Ronnie Screwvala Curated
Co-Founder & Chairman - upGrad - Building Caree...
CURATED BY :
What made you come back to movies?
Movies are a hobby for me. I think storytelling has reached a new level where younger audiences are looking at something more real and contextual. It is an exciting time to come back. I feel stories can be told differently. Audiences have evolved into a different space. What we did with Rang De Basanti and Swades years ago, that narrative and mould is ready to be broken again and I want to be a part of it.
Patton, The Lion King, Whiplash, PK
What prompted you to write Dream with Your Eyes Open?
Having moved out of the media and entertainment industry, and meeting a lot of entrepreneurs, part of my act was to invest in and mentor those entrepreneurs. What struck me first was how different the environment was when I started out. It was almost impossible to even pronounce the word entrepreneurship then. There wasn’t much of an ecosystem for funding, so you needed to be self funded. A fair amount grew out of that period of time, and I felt responsible to encapsulate my learnings and see if I could be some form of an inspiration to others. I’ve often felt that an autobiography doesn’t do that goal justice; it just gives you an overall story. So I’ve positioned the book as a narrative of lessons learned. I’ve noticed there’s a sharp fear of failure in the emerging markets, and as you glance through the book you’ll see that in many cases I’ve shared my trysts with failure. I communicate very strongly that you will fail — and not once, but multiple times — but that’s perfectly fine as long as you look at it as setbacks and move forward. “You will fail — and not once, but multiple times — but that’s perfectly fine as long as you look at it as setbacks and move forward.”
What else do you hope readers will take away from your book?(Dream with Your Eyes Open)
My hope is that it will reach people at three levels. First, the fence-sitters, or the people who are in the early stages of their career trying to decide if they want to be an entrepreneur. Some of the early chapters give a sense that it can be done. Then the book progresses to the second level when I talk about things in terms of scale, spotting trends, and then exits, for the more evolved entrepreneur. My career spanned twenty to twenty-five years, so I can talk about the start-up environment as well as more mature organizations. Third, as a result of small focus groups I conducted, I found that the book was equally interesting to professionals. It also appealed to people who have been in their careers for ten or fifteen years and are wondering what do I do next? When is the right time, and am I the right person to take the plunge? At a very high level across the chapters, the book talks about those issues.
How did this book come together; what was your writing and editing process?(Dream with Your Eyes Open)
I realized very early in the game that I needed a co-writer. My aim and ambition was never to be an author, it was to write a book, as odd as that sounds. If you want to write a book, it means you want to communicate something, and a book is a good way to do it. I could make plenty of notes and write things down, but I wanted assistance bringing the right structure to the book. In my past experience, when I was doing films with Bollywood and we got stuck with plotlines, we looked to the Western market, specifically to the US, to screenwriters and stories where there was a different structure to act one and act two and things like that. I was not sure that I could co-write long-distance with someone in a different timezone, but we gave it a try. My co-writer, Wynton Hall, came to India at the beginning of the process, and I talked and talked, and introduced him to entrepreneurs so he could get the feel of things here. He was able to give a structure, language, flow, and tonality to the book that I couldn’t have done myself. The first draft was maybe 60% Wynton putting down everything he’d heard from me, with that structure and tonality. Then we started to correct that, and by the second, third, and fourth draft I started packing in my anecdotes. There was a lot to work with, but the book never would have appeared without getting what I like to call those opening and closing sentences. This process allowed me to think freely without the stress of getting the wording just right for every sentence. Whenever I got stuck, I had somebody much more mature in the writing process to lean on.
What did you learn from this project that surprised you?(Dream with your eyes open)
The discipline that it needs is like anything else. I didn’t realize how cathartic it is to go back through the years and dredge things, in a good way. It gets you to reflect, and consolidate some of your learnings that you take for granted in life. When you see them again, in a new context, it’s a completely different story.
Where would you most want to live and write?
I think I was very fortunate to write in the habitat where I wrote. I don’t think I’d like to do it anywhere else. Mumbai is on the coast of India, and stares out at the Arabian Sea. Our home kind of has that feel to it, that you can stare out into the sea, or at least the study, whenever you want to. I found that very conducive to writing. Although, I also did a lot of writing on planes while I was traveling, or even making notes while Wynton and I were talking on the phone. I spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off of my family, and then writing in the mornings or late evenings.
Did you listen to anything in particular while you were writing?
No, actually, while I was writing my wife and I realized the sound system in our house wasn’t set up well for this. Sadly, it was only as I was finishing up the book that we had finally rehashed our system and could listen to music like that. So, no, there wasn’t classical music or anything else that was inspiring me to write.
