Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Great Indian Masala Art: Corporate Concepts for High Budget Movies

Movies are some of the riskiest projects in business. India is the world’s largest producer of movies. In 2015, India produced over 2000 movies in over 20 languages. Of these, Telugu, Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Kannada and Bengali language films accounted for lion’s share (over 1600 movies), with Telugu leading at over 350 films. While production costs have gone up exponentially, and markets have expanded dramatically, the number of real blockbusters as a proportion of the total number of films has shrunk dramatically. Despite the star power that bestows movies with some magic, there has never been a consistent formula for success. That a film should shine in all departments (story, screen play, direction, star cast, music, cinematography, choreography, visuals, dialogues, etc.,) is easier said than achieved.
The author has discussed in an earlier blog how certain sequels and franchises act as a sort of winning formula in Hollywood, and could actually point to dramatic lessons for firms. Reference may be made to “Hollywood’s Sequel Saga: Ten Dramatic Lessons for Firms”, Strategy Musings, May 31, 2015 (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2015/05/hollywoods-sequel-saga-ten-dramatic.html). India is not very much used to sequels although the 2015 national award winner and Telugu blockbuster Baahubali as well as Tamil blockbuster Robo promise to have worthy sequels. It is unclear whether a sequel by itself assures success or the basic elements as listed above need to be top notch for a film to be successful. Two Telugu movies, with high star power and costly budgets, that released recently, one a sequel to the highly successful film of the same name and another a mass masala formula flick, teach us that high budget Telugu movies could start taking a leaf or two from firms.
Success trap
Wise corporate leaders believe that past successes are no assurance of future successes. In fact, some believe that if the same people perform in the same manner all the time, results would be the same as the ones achieved previously, and work to improve the people and the processes continuously. However, some successful industrialists keep doing the same things trapped in the intoxication of previous successes, only to see competitors moving past them with newer success formulae. A movie may not have the same competitive pressures as a product because of non-applicability of substitutability risk; each movie is a distinctive product that has to meet certain benchmarks of audience satisfaction; one movie is not substitutable by others.
Repetition of success formulae, therefore, does not provide any freshness to a new movie. Repetition curbs creativity, making the films routine. Belief in the past successes make the film makers believe that if they throw in successful actors, music directors etc., a new film would also be successful. Wise film makers aver, much like wise industrialists, that each movie should be treated as the first project ever and, therefore, shaped with utmost creativity, freshness, commitment and diligence. Not falling a prey to success trap is a lesson filmmakers could learn from the class of industrialists who lead to sustainable success.
Emotional plan
Businesses need a business plan. Movie projects are no exception. Business plans are built on product plans. Products appeal to customers not merely because of their functionality but also because of their emotional appeal. It could be the premium feel as in the case of Mercedes Benz cars, racy power as in the case of a Ferrari, drive quality as in the case of Toyota, sound richness as in the case of Bose speakers, elegance as in the case of iPhone, and so on. Advertisements for products seek to further enhance the emotional appeal. Wise businesses develop products not only with product functionality but also emotional appeal in mind. Emotional planning for movies is a natural possibility but complex accomplishment.
Movies, more than products, must have clear emotional theme. Many movies just carry out the process of generating emotions, not really concentrating on the emotional appeal. Moreover, Indian movie makers tend to throw in all the emotional triggers as multiple ‘tracks’ in movies. Just as in the case of a firm, both specialization and diversification need depth and relevance for the firm succeed, individual tracks of a movie must have both the depth and context. Whereas in the case of a firm, specialization and diversification do not normally coexist, except as a conglomerate operation, in movies multiple tracks can not only coexist but also be synergistic. This unique feature of Indian movies require careful conceptualization and deployment rather than a “throw it in” approach.
Performance appraisal
Successful firms are performance oriented. While firms do pay attention to team building as well as career development, firms utilize the process of performance appraisal to monitor the realization of goals. Unlike films which rely on public applause (or rejection) to rate the leaders, firms have clear internal benchmarks to assess performance. This “performance culture” is feasible in industry due the possibility to move employees in and out of organizations. Likewise, managements are obligated to ensure an acceptable ecosystem, failing which the employees themselves may leave. Therefore, there tends to be a mutual accountability.
