film called Good Sharma which has Joan Allen, Billy Conolly and Pankaj Kapur. There are two other films that we are also currently under production. One is a film called Par Door Traveler, which is going to be directed by Isiah, an American German and secondly, there is Bhavna’s venture for which we are currently finalising the script.
What is the source of funding?
It is basically equity; unless, we do equity investments, the interest burdens will be killing. We have got a set of investors, the Friday Fund which is a fund that has been created especially for the sort of cinema which we are doing. Dharm is our first venture, Good Sharma our second and hopefully, we will show them returns and get them back in.
In the near future, are there plans to list the company?
No. I don’t think we should list because the one thing you lose at that point of time is the ability to create a great creative product. That has been proven in the US; it has been proven in both the media space as well as the entertainment space. So that’s something we would like to stay out of at this point of time.
What is it that you are looking at, apart from the regular?
We are looking at the new media space, which will be a critical driver.
Lastly, is there a sense of contentment after having produced Dharm?
As a husband and as someone who has lived the creative process, ‘Yes’. But as a producer, my contentment is in the fact that in this film, we have actually gone and proven that you can make honest cinema, appeal to different markets and still make money off that film. The fact that we are selling in non traditional markets is contentment for me.