‘Going directly to digital is more lucrative for us than going theatrical’

Music label Saregama ventured into film production with the launch Yoodlee Films in 2017. Since launch, the production house has made 12 films with plans to take the number to 100 in over five years.

Unlike the commercial cinema, Yoodlee is focussed on backing films that are heavy on content and rely less on the star power. The films under Yoodlee banner are produced under a very tight budget. The average budget of producing a film is Rs 5 crore.

Saregama is bringing its music label model wherein it shares royalty with the writers, singers, and composers. Yoodlee’s film model involves sharing 30% of the profit with the talent. Another unique thing about Yoodlee Films is that it is focussed on distributing its films through the digital mode of distribution rather than the traditional windowing method of theatrical first followed by TV and then digital.

In an interview with TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto, Saregama VP films and TV Siddharth Anand Kumar noted that the aim of the studio is to make a profit on each and every film to build a strong ecosystem.

Edited excerpts:

What was the idea behind setting up Yoodlee Films?

As a larger corporate entity, we wanted to come in and work with the filmmakers to help them bring their stories to life and bring scale to the projects. We will also bring better monetisation techniques. Saregama is already a prolific producer of Tamil language television. We had also worked in the Hindi television space.

We decided to now attempt filmmaking under this zone. The zone means that we will do films not based on the star cast but on the basis of a strong story. We will do films where the budget is very, very tightly controlled. This does not mean low budget what this means is that excessive money will not be paid to any one line of function. We will never exceed a framework like the percentage of a budget that should be paid to the cast, writers, and directors. We figured that the highest percentage should be given to the writing functionality. We tried to define ourselves as a writer’s studio.

We set certain parameters like the number of days a film should be shot in, what camera techniques should be employed, what should be the lighting package. We also decided that we want talent to work with us and so we set aside 30% of our profit in perpetuity. Saregama pays royalties and it has the cleanest record out of all the music companies. We are applying our music royalty arrangement to filmmaking and part with 30% of the profit to the writer, director sometimes the actor, director of photography, music director. Our focus is on the key talent in the film.

Are you satisfied the way things have panned out for Yoodlee Films?

We have completed 12 films of which five have been monetised. Three have been sold directly to digital platforms. Three have been released theatrically. What I can proudly say is that we are the most prolific Hindi film producer in that we have done 12 films in 20 months. None of our films have gone over budget. The deals that we have managed to accrue have given us a very healthy balance of money going out and money coming in. The investors are happy and we seem to be on a strong footing as of now. It seems that the model that we set out for ourselves 20 months ago is the correct one. It seems to be working.

Is there any set target that Yoodlee is working towards? There has been a talk of creating 100 films in five years?

The goal of 100 films in five years was a bit naïve on our part. This means 20 films in a year but we have made 12 films in 20 months. Currently, my number of films in a year stands at eight and not at 20. We want to make 100 films but maybe it will take a little more than five years. My team has gone through 850 scripts to select 12 scripts. The ratio of mediocre, bad to good scripts is very big. This is inevitable in any creative industry. This is the real issue.

What are the budgets within which you work?

The average budget for a film is Rs. 5 crore. This does not mean that I am making every film at this budget. We have been in discussions with filmmakers for projects that are double this budget. In terms of investment, no figure has been put aside. So far we have owned music content. Now we are making a serious play for video content. With the launch of 5G, the video will be the first point of consumption for a consumer. We want to ensure that we have as strong a foundation for video content that we have in music.

Do you have a time frame for each film to get made?

The film comes to us as a first draft stage. Once we greenlight a film it takes 8-12 months to produce depending on the availability of actors, the level of CGI in the film, is the film asking for a period of time like winter or monsoon.

Could you explain the core philosophy of ‘fearless filmmaking?

It is about the story. We will protect the story and the artistic intent of the director. We look at a script under five to six criteria. The first is the theme. This is defined as a philosophy like violence gives birth to more violence that needs to be examined in the film.

The second criterion is logline while the third criterion is story uniqueness. The fourth criteria is the authenticity and how deeply rooted the filmmaker is in the milieu of the film. The fifth criterion is the passion of the filmmaker. The sixth and the last criterion is the entertainment factor.

Our team gives a score out of five after reading a script. We use this score to decide whether the script should be moved up in our system or if the filmmaker should be told to come back with revisions.

Could you shed light on the Standard Operating Procedures?

When any filmmaker reaches out to us we send them back a PDF document that describes in detail the criteria that we use to accept a script. We also describe the steps when we decide to make a film. We describe at what step payment is made, how much one gets paid, the percentage of your payment in the budget of the film, the basic rules for making the film, how fast we expect the film’s post-production to go etc. The document answers and clarifies things beforehand. The aim is to be transparent with talent.