How has your background with film and media influenced your writing? How did images inform the structure of the book?
Before cinema and media, it was really theater which was a hobby of mine. It gives a clarity of thought and an ability to articulate things very clearly. That was a very strong base for me, and I think my co-writer caught the tonality and the way I talked about things and was able to help me capture each anecdote and really turn it into a story. What gives the book it’s strength is the dramatization, or the fictional aspect, that makes it flow for a reader. What I wanted at every stage in the writing was for the reader to visualize what was being said. “What I wanted at every stage in the writing was for the reader to visualize what was being said.”
How did you balance content with form?(Dream with your eyes open)
When the structure first came about, the anecdotes were few and far between. It was really about getting the basic concepts of failure in place. Then, as we narrowed down the key points for each chapter, I provided stories to support each one. The anecdotes became the pillars of the book.
What kind of content genres will RSVP explore?
Right now, we have 11 movie projects under development. Our vision is to break the projects into stories that must be told, stories that we would like to tell and stories that people go to movies for. If we can find great scripts that fit these three categories, we will go out and make a movie. The first film (Love Per Square Feet) is a sweet romantic comedy. We are doing a film on kabaddi, Uri attack, biopics on Shakuntala Devi, Ram Jethmalani and a few others. The funding will be from my own resources and budgets for our movies will range from Rs6-60 crore.
What do you find surprising that people ask you about your work?
Well, first, I think most people are surprised that I’ve written a book, and they assume it’s my autobiography. I say, no, actually, it’s not. I think it’s fair to say that outside of the anecdotes, it’s much more specific chapters of learning and experience.
How have your goals changed over time?
They keep getting longer. When I reach one goalpost, I move it or create a new one. As an entrepreneur, you set new goalposts constantly, sometimes you are forced to. Sometimes the goalposts can even go backwards; sometimes you have enough setbacks that you need to realign, pivot, which in itself means saying, this didn’t work out, so let me set some new goalposts. I think goalposts in themselves should not always be assumed as a forward step. If you can acknowledge that sometimes it’s a step backward to be able to move forward later on, that’s the key. “Goalposts in themselves should not always be assumed as a forward step. If you can acknowledge that sometimes it’s a step backward to be able to move forward later on, that’s the key.”
I notice that you have multiple projects you’re working on at once, does that also affect how you think about the goalposts?
I think I’ve always been restless enough that I like to multitask. But one of my lessons learned is that the more I can focus, the better the results. Part of this is also because I’ve taken a personal decision that I don’t want to run anything myself right now. I’ve spent the better part of twenty-five years operating and running organizations, and instead now I’ve put time into finding and building relationships with co-founders. It doesn’t mean I will just come in and review things; it means I know what I’m good at, what I can and can’t do well, and that will allow me to keep this breadth of projects going over the next twenty to twenty-five years.
Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?
In a field like media, where you can have very public failures, and very public successes, whether you like it or not there’s a profile attached to the business that you run. I think of one my favorite movies, Patton, and the line “All glory is fleeting,” quite a lot.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? Aspiring writers?
Entrepreneurship is not an outing, it’s a journey, and you need to make a long-term commitment to it. People will ask why do seven out of ten enterprises fail? It’s all about the timing. You fail when you fail, but you haven’t failed when you keep going. There can be serious setbacks, bankruptcy or going out of business, but if you believe that your mission is to be an entrepreneur, then you will pick up and start going again. You can’t make a deal with yourself that you’re only going to do this for two or three years. For writers, I’m not sure I can really speak to this, but give yourself timelines and deadlines. If a book takes too long to write, it can lose relevance by the time you finish it, especially in the nonfiction sphere. Ask yourself if what you’re writing will still be relevant in the future, in five years, in ten?
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Focus. My last twenty-five years were very much about being opportunistic, and sometimes that’s great, but sometimes it’s not. The best advice comes back to that single word for me: focus.
What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
I think it really is the hard work of writing. Whether it’s late night or early morning, it’s nice to have the thoughts, but to actually put them down, word after word after word, and then go back and redraft, is quite difficult. You need a strong will and discipline to go through it.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?
Well, I’m usually not writing, so there’s lots going on. Writing, for me, has been all about getting this book out. If somebody had asked me a year ago am I going to write a book, my answer would have been no. If someone asks me tomorrow, am I going to write another book, my answer is no.
what do you like to do in your free time?
To be honest, this last year, all my free time has gone to the book. I know, now we’re going in circles. But otherwise, it’s hanging at home with my family.
What made you want to back Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota?
