"Mr Vijay agreed for a certain salary, and it was paid. That's it. I never went back to him for any negotiation… What Mr Vijay asks for is completely justifiable," says Master producer Xavier Britto in his interview with Vishal Menon. Excerpts from a conversation where he speaks about how the team coped when a film, perfectly on track for an April 2020 release, found itself caught in the midst of the pandemic.
Going back to February 2020, just before the lockdown, you probably had the most 'valuable' film in South India for release. What was your mindset during this prolonged uncertainty?
It was an experience for a lifetime. After the audio release, we were very happy because everything was going to plan. The initial release date was April 9, 2020. All the areas were sold out. We had very good margins at that particular point of time. We thought the lockdown would be temporary, but it kept getting extended. We thought we could release it by Deepavali. But, no.
It was a rather difficult, stressful period. But, it also taught us a lot. I was doing a big-budget movie after a long gap, and went through a lot of brainstorming with our co-producers and actor Vijay. Finally, we decided to release the movie by Pongal. We managed to.
Compared to when you began, is there a huge difference in the way the industry functions now?
Absolutely! We live in a digital world. Earlier, it took six to nine months to complete a movie. Now, the number of movies released every year is going up, because there is more investment. The producers put the initial investment. The interest rate is very high, compared to earlier, because the risk is high too. Also, there's competition in every region. The cost of production has also gone up.
Those days, most schedules were shot in studios. Now, the cast and crew travel to various destinations to make a film more realistic. For example, in Master, we travelled to Shivamogga [in Karnataka], where Lokesh Kanagaraj shot the jail scenes very naturally.
Today, to make a movie, everything must be in order. There's a budget, and there must be follow-up for every schedule to check expenses. If one doesn't keep the cost and investment under control, beyond a level, you cannot make money as everything is regulated. The market varies depending on the actor or story, and it all depends on the value they have in the market. There are certain heroes like Mr Vijay who command great respect in the market. Hence, to make a movie, you have to really think, plan and execute the project with clarity.
You own a logistics and shipping business. How stressful is the movie business compared to your other businesses?
As a businessman, I see the movie sector as any other business. The risk element in films is very high compared to other businesses. In other industries we always make provisions for contingencies. If we are bound to lose in one area, we make sure that we gain, or we adopt certain proactive and innovative methods in the others. Thereby, at least we control our costs in order to mitigate the losses.
That's not possible in the film industry. Unless the product comes out well, to the satisfaction of the audience, there is an element of high risk. There is a chance that one either one loses the entire money, a part of their investment or, at least, the interest money.
In the logistics business, the stress can be anticipated. Here, stress is more dynamic, because you put a huge amount of money at stake and wait for it to work out. During the pandemic, this was far more stressful than my other business.
Because of all this uncertainty, did you ever regret deciding to produce Master?
No one expected the pandemic. I am a self-made businessman and have seen many ups and downs. Taking a risk is a very normal thing, and my risk-taking ability over the years helped me keep my cool during the delay. I did not worry much about the outcome, because this was more a matter of prestige than money. I was happy to do a project with Mr. Vijay. I was confident things would change. Patience is important for happiness. So, being patient for a well-made product carrying so much expectation became an advantage. Hence, it is a blockbuster. Master has now become a pan-India film and, even globally, the response is very positive. So, I think for me, it has come at the right time.
In terms of business, would you call Master a profitable venture?
We definitely expect to cover our investment and interest. The line producers of the film collaborated to become co-producers. Their involvement increased and we bifurcated responsibilities in certain areas. Co-producer Lalit handled distribution and overseas. He is well experienced and good with negotiating. Initially, all the areas, including overseas, were sold. But, because of the pandemic, the distributors wanted their money back. That's where trouble began. Mr Lalit was stressed, and I asked him to not worry. I gave up my margins. I had to make certain compromises, and drafted a new agreement so that it was a win-win situation for all.
