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How UTV plans to change TV viewing

April 19, 2007 08:30 IST

Getting to meet UTV chief executive officer Ronnie Screwvala is quite a daunting task, and after fixing a lunch, Screwvala decides to cancel the appointment at the last minute. It's not difficult to understand why. UTV is in the news constantly, and various announcements come from the company's stable at regular intervals.

Last week, the company decided to transfer all its motion picture production activities (both domestic and international) to one of its overseas subsidiaries, which, in turn, will move to get listed on the Alternative Investment Market (AIM) of the London Stock Exchange.

In two years, over 50 per cent of UTV's motion picture revenues will come from international markets. In addition, 12-15 films will be released in 2008 under the UTV banner.

There's also UTV Palador, a unique world cinema initiative that will include a DVD label, theatrical releases and a TV channel, for which UTV is investing Rs 70 crore in the next three years. Then there's Bindaas, a 50:50 JV with Malaysia-based media company Astro Measat.

Scheduled for a mid-2007 launch, Bindaas is planned as a 360-degree entertainment venture including a TV channel that will include merchandising and licensing - it has an outlay of Rs 200 crore (Rs 2 billion).

Besides, UTV has acquired a 70 per cent stake in Ignition Entertainment, a UK-based company with interests in console game development, as well as a controlling stake in IndiaGames, the largest gaming company in India, with interests in both mobile and online gaming.

Thankfully, Screwvala agrees, after some cajoling, to meet the next evening for an interview over coffee. Shortly after addressing an audience on the last day of FICCI FRAMES, 2007, Screwvala sits with us in the Renaissance Hotel's VIP lounge in Mumbai. Over coffee, he shares with us the growth of UTV in so many verticals, its recent hits and misses, UTV's relationship with film directors and, besides other issues, the need to "get kicked once in a while in order to improve".

The last statement refers to UTV's recent attempt, Hattrick, a Milan Luthria-directed film that flopped at the box office. Screwvala admits, "We wanted to release the film to coincide its release with the World Cup. In retrospect, I feel that even though we completed the film in four months flat, it was gone in 60 seconds."

Taking careful sips of his coffee, Screwvala candidly shares with us the story of UTV's mistakes especially in its initial years. "Though we are looking at a new wave in broadcasting today, UTV missed the first wave completely in 1994-1995," he says, adding, "By 2000 we realised that in order to grow we needed to be at the top end of the value chain, we needed to be in touch with the consumer."

UTV's pace in broadcasting, admits Screwvala, was slow initially, and that's why, in 2005-2006, it started Hungama. It's at this juncture that Screwvala, who's soon ordering his next cuppa, sums up the success story of Hungama: "In 18 months we proved that we could become the number one channel and then sold it (Hungama) to one of the major multinationals (Walt Disney) for a substantial premium ($30.5 million)."

Back then, Disney also bought an equity stake of 14.9 per cent in UTV Software Communications for $14 million. Taking the last sip of his coffee, he laughs heartily, "Not bad for an 18-month-old baby."

Committed to being a diversified media model from day one of its inception, UTV, adds Screwvala, has managed to focus increasingly on all of the four verticals including television, movies, broadcasting and new media.

Last year was crucial for the company especially as it was in news for varied reasons. Rang de Basanti, the first important release from UTV, became India's first major hit of 2006. Then, Hungama TV was acquired by Disney. Without taking a breather, the following month in August, 2006, UTV inked co-production deals with Fox Searchlight and Will Smith's production company Overbrook Entertainment and Sony Pictures Entertainment to create and distribute films worldwide.

UTV's total investment in these co-production deals exceeds $70 million with $30 million invested in Smith's Overbrook and another $30 million in Manoj Night Shyamalan's flick, The Happening.

And while The Namesake was released under the UTV-Fox Searchlight co-production banner recently, the next on the list is Chris Rock's film, I Think I Love My Wife that will release with 3,000 prints globally.

Is Screwvala pressing the fatigue factor button for himself? "Not at all. I love multi-tasking personally. I seriously do," he adds convincingly. For someone who wanted to become a lawyer, and flirted with theatre briefly, Screwvala says today he enjoys jumping from macro to micro issues concerning the company.

"When the leader looks at micro-macro functioning of an organisation, the entire team moves at a comfortable pace," he says, informing me about the core team of 20 people, who are looking at UTV's various business models.

He adds, "The success in films, for instance, is because we work with directors who share our vision."

Ironically, in one of the FICCI FRAMES seminars on co-productions, Farhan Akhtar had said that his experience of working with UTV during the making of Lakshya had backfired, prompting him never to get into a co-production venture ever again.

A saucy statement coming from one of the top directors especially for a company regarded as the biggest name in co-production. "In films," explains Screwvala, "script and the director's vision are very critical.

In addition, the overall chemistry between people and organisations is important too, but personally I feel it's not pivotal. Today, the entire industry is too relationship-reliant which is unfortunate." The experience with Akhtar in Lakshya, he feels, has been a learning curve for UTV. Philosophically, he adds, "I'm sure Farhan will co-produce with us soon. Today we're in a movie space where two plus two equals twenty two."

It is this logic that has got UTV producing Indian films with some of the top directors of the industry including Ashutosh Gowarikar, Vishal Bharadwaj, Manoj Night Shyamalan and Rakeysh Mehra.

The company is combining a pool of talent from Hollywood and the Indian film industry. 5 Kaurav, a trilogy from Mehra, for instance, will have Hollywood's well-known screenplay expert Syd Field working on the script. Bharadwaj's film script (written by another Hollywood screenplay writer, Matthew Robbins) is reportedly already out to actors like Uma Thurman and Kiera Knightley.

Screwvala's love for multi-tasking has landed him with another crucial role: that of an advisor to India Media Fund, which according to him, "is a fund floated in the UK by a group of people who've asked me to be the chairman of its advisory board". And though he reiterates that UTV has nothing to do with IMF, the role, according to him, is crucial especially as the media in India is changing.

When he finishes his coffee, and this statement, I can't help but think that the UTV banner, under Screwvala's vigil, has initiated this change in the Indian media and entertainment industry.
Abhilasha Ojha