Mainly Vasan. I wanted to create something with him. A director can take a good screenplay and make it into a great movie. Also, I think the characters in this film are something you can fall in love with. So for me, it was the depth of the characters, their multiplicity and Vasan. We are also working together on two other films.
What are your expectations from RSVP?
I have zero expectations from RSVP. I just want to have fun and I want to impact people. I am not looking at building a media company by any stretch of imagination. I am not coming back into the movie business. When something becomes a business, 50% of your decisions are what you have to do and not what you want to do.
How involved were you in this film’s casting?(Mard ko dard nahi hota)
We were involved but mostly Vasan led. The good part was that we were very clear that we didn’t want to cast up the film just because we had a new boy and a new girl. There was never a discussion over whether we should have somebody highbrow or not. We just wanted to get the right person for the right role.
How did Abhimanyu Dassani come on board?(Mard ko dard nahi hota)
He was already there. Vasan had him in mind for a long time. And he (Abhimanyu) was training like a maniac. That was also a part of it. When we were reading the script, Vasan showed me some of the work that Abhimanyu had done. He wanted to do all of it, action sequences and all. It made a lot of difference.
Weren’t you sceptical at all about casting newcomers as your leads?(Mard ko dard nahi hota)
With the genre movies that we want to make, everything can be iffy. I think one has done that enough times to know that you need to just go for it.
You have been working with several new directors lately?
Yes, and it’s not one of these noble situations. I just think that there’s an incredible, very talented crop of people. But that doesn’t mean that we are not working with established directors.
Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota has been getting rave reviews within the festival circuit. But considering the kind of films that work at the domestic box office, how hopeful are you about it?
This is why we knew we needed to come up with a unique strategy—do the festivals, play a lot of word of mouth, see how international audiences like it. We have got a lot of interest in China, the US. Each movie needs to have its audience. The ‘karma’ on this film has been good so far.
Health and education are focus areas for the government. What is the opportunity you sensed here and how has your experience with the establishment been so far?
Swades (a not-for-profit foundation that has been working in more than 2,000 villages in Maharashtra’s Raigad district) being a non-government organisation, our first instinct obviously was not to work that closely with the government, primarily because we were very clear we do not want to take money from them. But then we realised that to really scale up anything in the non-profit space, you do need the government to be a partner. During three years, our interaction with the government at the ground level was quite incredible… we believe they come there and are more of a hindrance, but the people working on the ground have got the highest levels of motivation. One of the first visits we had was to a government hospital in Raigad. The head of the hospital had left behind her one-year-old child in a place 200 km away, but wanted to work in this sector. She told us, ‘Look, I’ve got a 100-bed hospital and only two or three patients at any given time. There’s only one gap, and the word is trust. So you, as a not-for-profit and an NGO, can build trust between the community and the government and be a catalyst.’ It resonated with us very strongly because when you are looking at doing something in the social sector, you think it’s a given that you want to do something good and the other person is absolutely ready to accept it. It is not really true. You have to build an incredible amount of trust.
What are the areas in education that your for-profit venture, upGrad, can change?
In the education space, the reality is that most people start working at a very young age — mostly after graduation or sometimes in Class 12 — and they are now stuck in their careers, for two-three reasons. One, you know that there are younger people coming in, overtaking you. Number two, you can’t get out of that job to take a year off to study because you don’t know what it is you can study and the opportunity cost is too high. The third is that we don’t have the faculty and the teaching skills in this country yet at that level. So for me, the most non-linear thinking in education was to focus on the working professional and to focus on online. Now online for most people is suspect because most people relate online to content — okay, I’ll look at something like a TED Talk and learn something. No. How do you make online equivalent to a learning experience? The next big wave has to be the online way because then you can take the best faculty, put them into an environment, take the training to a completely different level, and your learning experience can be high. So we have been very non-linear to focus on the learning experience more than the content.
So to some extent it complements skill development, which is at the lower end of the spectrum?
Yes, except that I have a bit of a problem with the word ‘skills’ because it kind of down-markets everything that we do. We need to find a different word for ‘skills’, which to most people sounds very basic. If we want to create a country which is going to be more driven by intellectual property and innovation and thought leadership versus being a permanent outsourcing arbitrage country, I think we have to use a word better than ‘skills’.
You exited from UTV in 2012. What stops Indian entrepreneurs from taking the company to the next level, and why do they choose to exit?
