EXCLUSIVE: It has been a busy year for Shibasish Sarkar, one of the biggest names in the Indian media landscape, and 2022 is set to be even more significant.
Known for his lengthy stint at Reliance Entertainment, most recently as CEO, Sarkar is now spearheading International Media Acquisition Corp [IMAC], a SPAC [Special Purpose Acquisition Company] that is initially targeting major moves in the local entertainment space following a successful $230M IPO on the Nasdaq in August.
After the IPO, Sarkar opted to step back from Reliance and focus on his new business, he tells Deadline in his first interview since announcing his decision in October.
Sarkar is staying on at Reliance to oversee a transition period, including the key release of potential blockbuster ’83, a cricket drama starring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, which is a passion project for the executive.
Below, Sarkar catches us up on the rationale behind his move, and gives us insight into his acquisitions plans for IMAC, which in 2022 could emerge as a key player in the Indian market, with targets including production companies, exhibitors and a streaming platform. We also discuss his thoughts on how the wider business will evolve across the next 12 months.
DEADLINE: You’ve stepped down at Reliance to focus on the first round of acquisitions with your SPAC, can you walk us through how that has played out?
SHIBASISH SARKAR: As I speak with you now, I am no longer formally with Reliance, I exited in mid-October. But as part of my transition period I am helping to release films we have completed.
In terms of the SPAC, there have been a lot of developments. We have spent the last three months concentrating on developing the target companies. The focus is clear, we want to be active in three spaces: production companies, whether film, television or animation, and to create the largest content creation company in India; the second is the exhibition space, where the objective is to be a meaningful player in the industry, the third or fourth biggest; and the third is the opportunity of taking a meaningful position in a streaming platform.
As I speak now, we are very close to closure on some of our targets, at least to a non-binding LOI [Letter of Intent]. I expect because of legal documents it will take another three or four months. I have until July 2022 to complete the acquisitions, and I am hopeful we will be able to make announcements before then.
DEADLINE: Did your launching of this SPAC require you step down from Reliance or is that a decision you’ve made?
SARKAR: It’s not required from a regulatory perspective but from a point of view of one needing to focus on the SPAC journey, I needed to put more time into that.
DEADLINE: Does Reliance have a plan for its new CEO?
SARKAR: They are exploring scenarios, we need to ensure there are no hiccups in the management structure.
DEADLINE: How is the SPAC looking?
SARKAR: We raised $230M in July 2021, which gives me a year to complete the acquisitions. As I’m speaking to you now I’m reasonably confident that we should be able to make announcements well before that time.
DEADLINE: Will you raise further funds after that initial public offering?
SARKAR: I’ll definitely be looking to raise a PIPE [Private Investment in Public Equity] after we have a clarity on the acquisitions
DEADLINE: There has been speculation that your SPAC will look to acquire Reliance’s film and TV business, can you comment on that?
SARKAR: I think it’s not fair to comment, it’s a listed company, every kind of opportunity available will be explored.
DEADLINE: Are you looking exclusively in India for these acquisitions?
SARKAR: Currently the focus is in India, but for gaming and new media I am open and looking for new opportunities outside of India.
DEADLINE: Talking more widely about 2022. This year was in many ways the year of Squid Game, do you think India could have a hit of comparable size next year?
SARKAR: It’s a very relevant question. There are countries where the local content industries are pretty evolved, even if they are not that known to the outside world. In the digital world, we are now seeing great content breakout across the world. India is one of the growing markets from a content point of view, and interestingly it is making content in 20-25 languages, it is like a mini Europe. Every language has a different culture. We are seeing a huge evolution of content making overall in the country. I am confident and hopeful that in the years to come we’ll see the next Squid Game from India – why not?
DEADLINE: Outside of India, which territories do you have your eye on?
SARKAR: There is a lot happening in southeast Asia. Indonesia, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand. They are less developed industries but I expect them to go up a level in terms of the content they make.
DEADLINE: Tell us about the release of your film ’83.
SARKAR: It will be close to 6,000 screens between India and the overseas market, which is one of the widest Hindi releases ever. It’s a great underdog story, nobody had any faith in the Indian cricket team then, this is an emotional saga and a true story, it’s already creating great buzz. It’s releasing in close to 80 countries.
DEADLINE: Is the rapid spread of Omicron having an impact on the release.
SARKAR: The film was originally scheduled for release in 2020. There are concerns about Omicron variant, but as we speak now, the situation in India is better than Europe. As of now there is no impact on the cinema halls. Certain restrictions have continued in some states, but there are no new restrictions.*
*NB since this interview took place, cinemas were forced to close in Indian capital New Delhi due to rising Covid cases.
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