In 2016, filmmaker Tharun Bhascker broke into the Telugu film industry with his film Pelli Choopulu, a fresh romantic comedy starring Vijay Deverakonda and Ritu Varma. The film will be remembered for many reasons. Its easy-going tonality was quite an aberration in Telugu cinema, and its commercial success unexpected. It will also be remembered for its two National Awards and as the film that gave Vijay Deverakonda his breakthrough role. This wasn’t an easy film to get rolling. Bhascker’s struggle to find money and distribution for it has now become legendary. Here he looks back at his experiences and tells other younger directors following in his footsteps what they can learn from his journey.
Don’t be intimidated
If you’re entering the film industry for the first time, I suggest you focus on the craft and the technical aspect of it. All you need to remember is that if you want to submit your film for a theatrical release, it’s just about sending 2K footage in raw or DPX format to the Qube system. When you boil down a film to these technical aspects it becomes less daunting. There is a lot of attention on this industry and that brings expectations and pressure which is not very real. So the moment you understand that you only have to submit a 2K footage for censorship, it becomes a mechanical and therefore less intimidating process.
Don’t give into hearsay
There are many stereotypes in the industry about which production house to go to or not to go to. There are a lot of opinions thrown around. Don’t let such advice be a roadblock in your journey. When Pelli Choopulu happened, I was advised not to go to Suresh Productions because they apparently stall films. But Suresh (Babu) sir saw my film, called me, and said he wanted to distribute it. He’s a very practical man and Rana (Daggubati) is an amazing guy who looks at storytelling.
I was getting refused till then by distributors because it was in sync sound and the film wasn’t fitting into anyone’s marketing strategy. For 3 months my mom and wife used to weep every time I’d come home with a rejection. All that could have been avoided had I approached Suresh Productions first.
Set up meetings with producers
Surprisingly, it’s not hard to meet with producers. A lot of filmmakers don’t go and knock on doors. Maybe it hurts their self esteem. The ‘struggle’ has been so glorified and dramatised that nobody wants to go through it in the first place and they all want to look for shortcuts. But the honest truth is that if you have confidence in your screenplay, go to offices and take an appointment. For me getting a meeting was not hard at all. In fact, Suresh sir puts out his number in the public domain. I know for a fact that Annapurna Studios is open and you can pitch anytime you want.
Be prepared to meet producers who don’t understand cinema
99% percent of the people in this industry don’t know anything about filmmaking. I stand by this statement. Everybody has their own perspective on what kind of films work and what doesn’t. Only one percent of this industry actually knows their craft and it’s very difficult to find them but once you do, open your ears and listen to them.
When I was pitching stories I met a lot of real estate people or people who had a lot of money and called themselves producers. A producer needs to understand a budget, a shot break down, a script breakdown and what a call sheet is.
Study the Royalties Act
All other film industries across the world have something called a Royalties Act. It is very important to know about this. In other industries, every artist is paid a royalty for perpetuity for his or her content. When you’re a first-time director you give your soul to the devil. You just want to make the movie and see the project go through. But what you need to understand is that when they sell your film for audio rights or to any streaming platform, they’re selling your content to the platform for perpetuity. You can actually have that income trickle down into your pocket too. So get a good entertainment attorney who will get you a stake in the film. I had a 20% stake in Pelli Choopulu. Eventually I sold off that stake to the producers and gave a no objection certificate when they were selling their satellite rights, which I still regret. But that’s business.
Practice a 20-minute pitch
I have had some weird pitching incidents. In one instance, the producer requested me to switch off the lights in the room so that he could ‘visualise the film’ in his head while I was narrating. Some people wanted to face a particular direction and do the narration since they believed in Vaastu. I think the duration of an ideal pitch has come down to 20 minutes. After 20 minutes the person who is listening will tune out. In fact, many studios in Hollywood put a 20-minute timer. I used to time myself while practicing my pitch on my friends.
Get actors to voice your script
The culture of someone reading a bound screenplay doesn’t exist here. But now it’s picking up. Now what I do is that I hire voice actors and I get my friends to play certain characters and we do script readings. The producer also gets a good idea of what the script is turning out to be. So after the 20 minute pitch, this is the next step.
Don’t discuss cost of production while pitching
Be careful about mentioning a cost of production in your pitch because producers will take your word for it. As a director you have to stay mum unless you’re absolutely sure about your costs. It’s better not to say anything at first because if you can’t stick to it, it affects your credibility. The moment you deliver something that is over budget you are not going to get a call back from that production house.
No one cares about your sad story
Don’t go too deep into the undercurrent and theme of your story. Most of the financers don’t care about it. I don’t think you need to put your heart out for display. Nobody wants to hear your speech and nobody wants to hear your sad story. Everybody just wants to hear your story and if it will cater to the audience or how fruitful it’ll be in terms of money.
Make short films to find your filmmaking voice
I made short films to prove to myself that I have the capability to make movies. As a filmmaker you must understand that procrastination happens because of an underlying fear of failure or humiliation. You are trying to put a perfect film out. You will make mistakes and that is the best thing that can happen to you. Short films are the best way to make your mistakes. Once you understand line production and how various departments come together to design a scene, you will understand your filmmaking style. That is the day that you can actually bet on someone else’s money for your film. You have to understand that the people who are putting in their money (and this is actually an underrated risk that we don’t talk about) are just taking a blind shot at you. You have to really give them the confidence that their money is in good hands.
Plan budgets smartly
I’ve been compartmentalized as a ‘small budget’ filmmaker in this industry. People say that every time you have a doubt with budgets, go to Tharun because he made a film in Rs 63 lakhs. According to me, a tight budget is all about location. You need to understand where you’re shooting your film. For Pelli Choopulu I was very conscious about my locations. I knew that I have to bring a family crowd into the theatres and so I was thinking of places where children play cricket on the streets and other such feel good places for families. I tried to reverse engineer that and wrote the film keeping those 5 or 6 locations in mind. When you write specific to a location your budget becomes much more constrained. But I didn’t let this affect my creativity or vision.
Pre-production is everything
For a first-time filmmaker, the more pre-production you do, the better you can constrain your budgets. Pre-production hardly costs anything and you can sit at home and do it. There are many variables that can go wrong with your project so be prepared for the worst and only a proper pre-production plan can save you. Another thing I would urge filmmakers to do is to properly understand the universal format of a screenplay. People don’t know how to evaluate the runtime of a screenplay. Generally one page of a screenplay translates into 1 minute, so there’s usually 120 pages in a screenplay. A lot of industries only accept screenplays like this because it gives them an exact estimation of budget and time. Now there are a lot of production management softwares that automatically analyzes the screenplay that you feed it and gives you a list of characters, props, scenes, location, etc. The script breakdown is already done by the software.
For both my films I had used a production management software. We had specified that we would shoot in 63 lakh and we finished the shoot in 62.5 lakh, and that was because of the production management software.