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Brand Sony returns to Bollywood

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-08-2017 Lata Jha

New Delhi: Years after it burnt its fingers at the box office with the 2007 disaster Saawariya, Sony Pictures has slowly returned to the Bollywood production scene, taking measured steps.

After Saawariya bombed, Sony swore off movie making for a while. Under a different group company, it returned six years later to make another set of flops like Bajatey Raho (2013), Youngistan (2013) and Darr@Mall (2014). The first success came in 2015, with Piku.

The US entertainment company seems to have finally found its feet, with its multi-starrer comedy Mubarakan that released last Friday earning Rs41.74 crore at last count. Two more films are coming up soon—a comedy titled Poster Boys featuring Sunny and Bobby Deol in lead roles directed by actor Shreyas Talpade that releases next month and a film on the life of hockey player Sandeep Singh featuring Diljit Dosanjh co-produced by actor Chitrangada Singh. Sneha Rajani, deputy president and head at Sony Pictures Networks Productions said the studio will be announcing three more films some time soon, at least two of which will definitely release in 2018. The film that helped  Sony turn a page remains director Shoojit Sarkar’s comedy drama Piku, which earned Rs79.77 crore in India alone.

With Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya, Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) became one of the first Hollywood studios to invest in a Bollywood film. The romantic drama bombed. However, Sony returned as a unit of the media conglomerate’s television arm under Sony Pictures Networks which now manages the Hindi film slate. SPE currently manages Sony’s Hollywood slate in India.

“Saawariya really had nothing to do with us. We are the television network division that ventured into film production. And the reason behind it was fairly simple, we are in the audio-visual space, we had been making content for TV. Why shouldn’t we be making content for the big screen as well?” Rajani said.

However, industry experts say there was more to the comeback.

“I think Saawariya shook them completely and because it was such a resounding flop, Sony thought it doesn’t understand the ethos of India and its cinema,” said trade analyst Komal Nahta. “Later, they must have realized that it was only one film and they were just financing partners. Then they probably took an internal decision to make films within budgets, be creatively involved and know what was happening. And because those were radical decisions, I think it took so long.”

The changing media landscape also helped. Along with Sony, 20th Century Fox had also retreated from the Indian market after suffering losses with films like the historical drama Pinjar in 2004. As Fox itself aligned with Indian media and entertainment company Star, other American conglomerates like Walt Disney Co. and Viacom18 also made inroads into India.

“Sony was probably watching from the fence all this while,” said Utpal Acharya, founder of film production, distribution and marketing company Indian Film Studios. “Besides, this was the time when satellite channels were paying obscene amounts of money for big movies, almost Rs40-50 crore whereas the cost of a big Bollywood movie was also almost in the same range. So, Sony Entertainment Television (SET) created this Indian subsidiary called MSM (now SPN) under which it produced movies with the clear thought that irrespective of whether the movie is exploited theatrically or not, whatever it invests gets absorbed by its own satellite channel.”

“There isn’t a blueprint as such but as a studio, we are certainly not looking into making ‘projects’; we would like to make movies. We typically green-light a script and then go ahead to make sure that the casting is appropriate. The third tick mark is the budget,” Rajani said. “And therefore, it’s not like we announce 4-5 movies a year which is typically what every studio does. Of course that is our ambition, but we are not in a rush to get there.”

The idea essentially is to back different stories which have a commercial appeal, Rajani said, and to come up with a mixed bag. While Piku was a multiplex film, Mubarakan and Poster Boys aim at a mass connect.

“It’s not like we have a fixed strategy when it comes to what kind of movies we will be making. Some films will get critical acclaim and some commercial success. Some will get both and some may not do as well. Nobody can predict whether a movie will be a hit or a flop,” Rajani said. “We’re just backing movies that will somehow get us reasonable success. Obviously we are in the business of making profits, so I’m hoping the films that we produce are profitable for the organization.”

For now, Brand Sony is clearly back.

“It’s only for financial analysts that terms like SPN or MSM make sense,” Acharya said. “For the trade and audiences, it looks like Brand Sony has bounced back, is choosing the right projects and working with the right talent.”

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