EXCLUSIVE: India’s Zee Studios, headed by CEO Shariq Patel, is starting to become a regular on the international film festival and TV market circuit. 

The company recently attended the Rotterdam film festival, where it had Devashish Makhija’s Joram premiering in the Big Screen competition, and is now in Berlin where it has web series Brown selected for Berlinale Series Market Selects, and coming-of-age comedy drama Aatma Pamphlet premiering in Generation 14plus. 

Directed by Abhinay Deo, Brown stars Karisma Kapoor as a detective and recovering alcoholic investigating the murder of a young woman from a well-connected family. 

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Marathi-language Aatma Pamphlet is the debut feature of Ashish Avinash Bende and tells the story of a young boy growing up amidst massive social and economic changes in 1990s India. Produced by Anand L. Rai’s Colour Yellow Productions, the film will have its world premiere at Berlin’s Zoo Palast on February 22. 

The two pieces of content herald a surprising strategy for Zee Studios, one of India’s biggest content producers, best-known for blockbusters distributed in India and to the global Indian diaspora, the most recent of which, Tamil heist thriller Thunivu, was a hit over the Pongal holiday season in January.

“While we have the tentpoles that keep the studio’s top line going, we’re now also looking at some projects from an international festival and sales perspective,” says Patel, who has headed the studio since 2018.  

He explains that while Zee Studios also produces films and web series for its sister OTT platform ZEE5 Global, the company has come to Berlin to sell Brown on the open market to international streamers and broadcasters: “We’re trying a new model that allows us to produce a series first, then look for the platform later, which is similar to what we’ve been doing with films.”

Meanwhile, Joram and Aatma Pamphlet form part of a festival-friendly film slate that also includes Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming gangster thriller Kennedy, starring Rahul Bhat and Sunny Leone, and Kishor Pandurang Belekar’s dialogue-free Gandhi Talks, featuring Tamil stars Vijay Sethupathy and Arvind Swami and music by A.R. Rahman. 

Of the film slate, Patel says: “As a studio, we’ve realised it’s important to improve branding, because we’re churning out as many as 30-40 films a year, and within that we want to devote some percentage of our budget to curating films that can travel beyond the typical Friday box office that we’re all chasing.” 

He adds that the studio will devise a separate marketing and distribution plan for each film, and be “fairly fearless in taking those calls”, because he’s confident of being able to monetize within a fully-integrated studio system. 

Zee Studios is part of the Zee Entertainment Enterprises conglomerate that spans global TV channels, OTT platform ZEE5 and an international network of theatrical distribution partners aiming at the Indian diaspora markets. But Patel says the studio is also open to selling to third-party international streamers, broadcasters and theatrical distributors on a territory-by-territory basis. 

“There are certain films that should do better on ZEE5, which is a mass market platform, and there are others where we’re looking at doing deals with an Amazon or Netflix,” he adds, pointing to the example of upcoming drama Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway, starring Rani Mukerji, which will stream on Netflix following a theatrical release. 

Another potential buyer, especially for the studio’s more festival-friendly films, could be the various divisions of Sony Pictures Entertainment, as Zee Entertainment Enterprises is in the process of merging with the studio’s Indian operations. 

“There’s a great opportunity for us to have a line-up of films to present to Sony Pictures International or Sony Pictures Classics once the merger is completed,” says Patel. “We could say, here’s a production house or studio based out of India that can supplement the different kind of films you take to market.” 

On the series side, Brown is unusual among Indian web series in that it was financed and produced internally by Zee Studios without a commission from any Indian or global streaming platform, a model that so far has only been managed at scale by Aditya Birla Group-backed Applause Entertainment. Patel says Zee Studios spent nearly two years adapting the series from Abheek Barua’s novel City Of Death and is developing several more projects in a similar manner. 

“We’ve done some series work on commission, and we’ll continue to do that, but what we’ve done with Brown is finance and produce a series without anyone telling us how to make it,” he explains.  

“We feel this model works better from a creative perspective. We make it the way we want, then licence it and own the IP as far as possible, although we’re also open to a buyout if someone comes along with the right price.”  

Berlinale Series Market will be the first test of whether such a strategy is feasible. “We’re testing the market, because what we’ve seen so far with Indian web series is that they’re sold globally to OTT platforms, but they’re not travelling to international broadcasters. We now have this opportunity where we could sell one version to OTT, but could sell the dubbed or subtitled versions in different countries on broadcast or pay-TV.”

Meanwhile, the studio also has a busy line-up of tentpole movies scheduled for release in coming months, including one of the year’s most hotly-anticiapted: Salman Khan starrer Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan, scheduled for the Eid holidays in April; as well as sports drama Maidaan, starring Ajay Devgn, scheduled for June, and Gadar 2, a sequel to Anil Sharma’s 2001 blockbuster Gadar, expected in August. 

In addition to the Hindi-language films, the studio is also expanding its slate in other languages, including Malayalam-language King Of Kotha, starring Dulquer Salmaan; Tamil-language Kather Basha Endra Muthuramalingam, starring Aarya; and Marathi-language Ghar Bandik Biryani, directed by Hemant Awtade and Nagraj Manjule.

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