With its focus on great content and tight budget control, this young studio has many lessons for the film industry at a time when it is grappling with the challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak
In 2017, Vikram Mehra, MD of Saregama India, India’s oldest music label, was toying with the idea of setting up a film studio that focussed on story-led cinema instead of star-led films. Everyone around him agreed there was a market for such films, but warned that he would have to keep costs under control.
“Every big producer says a movie doesn’t flop, budgets flop,” said Mehra, in a chat with Moneycontrol. With this caveat serving as a guiding principle, he went on to set up Yoodlee Films as the film division of Saregama India, an RP Sanjiv Goenka Group company. Mehra focussed on marrying great content with smart budgets, and that model holds many lessons for other film production houses today, when they are grappling with the Covid outbreak.
The studio’s name was derived from yodelling, a form of singing characterised by rapid changes in pitch, and popularised in India by Kishore Kumar. “It symbolises the history of Saregama as a company, while also serving as the wolf howl of younger audiences, our films’ targets,” said Mehra.
Yoodlee released its first film, Ajji, in November 2017. The modern-day adaptation of the children’s tale Little Red Riding Hood, directed by Devashish Makhija, won critical acclaim. In all, Yoodlee has made 13 films in the last two-and-a-half years for both theatrical as well as direct-to-digital release.
Handy lessons in the time of Covid
“I have an issue when someone says ‘make 10 films and one of them will be a hit and recover the cost of all the other nine,’” said Mehra. “In any other business, it doesn’t work this way. Every unit has to make money on its own. Our worst film also has to recover at least 75 percent of its cost.”
At the outset, Yoodlee drew up a plan to keep its films within budget. “A lot of producers told us that the common problem when you allocate a budget to a director is, they come to you saying that the budget is over and the movie is only 60 percent ready. Now, what do you do? You have to spend more money to recover the money that has been already spent. So, we took this call out here that nobody can go out to shoot without a bound script and shot-wise production details in place.”
“For money disbursal on the set we have a cost auditor and it is not done by Saregama employees or directors; it is done by Ernst & Young,” said Mehra.
“So, every time cost escalation happens, we don’t come to know about it at the end of the shoot schedule. We come to know about it on a daily basis because Ernst and Young, in a dispassionate fashion, updates us that ‘these many shots had to be done today and this is the cost you had to incur but instead something else happened’. This way course correction can happen at an early stage,” he explained.
Mehra says that in general, a of lot of money in film production goes into things that don’t show up on the screen and somewhere, that wasteful expense has to be cut off. “We don’t give vanity vans to any one, and the majority of our production unit travels by train.” If basic management principles are in place in filmmaking, the engine will run smoothly, he added.
“The Covid crisis has highlighted how important lean budgeting is. Many films end up being loss-making purely because they are wrongly budgeted. In this context, Yoodlee Films' business proposition of low-cost films is a compelling one,” said Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media.
Today, Yoodlee Films has to its credit films such as Hamid, which has won two National Awards and latest offerings and much-talked-about films such as Axone, Aparshakti Khurrana-starrer Kanpuriye on Disney+Hotstar, and Chaman Bahaar, starring Jitendra Kumar, on Netflix.
Hamid, shot in Kashmir over a month, with the cast and crew staying at local hotels, had a disappointing theatrical run, with collections of just Rs 14 lakh. But Mehra, without sharing any numbers, said Yoodlee’s deals with OTTs are getting it a good price for its films, thanks to the strong viewership they have been enjoying.
“While Yoodlee Films' low-cost proposition is somewhat restricted for theatrical release, where a certain scale is needed to make a film big-screen worthy, with streaming platforms coming into the forefront this year (because of Covid), their business model is particularly relevant, because it’s the concept, the story and the character that take precedence over scale in OTT,” said Ormax Media’s Kapoor.
Not quite a starry affair
Rather than relying on star power to drive the success of a film, Yoodlee prefers blooding first-timers and giving opportunities to those still finding their feet in the industry. At one level, this is because of their passion to make a mark, which makes them go the extra mile to make the film a success. In addition, it helps keeps costs under control.
A star cast comes at a huge cost, but that’s no guarantee of success, say trade analysts, noting how producers have often overestimated star power in the past. According to the analysts, star salaries should not take up more than 10-12 percent of a film’s budget. But often, they can gobble up 40 to 50 percent of the overall budget. Moreover, a star is usually accompanied by an entourage and that just adds to the overall cost.
The 2018 film Thugs of Hindostan is a case in point. Starring Bollywood A-listers Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Katrina Kaif, the film was made with a budget of over Rs 300 crore. However, it bombed at the box office and did not recover even half of the investment, ending up with collections of around Rs 138 crore.
A film’s overall budget can also play a role in influencing ticket prices, and thereby, its success at the box office. Distributors end up paying higher prices for big budget movies and at times, try to recover their investment by jacking up ticket prices. One of the factors that worked against Thugs of Hindostan, for instance, was its exorbitant ticket prices, which went as high as Rs 1,800.
Script selection process
Two things that will never be welcome at Yoodlee are vanity and bias, said Mehra. When it comes to bias, Mehra said, “we tear off the first page (the page with the writer's name) before we give out the scripts.”
Plus, when the scripts come to the company, no script can reach senior people directly. It first goes to script readers, a team of 17 people. Any two people are given the script to evaluate it on a quantitative scale. This is a predetermined scale. “Even big Bollywood names have given references but the process is the same,” he said.
Scripts that qualify for approval reach the script head. Thereafter, they go to Yoodlee’s head and then to Mehra.
“All of us have the right to veto but nobody has the right to greenlight a film. What this does is, it takes out personal bias. So, I’m a die-hard fan of emotional drama films where I can cry my heart out. If I’m going to be reading scripts, the only scripts I like will be emotional dramas,” he added.
No casting involvement
Also, while Saregama executives are involved at every stage of film production because they line produce the films, one thing they never get involved in casting.
“The day a writer comes in here and we greenlight the film, the star cast is left to the writer-director duo. This ensures that vanity-based stuff of ‘I like an actor’ goes out. This is a huge problem when corporates make films. I don’t see why I, as the managing director of a company, am equipped to take that decision. The writer will know better,” said Mehra.
Along with star cast selection, the writer-director duo is also entitled to 30 percent of the profit, which they can share with actors and the director of photography (DOP). So, it is collective ownership for a movie. Although the upfront pay is not that high, this ensures that if the movie is successful, the stakeholders will have a share in the profits, pointed out Mehra.
Every aspect of the process, from limiting the budget to finishing production on time, has helped the company to complete every film on time and under budget, said Mehra.
Back to work
And now Yoodlee is back at work with two new projects. “We restarted shoots last week. Our first schedule is at Madh Island. The second shoot will also start by the end of this month,” said Mehra.As for Covid, he said: “Siddharth Anand (Vice President—Films & Events, Saregama) took this call of having a Covid inspector for every set of ours.”