Twenty is not an age when young men normally listen to their fathers. NamitMalhotra is glad he did. Fresh out of college and hailing from a Bollywood family, Malhotra was toying with the idea of becoming a film director, but his father took him aside and said, “The film industry is a very uncertain place. You can never be sure what works here and what doesn’t. Why don’t you try your hand in some other field? In case it doesn’t work out, you can always join us.”
Namit’s father, NareshMalhotra, was a film producer and, among other movies, had made the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Shahenshah. His grandfather, M N Malhotra, had studied cinematography in London and had gone on to become India’s first colour cinematographer. It was he who had conducted Bachchan’s screen test which eventually led to his debut film, Saat Hindustani.
Namit followed his father’s advice, stayed away from Bollywood and took a leap of faith to make a name for himself as the founder, executive chairman and global CEO of Prime Focus Limited (PFL), an integrated media services company. Along with its two subsidiaries, Prime Focus World (PFW) and Prime Focus Technologies (PFT), the company today employs 5,500 people in 20 cities, spanning seven time zones, across four continents. For the 15 months ending June 2014, PFL reported a net profit of Rs 17.87 crore on sales of Rs 1,034.18 crore.
PFL provides end-to-end creative services, technology products and services, production services and post-production services. Its clients are studios and broadcast and advertising companies all over the world. The 18-year-old Mumbai-headquartered outfit is one of the world’s largest players in visual effects, stereo 3D conversion, animation and cloud-based digital media solutions.
Its crowning glory came on February 22 this year, during the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles. Double Negative, a company Prime Focus had acquired in June 2014, picked up the Academy Award for Best VFX for its work on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
This was the second win for Double Negative – it had previously won an Oscar for its work on the same director’s Inception (2010). Apart from the Oscars, Prime Focus and its associated companies have also won other reputed awards, including the Emmy and those given out by VES (Visual Effects Society) and the International 3D Society.
The Hollywood forays of Prime Focus are routed through PFW, which mainly does visual effects, animation and 3D conversion. Its body of work includes worldwide blockbusters and critically acclaimed films like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Transformers, Gravity, Harry Potter and Avatar. It was also Prime Focus that had delivered 3D conversion for the much-acclaimed Star Wars I, II and III. It had thus become the only company outside of LucasFilm and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) to ever touch Star Wars material.
Like many other legendary businesses, the beginnings were humble. “I was always fascinated by special effects in movies. After watching Jurassic Park, the first thought that had occurred to me was: How did they create all that magic?” recalls Malhotra. His curiosity piqued, he enrolled in 1994 for a six-week graphics course at an institute in Breach Candy, a posh suburb of central Mumbai. Once the course was over, he hired three teachers from the institute and flagged off operations from a small garage in Santacruz, in north Mumbai.
At first, they operated at the low-end segments of the market, with projects like corporate AVs and designing titles for TV shows. “We were just another local shop, but creatively much superior to the other ones around,” says Malhotra. His big break came when Prime Focus started doing special effects for TV shows on the Zee and Sony channels. “Our clients were very pleased with our work. We were blessed with beginner’s luck. We grew very fast, around 100 per cent every year, funded completely by debt.” The company was eager to dabble with any new technology that it came across.
“We were building something out of nothing. We never knew what the fear of failure was,” says Malhotra, now 38. A very big challenge any Indian start-up faces is getting the right talent. Malhotra took an unconventional route to overcome this obstacle. “We hired fresh,” he says. “Everybody learned on the job. The sooner you learned, the better it was for everybody. We were all average guys. We did not hire any gold medalists.”
This passion for learning new technologies and imbibing them across the board had an interesting side effect. “Clients liked what they saw – that all our team members were passionate about acquiring fresh knowledge and also that they did not believe in giving up.” This never-say-die attitude is one of the main reasons for the group’s success, and it starts from the top. “There is a joke in my organization that if someone wants something desperately, he just has to come up to me and say that it cannot be done,” laughs Malhotra. “I make sure that it is executed.”
His managerial style also involves “generally building a mindset.” Malhotra is hands-on with any new project, with an aim to provide leadership and strategy. Once that has been achieved, he leaves the final execution of the project to the team around him. He believes in face-to-face interactions, not “long e-mails or meetings or conferences.”
Such practical, down-to-earth thinking is evident across all of Malhotra’s operations. Take, for example, PFT, the technology business subsidiary of Prime Focus, which concentrates on the TV segment. In India, it has operations in places like Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chandigarh and Goa. Why the last two? “They are enormous pools of talent,” says Jose Kunnappally, CMO, Prime Focus Limited. “But people from there don’t want to shift to Mumbai – maybe they are intimidated by the big city or scared of the high costs of living here. We therefore opened operating centres in these two places.” Like the IT industry, Prime Focus follows the offshore-onshore presence model, adds Kunnappally.
In 2006, PFL went public, with listings on the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) and National Stock Exchange of India (NSE). The same year, it used part of the funds raised to acquire London-based animation studio VTR plc. Malhotra would continue to use the M&A (mergers and acquisition) route to grow into a powerhouse in his selected field. Another acquisition he made in 2006 was of Clear Post Production. The next year, two more firms came into his kitty: Post Logic Films and Frantic Films VFX. In 2008, Prime Focus acquired Machine FX and Clarke Associates.
Finally, last year, the group was involved in three of its most-talked about deals. In April, PFT acquired DAX, a leading provider of cloud-based production workflow and media asset management applications to the entertainment industry. In June, PFL merged with Double Negative in an agreement that created the world’s largest independent VFX, stereo conversion and animation company serving the Hollywood film industry. Apart from India, the combined entity has facilities in London, Singapore and Vancouver.
Finally, in July 2014, Anil Ambani-led Reliance Media Works (RMW) picked up a 44.9 per cent stake in PFL. The global film and media services business of RMW was combined with PFL. The Reliance transaction brought eight studios to PFL – these included a few sync sound stages (where there is no need for dubbing and where the ACs can be left on even during shooting).
Once all these M&A activities were in place, Malhotra started spending more time in the US and less in his corporate head office in the Khar locality of Mumbai. A large-built man, he is a motorsport fan and also a tennis and rock music aficionado. His biggest “treasures” are his old friends, and he makes it a point to be in regular touch with them.
So where does Prime Focus go from here? Malhotra has got it all worked out in his head. “The entrepreneurship phase is a thing of the past, and we now have to get out of that mindset,” he says firmly. “Now we have to become more institutionalised. We have to quickly get to the stage where we operate as a fully grown up institution. We have to attain a certain degree of scale and sustainability.”
That, he adds with that characteristic chuckle of his, is his prime focus in life right now.