We have been too obsessed with the concept of control. At a 100% (shareholding), it’s your company; at 99%, it stops being your company and you should be able to differentiate between being a shareholder or an investor or a CEO and managing director. That obsession for control sometimes leads you into taking decisions that are much more limited. Also, every market has a glass ceiling, but the reason it’s called a glass ceiling is for you to break it, and it takes a lot to punch it and break it because you’re going to bleed in the process. The glass ceiling in India is either price-sensitive or volume-sensitive or geography-sensitive – South versus North versus East versus West. Having seen the older business groups diversify horizontally, the mental mindset is, we should diversify, versus let’s go stronger on a vertical (level). If we can change this mindset, a lot can change.
You’re one of the biggest film and television producers, but you were an outsider when you began, with no family to fall back on. Was it a handicap?
After 2012, I’m pretty much out of the media and entertainment business. But yes, I was the outsider and no, it wasn’t a handicap. To me, it was a blessing in disguise. It was a handicap in the sense that one couldn’t penetrate that thought process, but because I was the outsider, it challenged me even more because if I did what everybody else was doing, I would have done a lousy job of it.
How do you define RSVP then, if not a business?
It is a passion project. I don’t want to lose money, of course. But to make it a business, I’ll need a plan. I’ll have to hire people in a very different manner, have accountability and will have to make certain number of movies every year. As of now, I have hired five people for RSVP and there won’t be a sixth.
A country like Bangladesh has several social entrepreneurs and a lot of its achievements have been because of its NGO sector. But here we have a sort of distinction between business and CSR/philanthropy. Why is that?
Here, we get mixed up in entrepreneurship — either you’re a not-for-profit or you’re a for-profit… That confuses entrepreneurs, confuses people who want to put in money. In a country like India, we need to solve problems at scale. Let me give you an example from a micro housing finance company that I invested in with three very savvy entrepreneurs. They were giving loans for less interest and my first question to them was do you want to give out 10,000 loans a year at a low interest rate of 11% or give a million loans to people who can’t avail of a loan, say the autorickshaw driver, but at a slightly higher rate of 14%? Their answer was, ‘we’re looking at the 10,000’. I said, that’s the flaw because let’s do a million people at 14% versus 10,000 people at 11%. Actually, the autorickshaw guy won’t mind putting the 3% more because he won’t get a loan anywhere else to do what he wants to do. If you’re doing it for profit, then do for-profit on a regular scale. Don’t do a 50-bed hospital and say all my beds are subsidised. Nobody will give you the next Rs 500 crore to build 50 hospitals. Then you’ll be stuck at that one hospital.
As a film producer, what goes inside your mind when you pick a project and back it?
If you’re looking at a producer as just being a financier, then it’s only about ‘backing’. But for me, understanding the script and relating to it, asking if it is a story I want to tell, is important… What my 15 years in media taught me was understanding consumers and trends, and preempting trends. When you take a call on a script — we call it a gut sense, but actually gut is not waking up in the morning and saying, chalo, ‘I’ll do this’. Gut is a lot of experience and a lot of failures that allow you to hone your judgment in a very different manner and then you apply your gut. Second, if it’s a story I think I want to tell, we do a fair amount of research and focus groups. You still get it wrong four out of 10 times.
What is that one biggest change you have noticed in your audience?
In the last two-four years, people have started seeking context and a little bit of reality. So if you take out the entertainment, it won’t work, and if you make it out of context and give only suspension of reality, that’s also not working. So the change that has happened is entertaining with suspension of reality versus now entertainment with a context. [ie_backquote quote=”“To most people, ‘skills’ sounds very basic. If we want to create a country which is going to be more driven by intellectual property and innovation, we have to use a word better than ‘skills’
There have been many films, including your Uri, that deal with contemporary political issues. What is the danger of movies crossing the line from entertainment to propaganda? The ‘How’s the josh?’ line from Uri came up a lot during the elections that followed.
I don’t see this as propaganda at all and I can say it with an absolutely clean conscience. Firstly, when we decided to do Uri, this script had been floating around for a year-and-a-half and had nothing to do with the elections. Movies take at least a year to make. Somebody can’t say there was an attack day before yesterday, can you give me a movie in 60 days because we have got elections coming up. I can only speak firsthand as far as Uri is concerned.
Your Love Per Square Foot was the first original Hindi film to premiere on Netflix. Was it a risk you took or a trend you spotted early on?
It was a lovely story… When I spoke to the Netflix guys, they said India is an important market. I said, then tell stories from here and here’s a movie. So I think it happened partly opportunistically. There is nothing we created for Netflix. It was a movie that was going to go out to the theatres.
We may be a huge population, but for entrepreneurs, India is effectively a 100-million market, that is, if you look at people with purchasing power. Have we plateaued as a market or do you think there is scope for growth?
