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Shah Rukh Khan is a million different people from one day to the next. He is a seasoned actor, mercurial brand endorser, committed entrepreneur, sports enthusiast and avid content consumer and provider. He holds people up, to the same exacting standards, as he asks of himself. Khan may soon start a football league and is looking to invest in the restoration of cinema.
He's also invested in a spanking new digital department at Red Chillies and will do a lot more in the area of visual effects. In a conversation with Fe BrandWagon's Anindita Sarkar, Khan explains that he is not picky about brands when it comes to endorsements and he will never trade endorsement fees for equity. Media assets don't interest him at all since newspapers will be out of circulation soon and television is too expensive to be invested in. (Edited excerpts)
You joined Bollywood in the early 90s. What has changed for the film industry since then?
For films, there is a huge organisational and structural change that has come in. Earlier, our films used to take one and a half years to complete and it was largely disorganised. The industry then depended greatly on the distributors and relationships with them. There were all these people who would be making films regularly but one day they got it wrong and their production houses would be sold off. Now, corporatisation has finally come in and with it"at least a part of the business has become justifiable. Whether this change has come about because of Sony, Reliance, Viacom, UTV or Eros"it surely is a welcome change. They are the ones who are putting multiple eggs in different baskets. The array includes commercial films, off-beat films, small films, big films. Consequently, we don't have to do it all as a production house. We can be as creative as we wish to be. Distribution is a lot more organised today - especially overseas distribution. You get feedback instantly. Each ticket bought is told to you in every one minute. The business is becoming more transparent. We have moved on from the time when distributors asked you to insert a cabaret dance in the film to an era when they just love the film for what it is. The middle man - the guy who used to be the go-between for the exhibitor - has been removed in many cases by the corporate entities. Marketing has become an important tool because of television and with the digital media coming in; newspapers are also getting innovative.
Could you describe your journey as an entrepreneur?
If a person buys your ticket, they expect you to provide a service in return. And they expect that service to be good. You need to entertain them. And this is where I come from. I love making films and I love entertaining people. Every venture of mine has come from the desire to entertain. In the year 1999, director and producer Aziz Mirza, actress Juhi Chawla and I decided to start a production company Dreamz Unlimited. We made Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. People cautioned us that this black comedy will not work. We lost money. But then we decided to make another movie. We made an off-beat film called Asoka and lost even more money. But we stuck to subjects that we believed in.
Twelve years ahead and we have made the biggest hit in the history of Indian cinema. The intent has always been the same - to have creative happiness at the end of it all. If you have that, then the money will follow. The Indian Premier League (IPL) was also a spontaneous decision for me. To be honest, I did not have enough money to put in the team. But my children were enthused with the idea of owning a team. So I went for it. For five years, they cried because we lost but now that we have won, it's all good. The last two years have been very good for the team. We have the cheapest ticket by choice. For the first five years, we have had sponsorship from Nokia. Central sponsorships will increase. Television rights are also going up.
What about your investment in KidZania - the education plus entertainment center for kids and in VFX?
I was taught very early as an entertainer, that the most difficult target group to please and captivate are children. If you entertain them, you can entertain the world. So KidZania was a step in that direction. It has been a very expensive investment for us. I do not know how beneficial will it be in the first two years. Hopefully, it will be profitable in the long run. VFX (visual effects) is again a passion for me. I have created this VFX division within Red Chillies, which we have sustained for 8-9 years now. Hopefully, we will take it further and create a world class cinematic experience with an Indian story and in Hindi language. When I've started something, I've mostly gone wrong. That said"over the years, I have collected enough people who know how to sustain the business. I've not sold any of my businesses so far and I hope that I never have to sell any of them.
The Indian Premier League has gone through a lot of transformation. As the promoter of the Kolkata Knight Riders, what\'s been your experience?
This is the kind of passion that you experience once in a lifetime. All good things come with their own set of issues. Without sounding controversial, I think there are issues within the group of people who set this whole thing up. There is the business think tank, the authority think tank, the rule-making think tank, the coaching group, the player group and then suddenly you have these business houses coming in from the outside. There are too many successful people in one room and each one has a say. I think nobody expected the IPL to be an overnight success, but it did. Every business has a gestation period but there was no gestation period here. People thought that it will not work and suddenly it became the most successful sporting property the country has ever witnessed. So obviously, it's been through its share of transition and there are some good elements and bad. So every year, there is a new controversy but I am untouched by it because it's a sport. We should be happy that a country that offered jobs in cricket to just 11 people now offers livelihood to nearly 450 people.
