Interview With Film Distributor And Trade Expert Girish Johar

Film producer and distributor Girish Johar has worked on over 140 films in various capacities over a 20-year career, most recently having produced last year’s Akshay Kumar-starrer Rustom. Johar has worked with leading players like Balaji Motion Pictures, Sony, UTV Disney, PVR & Zee Studios across film marketing, production, exhibition and distribution. He recently joined KriArj Entertainment and will be leading their foray into film acquisition.

Johar talked to Magic Of Bollywood about the key issues plaguing the industry’s commercial landscape, the remarkable success of the film industries of the south and the reasons behind Jagga Jasoos‘ disappointing reception.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:


At the end of last year, the industry seemed to be in crisis mode with various studios halting film production or shutting shop altogether, largely down to inflated budgets and failures with the current acquisition model. Have you noticed any self-correction since then? Are things any better?

I don’t see any self-correction as of now but I’ve definitely seen some slowdown. Star fees and budgets are still high but I’ve definitely seen some slowdown in terms of demand since the studios have almost packed up. You know there’s a certain urgency when you want to set up projects, that’s the reason you allot big budgets and pay high prices. At present that phenomena is still there but it seems to be less, but I don’t feel things have reduced in terms of budgets and everything so much more has to be done to address those things.


Do you feel the current acquisition system is still flawed?

The acquisition system isn’t flawed it’s the pricing system that’s flawed. The right price points aren’t there.


What are the biggest reasons for budgets getting inflated? Would it be the cost of stars?

Definitely the cost of stars, the scale of shooting, the technicians are expensive, the songs are expensive – the production always claims they have done lavish shooting. Or they’ve shot in foreign locations and when you shoot abroad with a star it’s not just the star, its 20 more people along with him. So all this adds to the production budget which definitely needs to be cut down.


When making acquiring decisions, do distributors typically decide to buy a film when it is announced based on the stars and banner or after they watch the final product?

It’s based on a couple of factors. What are the competing releases at that point of time, who are the stars – that’s the top most criteria. Release date is also very important – whether it’s on a holiday weekend etc, what kind of genre is the film and if it’s commercially viable enough, the past track record of the actors as well as the director and eventually finally it boils down to the trailer. So I don’t see anyone watching a film and then deciding whether to buy it, that system is still not there in India. That would happen for maybe 4 or 5 films out of a hundred, more likely the smaller films.


With changing times, big stars not necessarily delivering big numbers and an increasing number of smaller surprise hits emerging every year, is there such a thing as a ‘safe bet’ any more from a distribution standpoint?

It all comes down to personal judgement. You watch the trailer and take a call. For example, there’s this film Lipstick Under My Burkha, and though it’s a smaller a film, if it’s been bought at the right price and intelligently released then it’ll make money. It really depends on the price point. People have lost on recent films like Tubelight and Jagga Jasoos because of issues with their price point.


It appears that more and more producers are entering the distribution space. What impact does that have?

I believe it’s a cycle. If you watch it over a period of a decade you’ll see 4 players coming in 5 players going out 5 players coming in 3 going out etc, so it;s a cycle. I don’t think that’s a major change, it always happens.


It was recently announced that Salman Khan would reimburse distributors due to the poor performance of Tubelight. Does that make commercial sense to you? Isn’t it the distributor’s job to take on the risk of whether a film does well or not?

It makes sense for them to take the risk but only up to a level. For example because Salman is in it, distributors will buy the film for say Rs 200 when the film’s actual worth is only Rs 80-90 and he’s gone and sold it for much more. Had it been sold at even Rs 100 then no one would have cried about it.  It’s because it’s a Salman film it was sold for a much higher price, had it been nominal loss then nobody would’ve said much.


Nowadays, between 10-20 crore of a film’s budget is allotted just for marketing and promotion. Would you say those costs are justified? 

I don’t think its justified at all. The south industry does much larger numbers with just two states and that too with a capped ticket price, so I don’t think these levels of promotional spend are justified at all.


As you said, producers in the south have come together and mutually agreed a cap on marketing and promotion spend. Why can’t we adopt that system here, is it because we aren’t as unified as an industry?

Definitely, it’s because they are far more unified and stand together.  In spite of capping their PnA spend (Print and Advertising) and having capped ticket prices, they’re doing bigger and better numbers and churning out more successful films, be it any genre. The Hindi film market has the entire country and they only have a handful of states and yet they still do so well and their strike rate is much higher.


When a star omits their fees and takes a share of the profits instead, is that better for the film? Is that the model we should be working toward?

Definitely. It’s much better and that shows the confidence of the star and that he has faith in the film, the team and the director so that’s definitely better. I think that’s what happens in Hollywood also and I think a few stars are already doing that here. Shah Rukh is doing it, Akshay is doing it, Aamir’a doing it and it makes it a lot of sense.


With the GST rate on films turning out to be far higher than expected, what kind of impact do you see that having?

It’ll have a very negative impact and it’s a sad decision by the government. I’m shocked and appalled by what the government has done on this because we were expecting 0-5% but they’ve gone ahead and put 18% on tickets up to Rs 100 and 28% on tickets above Rs 100 and its shocking. They should have recognised the film industry as a soft power that could make an impact worldwide but they’ve done it otherwise and they’ve killed the regional film industry completely. Smaller regional film industries like Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi etc were paying 0-2% and now they also have to pay 18 or 28%.


Does the remarkable success of Bahubali somewhere prove that aspects like stars and holiday releases are just gimmicks?

At the end of the day, everyone talks big when it’s their own film but we should not lose track of the fact that if it’s a good film, then no matter what, be it the competition, stars, non-holiday, whatever, it will run. Tell me one good film which hasn’t done well at the box office. Had Jagga Jasoos been made at a price half of what it was then it would do far better. The biggest issue with that film was the budget, their thought process was excellent, it was the execution of that thought process that was very poor.


The commercial performance of Hollywood films in the last few years seems to have gone from strength to strength. Does that worry you at all?

No, in fact, it makes me happy because a small film like Dunkirk which released recently has done much more business than good Hindi films and it has only released in English and no other languages. So again coming back to the thought of if its a good film it will work. The audiences just want to watch a good film.


But is it not worrying at all to Hindi film producers?

It’s not a threatening at all. It means we have to work harder. It means people are coming to watch those films and they are capable or watching intelligent cinema. We are the ones who are stuck in our traditional thinking.


What level of impact do you believe critics and reviews have on box office figures?

I’d say 5- 10% on the initial level. Now social media is so fast that the audiences also know to recognise fake star ratings or fake reviews and eventually social media is so strong that word of mouth spreads fast, so initially it does have some impact.


A big issue that’s widely talked about in India is our low screen count which is pretty dismal as compared to the US or China. Is there any solution to this?

Yeah I think many multiplex chains are coming in. It’s a slow process but it’s okay, something is better than nothing. It is moving in the right direction. It’s slow but it’s happening.


A number of films get subsidies for shooting in certain locations abroad. How does that affect the kinds of films being made, does it influence filmmakers to default to shooting abroad?

If that’s the intention you can do it only once or twice, that’s it. If you do get subsidies, it’s only 20-30% of the entire project and if the film has no content, the audience won’t accept it. Eventually the film has to be good, the content has to be good, the film has to be well made.


What in your opinion makes a good, successful film distributor?

I think the person who knows what kinds of films are doing well and who can gauge the right price range and the distributor who has the ground knowledge of what the audience is liking.

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