You can look at any industry and sector and then figure out how high is your glass ceiling. Do you want to diversify or do you want to penetrate the ceiling? Because the ones who break the glass ceiling are going to be big-time winners, but it will be a longer-term view on things and requires a lot more courage, a lot more guts. You may need funding, you may need three years of everyone poking fun at you saying what the hell are you doing. Take e-commerce, for example… We all thought India won’t be won by online, everyone wants to touch and feel. But now that has changed because you started with credible products where touch-and-feel was not important. A market that could have been 30 million is now coming up to a 100 million. So if 30 can get to 100, 100 can get to 400. That’s something that we need to push for.
Last year, a number of people in the entertainment industry were accused of sexual harassment. What are the systems of redressal that can be put in place?
I can’t speak on behalf of the entertainment industry because I don’t represent it any more, but I would think this is not a segment- or a sector-prevalent one. It’s not an India problem as much as it’s a global problem. One of the positive aspects of the media bringing it out is the fact that it is the first step towards people feeling that I need to be a little bit more mature, I need to be a little bit more accountable. It has happened at the level of the President of the United States and it has happened even at a very incognito level. So it’s out there in the open. It’s not something that can now be hushed up at any stage.
Considering that the Indian industry has not really created products, services for a vast swathe of the population, do you think the slowdown in growth that we are witnessing could be in some part due to this?
I can say in the education business, where we are scaling up, I have not seen a sense of a slowdown. But if I look at the automobile sector, what is happening is the amount of capex people put in because of the massive competition, combined with the entire context of the electronic cars… and then you don’t see a growth-level expansion that everyone thought this market would have. And whether you like it or not, the debt overleveraging of entrepreneurs and founders and promoters… has created a very deep-seated thing. Some of them have obviously been black sheep and misused it. Some have done it because businesses haven’t worked, but that whole matching your vision with debt just doesn’t add up. The mindset is, I have this big vision, but 90% of that will come through capital that I don’t need to feel obliged to repay. That mindset has to just go away from the Indian ecosystem.
In the absence of something like BARC for broadcasters or box-office numbers or TRPs, how do you tell if a show or a film has done well on OTT platforms?
From a content creator’s point of view, the best benchmark is if they’re giving you a Season 2 or they continue to do business with you, or if they are increasing your price for the next season. I think from the platform’s point of view, it’s a competitive environment and I think they are not disclosing numbers, but they are obviously taking their business decisions on growth and renewing it in a very different manner. So just because the information is not public, doesn’t mean both ecosystems are not comfortable with their benchmarks. For content, it’s renewal and for the platforms, it’s a subscription model.
From your experience with upGrad, was there anything that came as revelation to you about the Indian education market?
People are questioning today if an MBA is relevant. Not in a bad way, but they are asking, well, what does that get me, because for most people, education is a route to a job. Your working professional life can’t be the end result because now… the next big challenge is to retain the job. You could be redundant even three years later. At the same time, I think the younger generation is flawed in thinking that they need to change jobs every two years. You need to have a certain sense of learning and even learn within an organisation. You need to be in a place long enough to be able to bring something out of it. In six months, you should decide and know whether this is the place where you are going to learn and grow, and then maybe spend at least five years. "The next big wave (in education) has to be the online way because then you can take the best faculty, put them in an environment, take the training to a different level, and your learning experience can be high”
How did the deal for Love per Square Foot happen with Netflix?
We engaged with Netflix to see what we can do that is disruptive and a first of its kind. I like doing firsts and Love per Square Foot will be the first ever Indian movie to premiere on a digital platform. Netflix saw the movie, loved it and proposed that we premiere it with them. It made sense for us as we could not have released the film to 190 countries theatrically.
In terms of commercial viability, where does upGrad stand given that IIT Bombay, for instance, has spoken-language tutorials. Then you have courses offered by Udacity and Coursera that are on the higher end of the spectrum and are free.
Udacity and Coursera are great companies with free content. But their track-record of people completing courses is less — statistics say it’s only 5% to 7 %. We spend 40% of our money not on marketing and content but on the learning experience. The mentorship programme — where any week you haven’t logged on we call your spouse or your daughter, your father, your mother and tell them what you missed out on — that’s an incredible amount, not in a sales way but in an environment way. Second, from a cost perspective, we are 1/8th the cost of everybody else. The cost is much less in terms of opportunity cost.
Are there specific courses that are seeing traction?
We are focused more on what we call careers of tomorrow – data, digital machine-learning, artificial intelligence. We have found an incredible amount of push in data science and data analytics.
