Naveen Chandra – Founder and CEO of 91 Film Studios Professional Interview

TheCconnects: Can you tell our readers a little about your professional journey & how did you come to your current role/position?

Naveen Chandra: I turned entrepreneur in 2019 after nearly three decades in media across Print, Radio, TV, Digital, and films. I have over the years built and worked on marquee brands like Radio Mirchi, Times of India, Times Now, ZoOm, Movies Now, ET Now, Willow TV, and Gaana.com. 

All my professional experience has been in building brands and serving audiences across markets in media. Whether it was building revenues for Radio Mirchi in various Indian markets or for Times Now in international markets or creating new products in broadcasting or creating the Gaana music festival in San Francisco, the thrill was in constantly innovating to stay ahead of the competition. Over the years, I have worn multiple hats in diverse roles in Strategy, revenue, marketing, organization development, training, and distribution.

I was bit by the entrepreneurial bug during an interesting conversation with Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School Professor of Strategy when I had won the Porter prize for Strategy for my work at the Times Group. Following that meeting, I began to examine market gaps across media that I could operate in with my cross functional and cross media experience. I found an unserved market niche within the movie business that could use all my cumulative skillsets built so far. 

I found a clear market opportunity in production and distribution of regional language feature films which had a dearth of organized capital.  In partnership with a London based boutique investment management firm, I launched the $35mn Storytellers Fund, a SEBI registered CAT II Alternate Investment Fund (AIF) in Nov 2019.  I attended multiple courses in screenplay writing and built a team of people who had great experience working on films across some of the marquee film companies in India. 

We had received over 300 film scripts in 10 languages and began to work on them. Just then, the pandemic hit, all theatres shut down and the movie business came to a grinding halt.

During the pandemic, I pivoted the Fund into an operating company and founded Mumbai Movie Studios and 91 Film Studios to produce and distribute regional language feature films. 

In spite of the tremendous challenges thrown by the pandemic, which majorly affected investor sentiment and altered audience behaviour, we have so far successfully produced films in Marathi, Malayalam, Bengali and Punjabi.  Some of these films have released in the theatres and are available on digital platforms like Amazon Prime, Zee TV and Manorama Max. We are now working on a slate of feature films across Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Gujarati languages with some incredible talent. We target to release at least 5 of these films in the theatres by the end of 2023. 

I believe the opportunity is immense and we are only scratching the surface in terms of the kind of regional language feature films being made in India in the years ahead. 

TheCconnects: Who has influenced you the most in life and why?

Naveen Chandra: I have been majorly influenced by my father, who was an Army Officer and who fought in some of India’s critical wars, including the 1965 Chinese war, the 1971 Pak war and the 1987 IPKF operation in Sri Lanka. 

He taught me to have a single minded mission oriented focus on ones objectives. He inculcated in me the values of hard work, grit and persistence. Due to the nature of his work, we travelled across the length and breadth of the country and so I studied in schools in Srinagar, Tezpur(Assam), Gwalior, Ambala, Pune, Kolkatta etc. I have lived and worked in over 15 Indian cities and travelled to over 55 countries on 4 continents. 

This has undoubtedly given me a great understanding of the diversity of people and cultures and I believe that helps me navigate my way towards my goals.

Because of his varied interests, I also developed interested in diverse fields like scuba diving, running half marathons,  adventure, travel, cycling, motorbikes, mountain climbing, writing, movies and books. I believe the pursuit of these passions have made me a well-rounded person. 

TheCconnects: What are the biggest challenges you have faced in your life & how did you overcome them?

Naveen Chandra: The biggest challenge in my life has been the last few years of my current entrepreneurial journey. It has taught me and continues to teach me to stay determined and focused on the goals in spite of the unpredictable and surmountable odds stacked against you every day. 

As a media professional, I have always loved challenging assignments, be it launching Gaana.com in the US with over 17 top music stars and a 180 member crew by creating the Gaana Music Festival in San Francisco, or launching Times Now in a 100 countries on 5 continents in under 5 years or taking Radio Mirchi to a leadership in revenue market share amidst a crowded radio market or launching a Regional Movie Fund in the middle of the pandemic and producing feature films in 3 different regional languages. Each of them has challenged me to learn new things and helped me grow. 

But nothing can prepare you for entrepreneurship. It’s a long, hard and lonely journey. The level of uncertainty you deal with is extreme and you do it only because it’s your dream, it’s what you want to do and failure is not an option. 

TheCconnects: What lessons you have learned from your professional career?

Naveen Chandra: The biggest lesson I have learnt is that doing what you love is more important that loving what you do. The statements sound similar but are very different. 

While you can love what you do as a job and give it all you have, it’ll remain that- just a job, that provides for you and your family and pays your bills. You punch time, mark attendance and deliver results with full enthusiasm, yet at the end of it you are working for someone else’s dream. 

But doing what you love is a 24×7, exhilarating ride like no other. You’re not working anymore, You’re living, breathing and cherishing a dream. The satisfaction that you get at the end of it all can never be compared or matched with anything else.  

When you’re doing what you love, success is just being able to think of an idea, pursue it as a passion and turn it into reality. Without feeling like you’re working a single day!

TheCconnects: What do you see as the biggest challenge for brands in the digital space?

Naveen Chandra: Clutter. Branding has always been about standing out. You create an image that is solid, consistent and valuable and that helps to elevate you from the commodities around your product. Whether it’s a product brand or a personal brand.

In the olden days, when products were scarce, this was easy to build a brand. Nowadays, with so much of digital information floating around, it is tough for a brand to stand out from the plethora of communication bombarding consumers every minute. 

TheCconnects: How your product/solution can help to resolve the pain points of your customers?

Naveen Chandra: Intrinsically, films is a risky business, due to various factors including fickle audience tastes which are unpredictable to say the least. 

After spending a few years meeting many players in the space and getting an understanding of the business, I had observed that the two biggest challenges for regional language feature films were a) lack of organized capital for young filmmakers and talented writers and b) lack of distribution ability for producers who had completed their films. To solve these problems, in Nov 2019, I set up the Storytellers Fund, a $35mn fund registered with SEBI as a Cat II Alternate Investment Fund (AIF) to finance, produce, market films in Indian regional languages. 

 

TheCconnects: Do you have any advice for those who want to become a chief executive officer?

Firstly, I don’t think one should dream of becoming a CEO. There is no academic course for that. They don’t teach that at any business school. There is neither an elevator to reach the top cabin nor a quick shortcut to get the top job. 

At best, you can take the tough, long winding path which can lead to that role. That needs determination, focus and a dogged ability to persevere against all odds. 

One should primarily focus on building ones strengths. It could be in strategy, finance, sales, marketing, distribution, organizational development,  raising capital, networking or any aspect one loves to do as an extension of ones personality. 

One must constantly learn, build experience and continuously develop skills in ones domain of choice.

 

Over time you’ll either get the opportunity to add layers to your core skill or you’ll end up creating them. 

My engineering degree helped build my analytical skills which were useful in all the strategic work I did, including building products and brands. My work experience across 16 cities in India helped me understand the diversity of consumer needs. My international experience showed me how markets can be supersized and limitless if you focus on building core strengths of the product. 

I have constantly enriched myself by taking up courses in finance, marketing, management, fund raising, venture capital, screenplay writing at various stages of my professional journey. I have trained over 1000 people and taught at over 50 institutes. 

All of which has helped me grow as a professional and make an attempt to fulfil my entrepreneurial dream. 

 The CEO role is just a by-product of all this effort. 

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