Can a hit be manufactured? Karan Johar reveals the recipe for his filmmaking success

In 2023, Hindi films brought in record amounts of money to an industry that was written off just the year before. Is filmmaking today a manufacturing game? Can profit be estimated according to marketing and PR spend? In an exclusive interview with Namrata Zakaria of THE WEEK, Karan Johar spilled the beans on today’s filmmaking economics.

“Technically there are four verticals you need to put on a chart when you are making a film: one is recovery from satellite rights or television rights, which is on an all-time low; the second is digital recovery which are the OTT platforms, this is a large part of the pie. Then there is music that also gives you money, if you are a filmmaker known for your music. And the fourth is your estimated box office potential. The best model is when you budget a film accordingly. It can be mathematically calculated,” he explains.

“But nothing can salvage a bad film, and nothing can stop a good film. Not even marketing. If your cake is not solid, then what use is the vanilla icing? But filmmaking is not just about recovery, it’s about prestige. You may do the maths and not lose money, but you may lose prestige. You’ve lost brand value, you’ve lost equity. So filling those theatres is still important,” he adds.

READ FULL STORY: How Bollywood’s Big Daddy Karan Johar built his empire

Despite his convenient computations and his savoir faire, Johar proves to be still an old-world filmmaker. “First they said cinemas are dead. Now that digital is low they say cinemas are back. Every day, everyone wakes up with a new theory. But there are no theories. The audience is very unpredictable and they are always right, they can shock you, surprise you, appal you, and amaze you. But their word is final. Janata is Janardhan,” he adds.

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Johar highlights some small films that have done exceptionally well this year too, like Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘12th Fail’ and Meghna Gulzar’s ‘Sam Bahadur’, both of which held their own against Sandeep Vanga Reddy’s ‘Animal’. “A good film can break every myth and shatter any trade analysis. So we can pretend to have a formula for a hit, but the truth is that no one knows anything. There are many Indias and you never know which India is tapping into your content,” he smiles.

The director and producer in Johar’s head are often in conflict and he admits his company has often been saved by his partner, Apoorva Mehta. “I believe money is very important if one is running an enterprise, we have bills to pay. But each time I make a film I wonder how this film will be remembered. Look at all the films we remember, are they golden jubilees? No. We remember ‘Ghar’ and ‘Ijazat’. We remember ‘Lamhe’ and ‘Masoom’, they weren’t great hits. So commercial success is critical but leaving behind a legacy of love is everything.”

One cannot talk of Dharma’s successes without discussing its failures. Is there a film Johar wishes he hadn’t produced? Or one that he had produced or marketed differently? “It’s a tough question to answer because this means I will hurt the person who made it. There are films I wish I hadn’t green-lit just for the betterment of the filmmaker, but they were emotional decisions. Sometimes you don’t like the script but you agree because the filmmaker needs this. The only film I wish we had packaged differently was ‘Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna’. I feel we went on the front foot with it, I also tried to bring commercial elements like big song sets and massive stars. But the film was always designed to be an intimate film. I feel if I could make this film again I will correct it,” he admits.

Johar also admits he can smell a flop before the film’s release. “I have an ability to judge my films in a way where I am not deluded, or biased. I can tell if a film has not connected. We also do a lot of market research screenings so one gets an indication. I still feel sadness when a film fails, but I feel I have to be there for the lead actor and the filmmaker more than myself. I will survive but their careers could break,” he sagely says. “Money comes, it can come from the next film. One film failing won’t change my monetary destiny. Dharma does take the blow but we can make it up in the next film. Failures have to be followed by successes if you are playing this game. Strategically, you know how to repair that.”

Johar gives the example of when ‘Kalank’ flopped in 2018, but Dharma ended 2019 with ‘Good News’ one of their biggest hits ever. “We have given some failures but the big hits have always come at the right time. This is something no amount of chanting or therapy can teach you: If you can treat success and failure with the same level of intensity, you’ll be fine. Resting on your laurels or getting bogged down by failure are both detrimental. If failure happens, analyse it, lament it, but move on. Moving on is critical.”