On the kabaddi league, in which you are a key stakeholder, do you think it’s too much of a soap opera in the way the sport is presented?
One, there is too little sport in India. Two, we’re never going to win Olympic gold medals in this country unless we start at a much younger age and all of us believe that sports is a career option and not a hobby. Third, we have only one sport in this country right now and that’s cricket and the whole world has moved on from cricket… When you’re taking a sport and you want to evangelise it, you have to build a certain drama. It is one of the shortest sports, with so much action. Thirty per cent of the kabaddi viewership is female and that’s partly because the men are dressed in tight costumes. Now, we’ve worked on them to make them look hot. So yeah, we have to have drama.
Is there a possibility than in the future theatrical release will be taken over by digital release for films?
"I think the number of films watched in theatres has changed from earlier days. Now because of our busy lives, we tend to watch films on the move -- when stuck in traffic, while sitting at the airport or while travelling. That is how earlier, if people used to go to 20 movies in a year to the theatre, now the number has changed to 10. How are they catching up with the rest of the films? On the digital platforms. "Having said that, I think digital is not an alternative to a theatre. This platform is an addition, and both can co-exist"
what drove your attention to e-sports?
E-sports as a trend is just taking off. We are not far behind from the top countries in the sport – Japan, Korea or the US - like we are in football or motorsports. The e-sports leagues have started taking off in the last two to three years globally. When it comes to the quality of players too, we are not that far behind. So we were clear, let’s be the early bird and be one of the first movers in this space.
Now that you are a league owner, what are the primary aspects you need to focus on?
For any league owner it is important to get a couple of things done: - One, you need to find key franchisee owners, then you need the player ecosystem and finally, you need the platform or broadcaster. You are not a league until you get team owners, the team and a broadcaster.
Do you have franchise owners?
This is a very new sport where the benchmarks are yet to be set. So we decided that for the first two seasons, we are going to own all the teams and all the players. We will own the entire ecosystem for the first two seasons because today, when there is no benchmark, I am not sure if I should charge X, Y or Z for a team. The best way to go ahead is to put in the full investment and take all the risks. This is where we are different from any of the new leagues launched in recent times.
What about the players?
We have cherry-picked the top 84 players from the top 50 tournaments in the country. There is a tournament in every engineering college in India and there are a few leagues from which we selected the top players as well. In two years’ time we will have foreign players coming in and participating in the league too.
Coming to the broadcaster bit, why are you associated with a youth-and-music channel like MTV instead of a sports channel?
We have debated this and yes, normally a sport should come on a sports channel; the outcome of the debate was that this is going to be slightly different. Most games last for as short as kabaddi does (40 minutes). Then there is football, which lasts for 90 minutes, T20, 50-50, and Test match cricket which lasts for five days. E-sports can go on for four to six hours a day for a certain number of days, where the same teams and same players are playing the same games. They don’t necessarily get sticky in terms of viewership for hardcore gamers, but for newcomers, it might. We want to get more people into gaming. Therefore, for us, television was an important platform and it was important to pick a right partner – but not a sports channel at this stage - which is why we approached MTV and said we want to do this and sold them the concept. Outside of MTV, it will be on YouTube, VOOT and Twitch. On the digital platforms we will have the full version, on MTV it will be a one-hour action-packed episode.
You are streaming this property on so many platforms where e-sports is really popular and has an existing audience. Football and kabaddi get good viewership online. Why do you need a broadcaster?
That’s true. Football and kabaddi are watched online a lot more than on TV and it is quite possible that in three years’ time, this too will be more popular online. But in India, even today, you cannot launch a sport without television. I think Korea and China are the only markets in the world where you can launch a league without TV.
What are the other things you are working on?
I have been out of the media and entertainment business for close to six years, ever since I sold UTV to Disney in February of 2012. My focus has been on online education and our not-for-profits. I am looking at building a phenomenal ed-tech company , an equally phenomenal sports company and a very strong NGO (Swades Foundation). Those are the three things I am manically focused on.
Has MTV commissioned you? Will they own the media rights to the league? What is the nature of the association?
We have bought slots from MTV. We will produce it ourselves and hand over a one-hour episode to MTV, which they will air. We have an agreement of 37 episodes which can go up to 45. It will air seven days a week including Saturdays and Sundays and there will be a repeat telecast the next day.
Do you have sponsors on board already? You own all the franchises, you have set aside a handsome amount as prize money and you have bought slots; how much are you spending?
