Vibha Chopra, Head of Zee Studios International, Film Marketing, Distribution, and Acquisition, is geared-up for a hectic start to 2019 – with mega-biopic Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi starring Kangana Ranaut just released and Akshay Kumar starring Kesari set to hit the screens a few months down the line.
She is in the lead role when it comes to bringing exciting Bollywood content from Zee Studios to Indian Diaspora and to non-Indians, who form the growing market for Bollywood movies, across the world.
Manikarnika, for instance, will release in 50 countries, which includes Singapore, UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and UAE/GCC. It will also feature in unconventional markets such as Russia, Turkey, Germany, Austria, Czech Malta, Hungary, Maldives Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China.
In an exchange with Connected to India, Vibha explains the business of movies.
C to I: When was Zee Studios International formed? Please tell us a bit more about the business.
Vibha Chopra: Zee is a market leader in overseas markets. Our television channels and now our digital platform Zee5 are making inroads not only in the South Asian diaspora but also in the mainstream market.
When we started going aggressively into our business of film production in India, we realised that the market for overseas distribution lacked know-how of customised marketing of films as per different territories. Moreover, Indian films weren't able to get the kind of release in unconventional markets and even in conventional markets.
With this in mind, Zee Studios International was formed in 2016-2017. It is responsible for the marketing, acquisition, and distribution of Indian and well as foreign language films in overseas markets. We have a slate of close to 44 films including Hindi, Marathi, Punjabi, South Indian, and other foreign languages.
C to I: Could you give us a regional comparison of how Bollywood films are received in the US, Middle East, and Asia?
Vibha Chopra: Indian films are well received in North America and in the Middle East and the UK – accounting for up to 75% of total overseas Box office collection. Asian territories like Pakistan and Singapore also have major contributions to the box office. In few Asian territories such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, we see a huge footfall especially for Tamil releases.
C to I: How do your film production and film distribution businesses compare with some of the other business houses like YRF and so on?
Vibha Chopra: The key difference is our reach of audience via our television channels and now our digital platform. This helps in optimum exploitation of content. The long-term associations and deals that we have with a lot of key stakeholders across different markets help us to get the best deals for the filmmakers. We have consistently been trying to widen the reach of Indian films in this manner.
Having a completely transparent system, our own distribution network and on-time reporting of numbers have helped us being adjudged as the number 1 International distributor for Indian films in 2017 by ETC Bollywood Business Awards.
C to I: What are the other big releases planned for 2019? Production and distribution?
Vibha Chopra: We’re kickstarting 2019 with Manikarnika. Our focus has been to associate with quality cinema – and we have Kesari, Mental Hai Kya, Jabariya Jodi and Good News in the pipeline.
Apart from this, we’re looking at the regional space as a big opportunity. We have our Marathi Film, Anandi Gopal, which we are very confident of. So we are looking at that one to be a wide release in February 2019.
We are further looking to expand our slate with notable Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam films. We are also opening markets for films outside of India – 2019 will see us enter distributing Filipino films as well, probably a first for any distribution set up based in India.
C to I: While marketing and distributing films abroad, do you only target the NRIs or the non-Indian audiences as well?
Vibha Chopra: Our primary audience for Indian content will always be the Indian diaspora. However, we believe that Indian content transcends beyond just the Indian diaspora.
For instance, MOM and Bareilly Ki Barfi were one of the first few films to be dubbed in Russia and get a wide release in that market. Films like Secret Superstar and Hindi Medium besides other markets have found so much love in China; Gold became the first Bollywood film to release in Saudi Arabia; Hindi Medium and Secret Superstar did huge numbers in markets such as Taiwan as well.
C to I: What are the various language films you distribute?
Vibha Chopra: Hindi, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Pakistani, Philippine Cinema are some of the languages we have distributed in the last few months. We are also continuously getting offers from other markets and territories.