The box-office collections are good, but there are other taxes attached. What is being projected is the gross collection. In most places, we have released the film directly and it is doing very well. We are still waiting for certain accounts to come in. We expect a surplus, and maybe, in a week's time, we will know what kind of surplus we have.
We expected some shock due to the 50 per cent occupancy rules, but we managed that too. We also have other rights to sell.
A lot of producers are looking at Master before planning their releases this year. Could you give us a ballpark gross collection figure?
So, even with the 50 per cent occupancy, Master is a very successful film. We are in a peculiar situation now, so it's not possible to finally calculate how much we are going to earn. Frankly speaking, given our circumstances, I am happy as a producer. In a couple of weeks, we will file the collection records and declare the exact figures, because it will boost confidence and motivate small and medium producers to release their films in theatres. At least for that, we will publish our final figures.
This film was made for a proper theatrical release. What kind of collections do you think Master would have had, had it released in April 2020?
Probably similar, or, maybe, higher, with 100 per cent occupancy. As I said, we had sold all areas in India and overseas. Vijay's films normally get sold immediately. With Master, we had added advantages. For instance, Mr Lokesh Kanagaraj is a director with two consecutive hits; Mr Vijay Sethupathi is known for his acting; and there was a big expectation because of Anirudh — the team was very young and energetic. So, naturally, the expectations were very high.
Whatever is being reported as gross collections should be correct. But, for me, as a producer, I'm interested in what I'm going to get as net collections. It will take a little more time because of the present situation.
What did you have to do when the distributors and theatre owners were insisting on getting the money back?
Distribution was handled by co-producer Lalit as he was quite knowledgeable. He handled it very well up to a point. But, when it went beyond Deepavali, I think they didn't want to wait and the distributors exerted a lot of pressure. Lalit, my auditors and the distributors had a meeting. Yes, the situation was not good. The distributors wanted their money back with interest. This is another important factor we had to consider. Any distributor will expect interest as we were holding their money for six to nine months. That is why we reworked our entire agreement to go for a direct release and take complete risk.
So, you were paying interest on two fronts?
Yes, it was a double burden. Both Lalit and I invested in the film, so even we were supposed to get interest on our investment. It was a very peculiar situation.
Did you have to settle all the interest before the film finally released?
We reworked our entire agreement — the project cost and the interest to be given to Lalit, myself and distributors, and arrived at the final figure. The budget thus increased by almost 20 per cent. That's the reason why I said we have to wait to know the surplus.
The cost of production was normal until April. After that, when things changed, our margins went down.
What was Vijay's mindset at that point with respect to his salary? What were the kind of things he could have done for the financial side of the project?
As a businessman or a producer, whatever pressure or risk you are going through, it is not good to immediately drag in other people who are involved. For example, I'm running a business. My staff works very well. My managers and CEO are doing an extremely good job. But, at the end of the day, due to the market conditions, I incur a loss. Do you think I will go back and ask my managers or the CEO to take a pay cut? I see the film business the same way. Probably, we can request them to do one more film with us or accommodate things in future. But it is not reasonable for me to go back or reopen things agreed upon earlier just because the market conditions changed. Mr Vijay agreed for a certain salary, and it was paid. That's it. I never went back to him for any negotiation. My relationship with him has been very professional from the start. We were very clear of what we were going to do.
Given the present times, do you think there needs to be a correction in film budgets and star salaries?
As a self-made businessman, I'll tell you that without a proper budget and control over overheads, and saving wherever possible, no businessman can sustain. First you survive, then sustain and then maintain. There are different aspects to business. Many people start producing for the sake of glamour. But, if your intentions are clear and you consider this a business that has to be done properly, you need appropriate planning, budget and follow-up. Also, you should be very clear as to what kind of film you want to produce.
Similar to other industries, the film industry needs to be divided into small, medium and high-budget films. So, one should know what one is going to reap from the market — from overseas, theatres, other media such as TV or digital platforms, and remake rights.