Our experience in the first year of kabaddi was that most people did not go hungrily after monetising. Star took four years to get Vivo on. To be honest, this season we are not going all out to monetise because we do not have a rate card and whatever we accept it could be ‘under’. Instead, we decided we would spend our own money for this project. This season, the outlay is going to be Rs 30-35 crore. There is no point getting a crore or two in sponsorship - it won’t move the needle either way. We did not want to lock our rate but decided to wait it out. This could be an error, but that’s what we decided.
Where do you see the money coming in from in the long run?
I think the major chunk of money will come in from sponsorship. From Amazon to Puma to mobile companies this is the absolute core target audience. The sport is sticky, unlike other game formats - in cricket, there is one over; in football, you don’t even have a gap for a commercial; with kabaddi it’s even worse where you need to get an official time-out. Here, the ability for us to integrate brands and have commercial breaks while the game is on is very high.
Do you see ticketing revenue coming in?
This is an arena sport and by the time we reach the third season, it needs to go to an arena. If it is 3000 people in an arena, 300 people in an arena or 8000 (beyond which we cannot go), only time will tell. This is a multi-city sport, so we will go to different cities and yes, I do see ticketing revenue coming in.
Who do you think will watch this league on TV? Are you looking to develop this as a niche sport or are you targeting the masses?
We need to build the TV viewership for this sport and it is very important that it does not sound like an elitist sport, but is very ‘massy’ and very Indian. The games are not Indian, so between us, our sports casters and commentators, we are figuring out how we can make this a ‘massy’ sport. It cannot be western guys with massive headphones. We will make it a quintessential Indian experience while we are running a league with global games.
Why do you need to make it a mass sport? Golf and tennis are niche sports and they are doing well...
Tennis and golf are two sports which are viewed as niche and prestigious so they get a premium. You cannot take e-gaming to that level, then you would be fighting a wrong battle. This is beer and not malt whiskey - it might be the elitist of beer, but it’s still not malt whiskey. Also, India is a market with 1.25 billion people, I don’t see any reason why we should concentrate on only 30 million people while building a property.
How do you plan to promote the league? Will you roll out a marketing campaign?
In Season 1 we will learn, we will align and we will do whatever we need to do. After two seasons we will have a very good idea where the sport lands, what the viability is for it along with the sponsor interest, viewership and player interest. So instead of going and doing a marketing campaign to promote the league, we are treating the first season itself as a marketing campaign.
The league will have DOTA and Counter-Strike on PC, Real Cricket on mobile and Tekken on console; how did you decide on these?
Counter-Strike and DOTA are two of the largest selling PC games. League of Legends is still arriving in India. The people who distribute Counter-Strike in India gave us a number i.e. around 20 million people play the game in the country. These two PC choices were pretty easy for us. Then we moved to console, for which we wanted an exciting action-packed game and that’s where Tekken came in. In the mobile space, we wanted to have a massy game and we got Real Cricket. This year we will have these four games in UCypher, but we are open for more in the coming years.
Why did you decide to keep the prize money at Rs 50 lakh?
There are enough of small leagues and tournaments in India. We wanted to have a clear segregation and hence decided to be at least 5x of the largest existing one. We are not paying the players anything in Season 1. For them, prize money is the biggest attraction and that’s why we decided to keep it at Rs 50 lakh. In kabaddi, for instance, we keep telling Mashal (the STAR subsidiary that owns pro-kabaddi) to take the prize money higher... I think that makes a big difference in creating a benchmark for the sport.
What is your biggest challenge?
We have to get people to say, “Wow, this is exhilarating! Wow, this is very exciting!” and open up to the people who are not gamers, but will enjoy watching this because they are seeing a sport, they are seeing combat. It is passive yet active; it is very aggressive on the screen yet passive when it comes to the player’s approach. Even if five people are fighting with each other you only see their eyebrows and fingers moving. The critical point is to take that and make an appeal to those who are interested in gaming but are not hardcore gamers. If we manage to do that it will fly - if not, it’s going to remain niche.
What do you like to watch in your free time?
I am more into reading than watching and my reading habit is broken up in four zones. I do a lot of deep reading of magazines and papers on education sector, social sector and overall how tech and data is changing the world. Then, there are scripts, one fiction book (which gets the lowest priority) and a non-fiction book. Between all this, I get to read about 10 hours a week and sometimes more.
Is there an e-gaming experience that you would like to share; one that inspired you?
Recently, in Frankfurt, we saw 70,000 people come in every day to watch e-sports. There was League of Legends, DOTA and Counter-Strike - 30,000 were inside the stadium while the rest watched it outside on big screens. It was a massive affair.
