After Bollywood, Fox Star Studios sets its sights on the Tamil film industry. Sudish Kamath has the details

Having gotten off to a flying start distributing International films (“Slumdog Millionaire” and “Avatar”) within its first two years here in India and finding a foothold in the Hindi film business (“My Name is Khan” and “Quick Gun Murugan”) during the last year, Fox Star Studios has recently tied up with A.R. Murugadoss for producing two Tamil films.

Sanford Panitch, President of Fox International Productions, and Vijay Singh, CEO of Fox Star Studios, were in town for the announcement. Before they rushed to catch a screening of “Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya” in connection with the Hindi remake of the film, we caught up with the top bosses to quiz them on their strategy and challenges.

“Now that we have got our markers in place for Hollywood and Bollywood, we thought it was time for our foray into Tamil with this two-film tie-up with Murugadoss,” says Vijay Singh. “Even in Bollywood, we are not trying to do 35 films at a time... we want to do five to six films. The idea is to work with the best talent.”

Does the studio feel the need to relax norms, and be flexible with the relatively unorganised nature of film production in India? “Certainly, there's some need for adaptability when you are trying to make local language films anywhere in the world,” admits Sanford Panitch. “But, we have the benefit of having the infrastructure already in place with STAR.”

Acknowledging the ground realities in film distribution, Singh notes: “It's about adapting and trying to understand each market reality, and then trying to develop a business model appropriate for that market.”

“The markets are changing as well,” Panitch quickly adds. “There are filmmakers who want to follow the Hollywood norms in making films, whether it is working with a script, or as Aamir Khan has been doing, not taking on multiple films. Or doing test screenings.”

It may be less organised here, but the basic principles in filmmaking don't change, observes Singh. “Recognising some of the challenges, we are taking our time to make sure we get a script we are happy with, and ensuring we are working with budgets that are workable.” As Panitch explains, “We do what's best for each particular film. Sometimes, if we get a big movie star, then there are certain things you have to bite off on.”

Expand portfolio

Fox Star Studios intends to expand its portfolio by producing different kinds of films to test the market. Bringing the tradition of movie-spin-offs of popular TV shows to India, the studio has greenlit a film based on the TV show ‘Khichdi'.

“We are trying to do a couple of A and A+ projects, and a couple of small projects in Hindi,” says Singh. “Tamil is a new sector for us, but one thing that is heartening for us is that they are known most for breaking new talent. And, the quality of scriptwriting and storytelling is probably far superior here.”

The box-office response to “Ghajini” in Tamil and Hindi surely helped in bringing Murugadoss into Fox's radar. “We certainly became aware of him because of being in the Hindi space and seeing his success with ‘Ghajini',” says Panitch. “After that, we became aware of his experience with Tamil films, and it was a natural extension for us to want to do business with him. There have been great successes from having directors who became producers and mentors for new talented directors around the world.”

Does this mean that the focus has finally shifted from the star to the filmmaker? “It depends on the script and the project. We are in the process of finalising the stars. Our first film with Murugadoss is a relatively small film.”

Lessons learnt

Certainly, there were lessons the studio learnt from the failure of other international players who entered the market ahead of them. Remember the much hyped “Saawariya” and “Chandni Chowk to China”?

“I can't speak for others. We want to do the right project at the right time at the right price. It came our way with ‘My Name is Khan' and ‘Quick Gun Murugan', and now we are doing four other films in Hindi,” explains Panitch. “Sometimes, there is a frothiness in the marketplace that other studios may have come in to play with, and, certainly, our delay in entering the market may have been an advantage to us to see what we should avoid.”

As Singh adds: “With ‘My Name is Khan', we have shown the industry how we can add value to the product by leveraging the broadcasting network.”

Does the studio always involve itself from scratch, right from scripting? The studio had picked up “Quick Gun Murugan” much after it was made. “We are producers, distributors and marketers... we are involved with the script,” says Panitch. “But, it depends on who you are working with. If it's Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan giving you a project, there's a level of faith. In the case of Murugadoss, we wanted to have an experienced hand in a Tamil market that's new to us. So, he became a natural beacon.”