Why a 118-year-old Bollywood music label is now betting on offbeat films

Giving filmmakers a chance.
Giving filmmakers a chance.
Image: Yoodlee Films
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India’s oldest music label is bringing hope to its indie filmmakers.

Set up in 1901, Saregama India has been in the business of music for over a century. But it was only three years ago that it turned its ear to the $2-billion behemoth film industry. It set up the brand Yoodlee Films, headed by Siddharth Anand Kumar.

In November 2017, Yoodlee set the ball rolling with the critically-acclaimed child rape drama Ajji and followed it up with Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, which released on Netflix in December. Spanning several languages and genres, the label made seven films last year. This year, it plans to shoot between 12 and 15. By 2022, it wants to have 100 films in its kitty.

So far, Indian indie films have largely been driven by mavericks who would raise finances on their own and the films would be hit or miss. “You can either get a Satyajit Ray making a Pather Panchali or you can get something that’s almost unwatchable because it’s too close to the bone of the artist,” Kumar, vice-president of films and television at Saregama Films and producer at Yoodlee, told Quartz. ”We figured there had to be a way to bring some sort of editorial method to the madness where we could make films that would preserve the artistic integrity but still be accessible to greater numbers.”

Over the past three years, the team at Yoodlee has grown from six people to nearly 40. Till date, it has read over 1,200 scripts. It doesn’t outright reject any but provides feedback on how to improve.

Below are edited excerpts from Quartz’s conversation with Kumar:

Why does Yoodlee not acquire films like other studios, but produce them start-to-finish?

We studied a lot of studio models in India. Typically, you bring a script I love, we sit and discuss it, I transfer the money to you and you get out and make the film and bring it back. Most of the time, the film is 50% complete but 100% of the money is spent. Precisely to avoid that trap, we decided that we should produce ourselves so we have control and onus. When we first started, we decided to write a standard operating procedure which defines six criteria on how to choose the movie. We do script workshops. We do the casting. We’re involved in the location, daily expenditures and running of the sets, as well as the post-production with the filmmaker as a partner.

Are theatrical releases better than those on over-the-top (OTT) platforms?

The feature film space is great for talent in terms of storytelling, multiple avenues for monetisation—theatrical, cable and satellite, and OTT platforms—as opposed to only OTT. And you have the film festival network and established business practices for marketing movies for theatrical.

However, we live in an era of convenience and theatres are inconvenient. It’s appointment viewing, it requires you to step out of your home, wrestle with traffic, park your cars. There’s a censorship regime that makes films slightly clunky. Then there’s the fact that we have very low per capita penetration of movie theatres and very high movie prices with a lot of taxes in it.

How do you decide which films get a theatre release and which go digital?

It’s an organic process. We don’t want to put a film in gestation for a year. Since it’s a cultural product and the zeitgeist can shift, the film needs to be brought to audiences fast. Like with Hamid, the entire country was focussed on Kashmir and we thought the film had a beautiful message of understanding and empathy that would resonate with audiences now.

We have fixed percentages for every line item, like the filmmaker’s pay, the star cast’s salaries, and so on. We let circumstances dictate who’s in the film rather than who’ll give the most box office potential. In truth, most films will be both. Some films go straight to OTT if we feel the investment in a theatrical release may not get returns.

Also, there’s a lot of pressure for movies in theatres to perform in week one. These kinds of films without stars don’t have great inorganic pull. It takes two to three weeks for word-of-mouth to percolate. Hamid got pulled on the Wednesday of week-2 because (Akshay Kumar-starrer) Kesari came in. The percentage rise in collections for Hamid on that Wednesday was the highest. To counterbalance, you take it to OTT, where you can market it over a sustained period, the film is easily accessible, and all the problems of the theatrical world are gone.

How do you measure the success of the movies you produce?

“Did the board, the stakeholders, make money?” is the first measure of success. Did we at least break even? A lot of studios are loss-leaders of the groups they’re part of. We haven’t lost money yet. And it’s not just about how much money you make from the audiences but at what budget did you make the film. With the right budget, you shouldn’t lose money because you successfully predicted how you could monetise.

Then there’s the artistic measure of success which is very easy to track today. There are bots that track all this chatter online. We look at reviews. We look at indicators from partners like Netflix and Hotstar. They won’t give exact numbers but they’ll tell us if the content has done well or not for them. There are festival runs. Yoodlee has been to over 75 festivals around the world and picked up 5-6 awards by now.

What are some of the challenges Yoodlee has faced in the past three years?

Filmmaking is full of crazy challenges we can never anticipate. Somehow, during the monsoons, we end up with two or three films we need to shoot when there are lots of wipeouts due to rain, equipment getting damaged, shoot delays, and so on.

On Hamid, we had cast this wonderful child after two extensive months of workshops in Srinagar. When his father read the script—they were a Muslim family—he didn’t like the idea that we were personifying Allah, which is not permitted in Islam. Two days before shoot, he walked away with the kid. We were lucky enough to get Talha (Arshad Reshi), who happened to be brilliant, but we did need to change the script according to his personality.

When we were shooting a film in Tamil Nadu, a strike happened. Nothing shot for two months and then everything began shooting simultaneously. Prices shot up and the budget went haywire. In response, we had to constrain the number of days and make the film faster.

Even T-Series is making movies. Why are record labels getting into films?

I’m not an expert but I think T-series does movies because it pays so much money to buy music rights from other films. Within that money, it’s able to make certain kinds of films for itself, put great music in it, and own that music for free.

That’s not why Saregama is making movies. We want to create legacy products for the future. We’re not making movies because we want to monetise today. The intentions are more organic, very well thought out—they’re not opportunistic or exploitative. The intention is for Saregama to evolve from a music label to a content creation company. And we’re not just stopping at video and audio. We’re thinking, can we do live content?