Job roles are changing drastically owing to rapid automation. What should employees do to remain relevant at work in a technology-led future?
The Global Talent Competitiveness Index (GTCI) has indicated a shift to newer economy and the age of Fourth Industrial Revolution. The emergence of automation, technologies such as Big Data, Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are combining to render traditional cost advantages irrelevant. Technology will create the need (and markets) for workforce transformation where a lack of entrepreneurial talent would, perhaps be the only challenge for the economic growth. Future of good work will require bold leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit from businesses and governments, as well as an agile mindset of lifelong learning from employees.
What is your observation on the pace and nature of digital transition at Indian workplaces in comparison to the global counterparts?
We are in the age of post arbitrage, in which scientific and technological breakthroughs are disrupting industries, blurring geographical boundaries and challenging existing regulatory frameworks. India's biggest challenge is to improve its ability to attract and retain talent. New technologies, including automation and algorithms, will create new high-quality jobs and vastly improve the job quality and productivity of the existing work of employees. Organisations in India exist on a spectrum from very low-tech to those leading innovation and technology. Technological change and digitisation has affected low-tech and high-tech firms differently. The pace of digital change and technological adoption varies vastly across firms and, consequently, so does the risk of job displacement or opportunity for job creation.
How does the Indian workforce – which is typically high on emotional quotient – perceive the rapid technical changes at workplace, and how effectively does this/is it happening on ground?
There are rapid technical changes happening at the workplace, employees must take a note of it and upskill themselves in order to stay relevant at the work place.
As a leader, what would you advise organisations to keep in mind for effective digital transition?
In this age of technological change accompanied by talent shortages, mass unemployment and growing inequality, it is critical that businesses take an active role in supporting their existing workforces through reskilling and upskilling.
Are you entering the studio business yet again?
I am not forming a studio under any circumstances. My focus is Swades (NGO) and Upgrad (education). Movies in my mind is an unfinished business. I am in it on a selective basis and not as a studio, just as a creative production company. In the past studio model, I had to co-produce and acquire films. Now the scripts are incubated. The stories that I need to tell are developed in-house, and I then get a cast, director and do it. I might do 3-4 films a year. I am not creating large overheads, we are small team of 4-5 people.
What kind of films would you be doing?
We have interesting biopics and other story lines and scripts. I am not going to a studio for distribution and funding. I will do it with my own money and release it.
Will they be smaller budget films?
Not necessarily. We are doing a movie with Aamir Khan and one with Hrithik Roshan. They are not smaller budget movies, they are rightly budgeted movies.
What has been your learning from your stint as the promoter of UTV?
The biggest learning has been that the script is absolutely critical and you have to own the IP. When you have a studio model you have large overheads which are not required. This is a business if 50 per cent of the business you have to do and 50 per cent of the business you want to do, then you are in trouble. I am only doing stuff which I want to do. When you have a large studio 50 per cent of the time goes into filling up the slate, then you compromise on quality or content or start making deals that may not completely add up. The talent is also overpaid.
You had entered the digital content creation space and quickly exited. Any plans of re-entering that segment, especially since there is so much action happening?
I am eyeing it but there is nothing that interesting to do. There are a couple of movie ideas that we are working on, which are larger than life and could lend themselves to being a series in the digital platform. But I will do it only if I retain the IP. If I create the IP and go to Amazon and Netflix and say I am doing this, rather than here's my idea and you commission me, only then would I do it.
Are you writing another book?
If I were to write another book (His first book titled Dream With Your Eyes Open was published in 2015), it will be on my wife Zarina and my experience in working in the social, rural and not-for-profit sector with our Swades Foundation and on the model that we are hoping to create. We would love to share our learnings, failures and successes with everyone.
Why has the studio model not worked?
Studio model is extinct. It has flopped across the world, not just in India. The only studio that's doing well globally is Disney and that's because they don't see themselves as a movie studio. They see themselves as an integrated media company. They are not green-lighting movies, they are green-lighting franchises. But a Universal and a Viacom are struggling as they are as good as their last hit. The studios out there are cutting down on overheads. They won't green-light a movie unless there is at least a Japanese, a German or UK lottery fund that is co-producing or co-financing it.
What went wrong in India?
Fixed cost model and co-productions which are too lopsided in favour of the other side (he means production companies). The other side also exploited it too much. There has to be a win-win. Eros has now said they will not do any more acquisitions because it's too expensive. Currently, I don't have a fixed cost model. I can do one movie a year, don't have to do a movie every year, or I can do six movies. It just depends on the script. It may be a passion, but right now I look at it as a passion.