Would other sports interest you?
We may be starting a football league. Sports entertainment and media company IMG Worldwide is planning to start a league along with a few other partners and they have invited us to be part of it. I would like to do it and my choice would be Kolkata. I would do it through KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders).
Could you talk about the brand journey for KKR?
I have no qualms in saying that I worked really hard at marketing the IPL. I sat down with every team and told them how to make music videos and helped them with the right use of colours. I like the fervor of Bengal. They are feisty people. So, I thought that the theme of the team should be - Karenge (we will do), Ladenge (we will fight), Jeetenge Ya Phir Marenge (we will win or we will die). I was also very clear that the colours had to be black and gold, and it all had to look gladiator-like. Our ads were also designed to be very wacky. They were, however, made by the film people. Today, we have a huge professional team working on brand KKR. We have a new branding. We have a new logo. It looks more corporate now. Success comes with its own share of marketing. I stopped the in-your-face advertising and marketing for the team since three years now. The team now lives in the hearts of the people of Kolkata. They will market it.
Plans for growth for Red Chillies?
I have invested my life\'s savings in this company. We've done some big films such as Chennai Express, Happy New Year and Ra One. Then we have had some medium films like Paheli and Chalte Chalte. So far we have only done films with me as the lead because we have been able to do just one film a year. It's been very hand to mouth. We had never really made that big a hit until Chennai Express. We are organising ourselves now. Red Chillies now has a chief executive officer and a chief financial officer. There are around 250 people working here today. It's a big building. There are no debts. It's my money and I would like to get it back someday. I want to make big films which are technologically superior. We have a VFX unit which is the only ISO certified VFX studio in this country and I think it is one of the best ones in Asia. We do not do bread and butter work. We only do films which creatively entice us. So, for many months in a year, we are just sitting. The team remains employed whether we are working or not. So, it is very expensive. I have to work round the clock personally to sustain it.
I wanted to dabble in television. We had a whole department. But we shut it down because I did not enjoy it creatively. I like film production and VFX a lot more. These are the two we have. We used to do advertising as well, but I closed that down too. I want to make international films but in Hindi. I want this company to have a personality of its own. The other thing that I want to do is to create a new kind of a department through which I can get into film restoration.
Would you look to produce entertainment content purely for the digital medium - via Red Chillies?
I think digital is the future and we now have a digital department. So we have the equipment in place. We want to create something very original and new for this platform. The unfortunate part about the internet is that the user expects the content to be free. So, if you start charging for things on the internet, it becomes an issue. Now, to create a business that earns money digitally, the content has to be special.
We have seen many corporate entities investing in media houses. Have you ever considered owning media assets?
No. I am clear that I would like to be the content provider. Newspapers are going to be out of circulation soon and it is not a good time to be a part of the magazine industry. Television again is just too expensive to be invested in.
Are you picky about the brands that you choose to get associated with?
I was one of the first people to do commercials for brands in a huge way. I wanted to start a production company and I needed the money. This is a nice, clean way to do it. And this is an extremely creative job as well...to be able to express yourself in thirty seconds flat. I don\'t choose brands, brands choose me. So, if people are giving you that respect and assuming that you are as good as a 70 year old company, who am I to be picky? The world is now about faster information, quicker recall value and limited time. Earlier, there was just one hoarding. But now there are so many. I think it's important that you put a recognizable face in this over informed world.
Some of the smaller brands cannot afford celebrities. Instead of giving them endorsement fees, they part with equity instead. Are you open to such models?
I have never gone into a business and said that now since I have come in (as endorser), I own equity in the company. So the answer is no. If I want equity, I will put the money where the mouth is.
At some point, would you consider bringing in external investors into your company?
Ideally, I wouldn't want an external investor to come in because if an initiative goes wrong, I wouldn't want to be answerable to anyone. But if a partner does come in tomorrow, it will only be to enhance the business. I do not want dumb money. I want strategic money. So, anyone who joins us has to be from the business that we are based in"sports, visual effects, movie production etc.
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