Movie teams differ from company teams in one important respect. Teams stay together until a movie is completed; not only that technicians tend to be “house technicians”, working on a series of movies from the same production house. While this certainly has great merits, it also imposes certain constraints. Music, for example, is one domain where pre-commitment works to disadvantage. Movies which are otherwise good fail to make the grade due to failure of music track. If only movie making system allows engagement of new music directors when the canned songs are not up to the mark, there would be great opportunity to strengthen the most important facet of Indian films. The same need for performance appraisal would be relevant to other departments.
Board governance
Firms benefit from the mechanisms of corporate governance that are available.  Each firm is expected to have a board of directors comprising industry experts who could act as independent directors and ensure that the firm’s affairs are run as per an agreed business plan and the mandated value system. While all is still not perfect with the board system, boards which are manned by experts have served to mentor the fulltime leaders and ensure that firms follow generally accepted principles and codes.
Movie makers can benefit immensely by keeping in place boards comprising eminent film makers to periodically review the production of the movie as per intended specifications and aspirations, and advise the working team. The boards could also bring in an objectivity and independence that could help the filmmakers refocus. The boards could also perform alpha testing of movies (concluding internally that the film is made as planned). While there could be a concern of information leakage, as the board practice takes root there would be a cadre of seasoned and responsible “retired” filmmakers who could add immense value to filmmaking, and reduce the vast financial risk that most filmmakers face.   
Beta testing
Beta testing is an extremely important concept in product development and commercialization in firms. Beta testing is extensively used in software development where after internal testing (alpha testing) the software is released for developers and select customers to understand the performance of the software and receive feedback for corrections and improvements. It has recently been extended to telecom services too by Reliance Jio with a limited rollout of its 4G services to employees and select associates. Even those industries which do not have the practice of beta testing (for example, aero and auto) conduct extensive testing of their products in simulators and field tracks to evaluate the quality of the product, and to identify further improvement needs.
One has to only watch failed movies to wonder why the weaknesses of the movie that are so obvious to the audience were not obvious to the makers. One reason could be that the makers are so involved with the making that they are unable to be discriminating and objective. Also, movie makers tend to be surrounded by fan clubs and self-serving well-wishers who revel in heaping praise than provide objective feedback. If only there were to be a system of beta testing of a film, prior to its censoring and release, by a large enough panel of select independent critics and general viewers, many of the weaknesses and loopholes can be discovered in advance and remediated. The risk of failure of movies and the enormous losses that producers may sustain would be obviated with ‘beta viewing’ of movies. 
Masala art
Masala is a typically Indian word, signifying a mix of several delectable and healthy spices. Indian cooking has become world famous because of the masala characteristic. The world is, in fact, now reverentially discovering the health benefits of the Indian spices as well as the balanced Indian food. Indian movies are also referred to as masala movies, signifying that they tend to cater to all kinds of viewers (so called, mass and class in Indian cinema lexicon) and incorporate all ingredients (nine emotions, as per Indian literature). Indian cooking becomes tasty not merely because of the ingredients but because of the recipe involving the right ingredients and proportions. The same applies to Indian movies; the recipe is as important as the ingredients.
Indian movies are a very important part of the economy. They also are a vital facet of Indian social tapestry. Indian movies cannot afford to have the kind of financial losses that the great majority suffers. While a few blockbusters are helpful, Indian movie making can scale greater heights with more films becoming financially successful. Indian movie critics believe that masala films and art films are mutually exclusive. However, art films also have their own ingredients and they require their own recipes. The five points of guidance, adapted from firm level corporate practices, would be valuable for Indian movie makers in making films that satisfy the highly heterogeneous nature of the Indian movie audience. Masala art, delivered corporate style, could be the next game changer for Indian cinema.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 01, 2016