We have been able to gradually shift from distributing Bollywood films to now distributing foreign films in markets outside India. (Zee Studios International made its foreign (Philippines) language film distribution debut with Sid & Aya: Not A Love Story).
C to I: Indian films’ popularity has been expanding in new markets among non-Hindi followers like China. What is the reason behind this trend and how do you plan to distribute films to take advantage of it?
Vibha Chopra: The US, UK, Canada, and Gulf countries already have a good viewership for Indian movies. Other countries such as China are also waking up to Indian movies as the emotional quotient is more in our films. This is a very supportive trend. China is a growing theatrical market whose taste is changing and evolving rapidly. We are very similar to them in ways more than one, so relating to our traditions and films is not challenging for the market.
Moreover, the strong performances and interesting storylines in a film only add to the interest. Zee Studios International as a company aims to spread great content across the globe. Besides, China is also looking for good content, which can be played on their screens.
For non-diaspora markets, we try to get them our films in their language as we did for MOM and Bareilly Ki Barfi. Apart from China, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the new booming market for world cinema. We had released GOLD there earlier this year, and we are proud to be the first Indian studio to release the first Bollywood film in Saudi Arabia.
C to I: What was your strategy to capture the NRI market? How do you choose which films to distribute, especially moving beyond Bollywood?
Vibha Chopra: Our foremost strategy has always been to provide content which connects and resonates with our audiences globally, which cuts across genres and languages. This has helped in making our brand stronger and gaining a wider viewership base.
Zee Studios International wants tell stories that are relevant for a global audience and to grow the business through game-changing innovation in content, marketing, distribution and by developing a long-term relationship with global production houses. With each of our releases we are getting a better understanding of the global market. We also learned that audience, distributors and exhibitors are more receptive to Indian content now then they have been in the past.
C to I: Your company has been chosen as Singapore’s leading Indian film distributor. How are you ahead of the pack in terms of overseas markets compared with other production houses in India?
Vibha Chopra: This has happened due to our key emphasis on quality content rather than taking every film overseas. Transparency with the makers as well as exhibitors helped as well.
In two years, we have been able to gradually shift from distributing Bollywood films to now distributing foreign films in markets outside India. Finding new audiences across the world with worthy and differentiated content is what we stand for.
C to I: You’ve had a busy 2018 and Zee Studios International will be distributing Manikarnika early next year followed by Kesari. What are your expectations from the film?
Vibha Chopra: We have immense expectations from not just Manikarnika and Kesari, but also all of our upcoming releases. In addition to box office results, we also aspire to strike a chord with the audience globally.
While Manikarnika has been a co-production and developed internally, Kesari, on the other hand, continues our successful association with Dharma Productions after Raazi and Dhadak.
C to I: Manikarnika is a biopic. How do you feel her story will resonate with non-Indian audiences?
Vibha Chopra: We as a studio have fully embraced a more conventional approach to releasing our films in the international markets now with female-centric films finding more takers. We know as long as good content is involved, the film is bound to do well.
C to I: With international streaming services and more and more films being released on online portals, how are traditional distributors planning to ensure you stay on top of the market?
Vibha Chopra: Consumer tastes and demands are constantly changing. But the importance of content remains unchanged.
While audiences are becoming more interested in streamable content, they’ll still turn up at the multiplexes to see the Avengers save the world. Instead of surrendering to existential dread, studios and exhibitors are showing a greater willingness to experiment, especially with content.
C to I: How challenging has it been for you as a woman to work in a primarily male-dominated domain of film distribution?
Vibha Chopra: For me, it hasn’t been a challenge because I feel if you know what your job is and have the ability to excel then that’s it. Also, at Zee, the good thing is the support that you get from the top management and the different territories that are spread across the globe. And finally, it’s about the amazing team that makes me balance the responsibilities at home and in my job.
In a nutshell, a great leader is a great leader; I wouldn't like to segregate it as a male leader or a female leader. If you’re enterprising, then you’re enterprising. There is no gender bias there.