India is an important market from a theatrical standpoint: Sangeetha Aiyer

Sangeetha Aiyer, Head Of Marketing, NBCUniversal India, talks about a hybrid model of film releases that have emerged out of the COVID-19 crisis, marketing of films during the crisis and more

e4m by Tasmayee Laha Roy
Updated: May 21, 2020 9:42 AM
Sangeetha Aiyer

NBCUniversal was set to launch some of its biggest franchises in 2020, including the likes of No Time To Die, Fast & Furious 9, Minions: The Rise Of Gru, Trolls: World Tour, etc, apart from several other projects. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak all of these have been either postponed or pushed to 2021.

What happens to brands that were taken on board for these big banner films like No Time to Die?

Sangeetha Aiyer, Head Of Marketing, NBCUniversal India tells exchange4media that the brands wait with the studio for the release. Such is the power of cinema globally and in markets like India.

Aiyer talks about a hybrid model of film releases that have emerged out of the COVID-19 crisis, marketing of films during the crisis and more.

Edited excerpts:

How important is India as a market for NBCUniversal?

India, China, Brazil, Mexico together makes around one-third of our box office revenue. Therefore it is a very important market for us. While the ticket prices of these markets are significantly lower as compared to evolved markets like the UK and the US, the sheer size of these markets makes a huge difference. Also, the whole cultural phenomenon of going out and watching a film is very big- so from that standpoint for any big film, India automatically becomes a very important market from a theatrical standpoint.

You had a lot of big banner releases planned for 2020 most of which is delayed now for a 2021 release. What is the kind of impact the business sees in such circumstances?

2020 started with a bang for us. In fact, one of the biggest films so far in the pre-lockdown phase has been a Universal film, which was 'Dolittle'. In April we were supposed to release 'No Time To Die' which is the 25th instalment in the Bond franchise and also Daniel Craig's last Bond film. It’s the most expensive Bond film ever made. Then there was 'Fast and Furious 9' that was another very big release followed by 'Minion'. These are all mega-blockbuster multimillion-dollar productions, which given the COVID situation and foreseeing what's happening with theatres and out of the home film and entertainment, have been pushed for a later release next year starting in April. The only film scheduled for a 2020 release was 'No Time To Die'.

The advantage of being a part of an extremely large media company is that all our fruits are not typically in one basket. It is a diversified business. So while there is an impact for delayed releases, from an overall standpoint it would not be very significant as compared to a lot of independent producers and filmmakers.  

Also, given the fact that some films are meant to be theatrical experiences, from both an economic and creative point standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to prematurely release these films on any other platform.

We know for a fact that the walk-ins whenever the theatrical release happens will be large enough to compensate for this wait. So we are happy to wait out the tide and that's pretty much what has been the consensus globally for us.

Big films attract brands for alliances. In a situation like this, how does the commitment to sponsors and partners change?

Most of these big banner films have alliances and brand partnerships that are inherently organic to the films. For instance, No Time to Die globally had about 12 big alliances with brands like Nokia, Omega, Tom Ford, Land Rover, some champagne brands, vodka brands and many others. The way these brand partnerships are; some are constructed because of the ethos of Bond as a film and then there are brands who the star of the film naturally kind of endorses, for example, Omega or Heineken.  

Many of these brands time their new launches with the release of the film because that is what works for them. We cannot divert these alliances elsewhere because they are very specific to a particular film.

This is an unprecedented scenario when it actually makes business sense for not just the film, but even for the brand, to have a new launch. For any small delay in release, brands are understanding enough and for this time during COVID the economy is almost in a recession mode so brands are also happy to wait with us.

We are seeing a lot of films released on digital media. Is India ready for a model like this where films release on OTT first?

In India or any other market there are three types of films. The first kind is the one that comes from big production houses with a certain director a certain producer and a certain star cast certain director then there is a middle-order where there are certain well know faces but niche subjects maybe with and slightly pessimistic on their cash flows and funds etc. Then there are the bottom rung of the films which are speciality films.

Now when there are disruptions in the industry whether it is a nature-driven disruption like it is now or technology-led disruption things don’t change overnight. Things change incrementally and one of the aspects of that incremental change, which I positively believe is that in a situation like this there is a hybrid model that emerges.

In Bollywood, if the Yash Rajs of the industry wait for theatrical release, they will not have an OTT release because those films are made keeping certain audiences in mind and are made with a certain budget hoping for certain ROI. Digital ROI is a very different kind of ROI but not an economic ROI when you want to compare apples to apples. So there are certain houses that will not compromise on the theatrical release. There will be several films in the middle order or in the lower order for various reasons which will see a digital release because it is only feasible for them to do so. And when I say middle order or lower order I am categorizing only from a scale standpoint, not in terms of quality of content. These films might suit the digital audience better, might have more niche subjects and are easier to find more acceptance on digital platforms. Also when theatres open, there will be too many titles waiting to be released because the supply chain is presently. The big banner ones will naturally get the first window.

So what will happen is a lot of these middle order and lower order films, which are probably strapped for cash flow but have the content ready and are stuck in the supply change might find it more profitable to have a digital release. So going forward in a middle to short term window, I think this hybrid format will continue.

Your big banner films now have a delay in release. How do you keep the buzz around those films alive in the meantime? Are you going big on marketing?

Like in every other industry, we have to keep an eye on our costs. You cannot go all out one year before the film's release now in terms of paid promotions because there is only so much bandwidth as far as memory goes.  When the films release next year we will need more dollars to make the same amount of noise because every other film will be out vying for attention. So right now, the way we do it is we completely go organic and use social media. The strategy right now is obviously not to burn marketing dollars on any other media, whether it's conventional or digital which we do very aggressively during the release. Our social media strategy right now has moved away from just reach and impression, which is what we do when we are releasing a film to an engagement strategy to kind of keep the buzz going with the audiences

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