Watch out, Hollywood! India's Reliance MediaWorks becomes a worldwide force

Nestled in the foothills of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, sporadically visited by monkeys, snakes and the occasional tiger or leopard (not to mention the approximately two million visiting tourists per year) are the ghostly façades—closed to the public—of some of Bollywood's biggest production studios.

This area known as Film City in Mumbai is the headquarters for Reliance MediaWorks, Ltd., India's largest integrated entertainment company. From TV and film equipment rental to sophisticated DCI-grade digital-cinema services, from construction of a state-of-the-art, 200,000-square-foot film studio comprising seven soundstages to 500 cinema screens spanning four continents, plus a full-service film-processing and print lab, Reliance MediaWorks, part of the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, is fast becoming a major international player in the film industries of the world.

At the helm of this Japanese-style “sogo shosha” (a large company that operates internationally and produces a wide and diverse range of merchandise and services) is Anil Arjun.

Arjun has been associated with Reliance MediaWorks since the Reliance ADA Group acquired controlling interest in the company in September 2005. As a member of the Management Council, he was involved in driving the corporatization process, business growth strategy and organizational development. He was appointed CEO of the company in April 2008. Under his management, Reliance MediaWorks turnover has grown from approximately US$20 million in 2005 to $50 million in 2009.

Thanks to Reliance MediaWorks, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Mr. Arjun in his Film City office.

FJI: Thanks for taking time to visit with me. I had the occasion to meet many of your department heads and I am impressed at their expertise and also how international their knowledge base is. But who is the mastermind behind this group?
Anil Arjun: We certainly have a lot of talent in this company. My job is to harness these creatives and focus on work to be accomplished. Even though everyone is different, we create a centrifugal force that moves the company forward into the international arena. I certainly could not do it without my team.

FJI: It is one thing to operate in the "Indian" environment, but to run a company that spans three continents, cross-culturally, how do you manage?
AA: Really four continents if you count Malaysia as being on the Asian continent. What is significant is our people all understand the business in the case of each of their departments. My job, like I said, is to harness these creatives within the company, each department, and focus on the opportunities that we have identified.

We clearly spend time watching international trends, what opportunities will present themselves at least two years ahead. For example, six months ago we saw a lot of 3D content in the pipeline, so we began a 3D digital rollout at BIG Cinemas across the world. Yes, there are differences in cost structures, but we are able to marginalize these costs.

We are quite clear on what we want to be doing, but more important, what we don't want to be doing. Over the last three to four years, what we have done is a matter of design, entrepreneurial design.

There are certainly risks in operating this way.
AA: Yes, there are, but as I said, we need to focus, to concentrate so that every point of the value chain is top of the line. Another example, we know the greater number of cinema screens means a greater need for increased production value (in order for film to project well on advanced technology sight and sound equipment), through use of more top-of-the-line production equipment and international post-production standards—which Reliance MediaWorks offers. If we have planned well, our "string of pearls" works—which we have shown it surely does.

FJI: It must be very difficult to prepare staff to work on several different continents. How do you prepare them for the intercultural experience?

AA: Actually, the only team we send from India is Anchana Jhangiani, head of our design team. Management of our businesses abroad knows best what will work in their markets. We always look to have someone on their management team that can "connect.”

Our "Movie Munchies" are one example. We just introduced Movie Munchies into our cinemas in India and over the next several months we will see what works and what does not. We will then proceed to roll out the food line to Malaysia, North America and Europe, and later this year in Nepal when we open theatres there. Management teams in each of those locales will adjust accordingly. In the interim, they will be working with Anchana to refine their local operations. [See this month’s Asia/Pacific Roundabout column for more about this product line.]

But in some cases, like Malaysia for example, no one from India has visited the theatres. We have left everything up to our partners. They know their business best.

Conversely, we have brought in expertise from some of the companies we have acquired, like Lowry in the U.S., digital film restoration experts, to work with our staff here in India in terms of technology transfer and training.

FJI: It sounds like Reliance has developed a seamless line of entertainment businesses that foster growth across the board.

AA: These are fantastic times in the entertainment business. There are a lot of changes happening in digital and in other areas which we hope to take advantage of. It is a daily challenge. As you have also heard, we have a fiber-optic network that can relay two terabytes of information—we are already sending content across this network. It is the future of distribution.

FJI: We all will be watching very closely as one day Hollywood "A list" players like Steven Spielberg will be working hand-in-hand with Reliance… Wait, they are already doing that!
AA: [laughing at the reference to sister company Reliance BIG Entertainment and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks Studios’ $825 million partnership] Yes, we are very proud of our team and look forward to our increased role in the international industry.