A film never fails, its budget does: CEO of Karan Johar's company

Apoorva Mehta, CEO,Dharma Production
How would you describe Dharma in the context of studios such as YRF, Viacom18 or Eros?

We are different because we distribute, produce and present. We don’t have a formula, we are driven by content. So we are neither a studio nor a production house. We are more of a boutique production house. We want to be known as “creative collaborators”. So we do productions with two or more production houses. For instance, we just did Ittefaq which was a three-way production with Dharma, Red Chillies Entertainment and BR Studios. The idea is to get involved in any good narrative/story. It allows you to mitigate risk, to put out a good production. The filter through which we look at projects is creative. For us the model works well. It allows you to scale up faster.

What scale are you at currently and what will it take to get bigger?

We oscillate between four and five films a year. But we (the industry) are lopsided on talent — there simply aren’t enough good writers and actors. We have launched a lot of talent — Varun Dhawan, Siddharth Malhotra, Alia Bhatt. We are doing Dhadak (which launches Sridevi’s daughter Janhvi Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor’s brother Ishan Khattar) and we will continue to launch more talent. We do give back to the business. But there are budget and talent restrictions. Also, though we need to make a business plan, it is difficult. Some projects come out of the blue; others fall through because they are collaborations. Currently, we have six films on the floors all being shot by us. But it means handling so many partners.

Yash Johar started Dharma in 1976 as a small production house, which Karan later joined. Now it’s home to all kinds of directors and actors. Is the evolution deliberate?
Making a film is an intensive affair, it takes two-three years to find the right story, put together a team and so on. It is difficult for Karan alone to do a film year after year. In fact, except for Rohit Shetty no other director manages to execute a film year after year.

We can’t be waiting for two-three years for each film. We can’t build a company on one person. Therefore we decided to give budding directors a chance. We have so far launched 12 directors such as Nikhil Advani with Kal Ho Na Ho (2003), or Ayan Mukerji with Wake up Sid (2009).

What are your criteria for greenlighting a project?

We are driven by the creative content. 2 States (2014) was the first time we collaborated with another production house. We produce and distribute — either our own films or those of others. It all depends on where the potential of the film lies. 
If a film requires a hefty budget, like My Name is Khan (2010) needed it, we did it with Fox Star. It was an expensive film for us (Rs 450-500 million), it was to be shot overseas and it had international appeal. So collaboration with Fox Star helped leverage that. (My Name is Khan did over Rs 2.07 billion in gross box office revenues across the world).

What are the growth challenges?

Costs are growing year-on-year and theatrical is not really increasing. There is the increasing popularity of regional and Hollywood, which gives more competition (to Hindi). Plus there is online. There is so much choice. Therefore to get eyeballs we need good actors and good content as a combo to put out a project that is appreciated by audiences because multiplexes are expensive — a family outing could take Rs 2,000 or so. Theatre footfalls haven’t increased in the last two-three years. People don’t want to venture into a theatre till they are sure they will get value for money. So we have to be more like Hollywood, create those big-budget magnum opus to force you out and away from your mobile and 3G and 4G. We have to pull people back in though different, visually engaging films. It doesn’t matter if it is a big or small film but the content has to be great.

A film never fails, its budget does. For example, Ittefaq is a psychological thriller. It hasn’t been tried before and we knew it could only do Rs 300-400 million at the box office. Therefore we needed to make within the budget. The film made money. So budget is critical. Sure there are a lot of other platforms but box office remains the biggest. Also because (the value of) every other revenue stream is linked to the box office.

Where is Dharma headed?

The production house will continue to sustain four-five films a year. It is a challenging time because unlike in the past we 
need to be careful.

Eventually we do want to foray into original and short form content because there are so many OTT platforms, Netflix, Amazon and they are only increasing. The writing and presentation of what works online, Narcos, The Crown, is so superior. We need something equally strong. One year ago we started doing commercials under Dharma 2.0 which is headed by Punit Malhotra. It is a logical extension for us because we are good with filming celebrities. We have done 10 ad films so far for Nirav Modi, Johnny Walker and Star Sports among others.

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