You should know what outcome you'll get from a hero and director. Your budget should be based on that and the storyline. Personally, at least by the time shoot begins, I know, at least 80 per cent, what I'm going to reap. If you have a proper plan and budget in place and execute it clearly, you don't lose money.
As a businessman, in terms of return on investment and what he brings to the table for the film, do you feel Vijay's salary is justified?
Absolutely. Today Mr Vijay one of the most saleable heroes. You pay a different price for silver, gold and diamond. The value differs. So naturally, for a diamond, you have to pay a very high price. And, the more you retain it, the more value it holds.
So, what Mr Vijay asks for is completely justifiable. It is because he has been in this industry for such a long period, given a lot of hits, and has created such a big fanbase. All that matters a lot. It doesn't come from one or two years; it is a matter of so many years, probably from 1992 till today. He has worked hard to get here. He's eligible for what he asks.
Another major controversy around Master is that it released very quickly on Amazon Prime Video, while still being screened in theatres. How do you look at this? Alternatively, in future do you think one needs to review the theatre model and sell the films to OTT within a span of 15 to 20 days?
This is a very peculiar situation. As producers, we are trendsetters — before Master and after Master. What we are doing is not going to be the final yardstick. In this pandemic, we were the first people to come in, experiment a lot of things, and also take a very high risk on a big-budget movie. Already with 50 per cent occupancy, two weeks have gone by successfully. The main reason for releasing on OTT is that the major amount, which we could have otherwise got, is the opportunity cost and overseas selling cost. People withdrew and only a few countries screened the film in the theatres. So, there was a lot of pressure from overseas.
In some important areas, where Vijay's movies used to run very well, the film could not be screened. Also in India, we released directly in most areas. So, as producers, we took the leap for a release on Amazon at a time we thought appropriate. It was done with the concurrence of all interested parties, after consultation.
For me, as long as we come out with surplus, everything is experimental. This formula could work, particularly for medium budget movies which only run for a week or 10 days. See, not many families could come to theatres, because of pandemic fear, in spite of assurances. When the product is very hot, you can't be waiting for long. When people are exerting so much pressure from overseas and locally, we have to take a stand. Ultimately, people have seen it in OTT and it's a big success. We are also very happy about it.
How was the process of dealing with Amazon at that point? As it was a peculiar situation, your need to sell was probably more important than their need to buy it, at that point. So was there ever a tone of distress sale from your side?
It was not at all a distress sale. It was innovative thinking, I would say. If we stand a chance to get some additional income from an OTT platform, why not? We only look at the overall investment and cost, how much are our net collections going to be, and the additional amount. Ultimately, as a producer, this was beneficial.
After seeing the response for Master, other big films are lined up for release too. Would you recommend this method or should they focus more on pan-India theatrical releases?
Actors such as Vijay are theatrical heroes. There is no doubt about it. See, this new method was adopted because of the peculiar situation we are in. If it was all normal, we can probably go back to the old method of theatrical release. Then, after 40-45 days, we can release on OTT. But, till we achieve that normalcy, every producer will only try to safeguard overall interest and adopt innovative methods. One such method is this. This is not going to be a permanent method to sort out our issues.
Reports state Master has crossed Rs 150 crore in collections. Is it safe to say that the film has comfortably crossed the Rs 200-crore mark?
Having heard from reliable sources, I'm also sure Master has crossed Rs 200 crore. Vijay is already a 200-crore club member. Crossing Rs 200 crore is a normal thing for his market value. Probably, people may have doubts because of the 50 per cent occupancy rule. Overall, the film is doing very well, and it might have reached Rs 200 crore.
Will you be interested to sign another film with Vijay, because technically, the advantage you would have stood to gain in a normal situation hasn't happened.
I think that even this film with Mr Vijay came to me at the right time. I don't want to blame anybody because of the situation we were caught in. I'll always be available for one more opportunity with Mr Vijay, but he has already committed to another film. I know his priorities. Everyone would be willing to do a movie with Mr Vijay. So, I will always be ready, and that will also be beneficial to us.