You focus more on digital than on theatrical distribution? Why is that so?

Right now movie screens have a low penetration per capita and many films are produced. A film has one week to make money from the box office. This means that films that need word of mouth to grow often don’t run well at the box office. Distributors, exhibitors are working on ways to correct this problem. While this is happening we see that going directly to digital is more lucrative for us than going theatrical. But this situation could change. It is not a factor of the film or a factor of our strategy. It is about existing conditions in the market. If they change then we will also change. We are not making TV shows that can only go to TV or to an OTT platform.

Is working with big stars out of the question?

Not at all! Working with anybody who comes to serve the story first and not their own franchise is what we intend to do. The story comes first and stars do bring an inherent value. Our model is not based on the big star who can act in this film. The model is about who are the best people to act in the film.

Do you see a boom in independent filmmaking now that platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are getting aggressive?

Absolutely! The audiences like I mentioned earlier are demanding more realistic content and what we are seeing is that mainstream Hindi movies are becoming more realistic in how they tell stories like ‘Dangal’. It is a beautiful movie that is rooted in the milieu. Realism is creeping into commercial cinema as much as it is creeping into independent cinema. That is a great thing to happen.

It reflects audience demand who want to see their lives reflected on the screen. They do not want to see movies made in the UK. If you see movies made 20 years ago like ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hain’ who went to that school? But the akhara in ‘Dangal’ has been seen by someone. If you have not seen it then someone else has. That is the realism is creeping into our movies.

Do you have an equal amount of focus between Hindi and regional language film?

Yes! We have made two films in Tamil and one in Marathi. Our next Marathi film will start shooting in December. We are already in discussions for another Tamil film. As far as regional is concerned we are clear that our focus areas are in Tamil, Marathi, and Malayalam. This could change. We have also made a film in English called ‘Nobleman’. Of course, we also focus on Hindi cinema.

You offer filmmakers a percentage of profit. Does this help build trust?

Of course! Some of our first few filmmakers are already seeing profit shares coming back to them. I would consider it a failure if any talent makes just one film with us. I want them to make many films with us whether it is actors, directors, writers, directors of photography, music directors. Each time you make a film you learn from it and you get better at your work.

In recent times we have seen movies with big stars fail because audiences were unimpressed with the story. Are audiences more discerning in their taste today compared to a decade ago?

India today is a more prosperous country. Education, aspiration, and exposure come with it. With liberalisation, you have a generation of people who are better educated, more exposed and more aspirational than the previous generation. They want differentiated content and it is our job to fulfill that demand.

They want realistic stories and therefore ‘Dangal’ does very well. But ‘Tubelight’ which is not so realistic does not do well. I am comparing only films with huge stars.

Are studios getting big stars to sign up before the script is ready still a problem in the industry?

Of course, it is! Stars are very hard to get. They are the most precious commodity in our business. It makes sense to get them and then see what film will suit them. Alternatively, if you have connections then you write a film thinking that the star will act in it. This is very common but then you get products that are not strong on story. They are strong on how the star is presented. Independent filmmaking is not concerned about a star. It is concerned with the story.

Could you talk about the movie slate in the coming year?

A film that will be released soon is ‘Hamid’ and this will have its premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival. After that, we are looking a theatrical release. It is about a young boy in Kashmir whose father disappears. His mother tells him that his father has died. The boy then wants to call Allah to send his father back. He learns that 786 is Allah’s number. Then there is another movie called ‘Habaddi’ which is the story of a boy who is in a village in Maharashtra. He has a crush on a girl and therefore wants to come to Mumbai to see her. The only way he can do this is to be a part of the kabaddi team in his school who will participate in a tournament. He stammers and the story is about how he overcomes this obstacle.

Then we have ‘Noblemen’ which we are hoping for a theatrical release. It is the story of bullying in an elite boarding school which is why the film is in English. ‘Music Teacher’ stars Manav Kaul and is about the regret of what could have happened like not letting someone you love go. I am describing to you, not just the films’ story but also the theme.

Is the overseas market important?

Absolutely! As Indian films get better and as OTT platforms make international releases around the world simultaneously with India things will grow. Right now it is small. We as producers are looking to see how we can get more revenues from the international market.

By international market, I don’t mean NRIs. I mean reaching the local audience in foreign countries. This is what Korean, Iranian cinema has done. We want Indian cinema to do the same. When you reach international markets they do not care about the star. They care about the story.