If you’re an Indian filmmaker with Oscar hopes, producer Guneet Monga is who you call. Aside from being a member of the Academy, she’s currently working on her fourth Oscar campaign, this time for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu. She recently came on board as executive producer after it was announced as India’s official entry into the Academy Awards this year.
In 2010 a short film she produced, Kavi, was nominated for Best Short (Live Action). In 2016, she worked on the Oscar campaign for Vetri Maaran’s Visaranai. And last year, Period. End Of Sentence, which she executive produced, went on to win Best Documentary Short at the 91st Academy Awards. She now has her hopes set on Jallikattu. The Malayalam film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and has travelled to close to 40 festivals around the world, winning rave reviews and acclaim.
Over a call, Guneet spoke to us about her experiences navigating Oscar campaigns, what an effective campaign looks like, her hopes for Jallikattu and why India has never had much success at the Oscars despite making so many good films.
How did you come on board as an executive producer to support Jallikattu’s Oscar campaign?
Lijo and his producers O Thomas Panicker and Naushad Salahuddin (executive producer) reached out to me. They’ve done a fantastic job with the movie, it’s travelled to so many festivals and now it’s been submitted as our entry to the Oscars. They actually spoke to Vetrimaaran who recommended me because I’d worked on Visaranai’s Oscar campaign in 2016.
So they asked me to work on Jallikattu’s campaign. It’s a stunning film and I love Lijo for the visionary that he is, and I think the film could have a chance if we do this right. So I came on board to support the film and share my learnings and contacts and whatever I know.
Visaranai was the first feature you campaigned for. What was that experience like and what were your key learnings from that about what makes a strong campaign?
I learnt a lot about what we should and shouldn’t do through Visaranai’s journey. I was there with Vetrimaaran and Aalif Surti in LA for three months trying to put together a campaign.
The first thing is to hire the right PR person. The core of these campaigns is understanding that these are awards in America, so you need an American distributor who knows how to navigate that space. It might be the Best Foreign Language category with contenders from all around the world, but you need to partner with people who specialise in navigating that territory.
So you’re in a very good place as a filmmaker if you have an American distributor. With Jallikattu we just got XYZ Films on board to ramp up the campaign, which I’m very proud of. They’ve worked with films like The Raid and Under The Shadow, and they have a great reputation of discovering talent. They loved the film after they saw it at the Toronto premiere, so a lot of those battles were already won.
The other thing is films from India that break out from festivals who are aiming for the Oscars should have an English title along with their Indian one, just for reference purposes. For example, Visaranai had Interrogation, just because it makes it a lot easier for presenting the film to a new audience.
When I spoke to you last year about Period: End Of A Sentence’s Oscar nomination, you said another issue is the criteria we use to choose our official Oscar entry and the fact that we do it so late in the year.
Yes, campaigns take a long time, and I still don’t know why India makes its selection so late. This year Poland sent their entry in August. Why is India sending their entry in late November? You’re just giving your film less of a fight and diminishing its chances. Oscar campaigns take a long time, you just can’t do it overnight. This year thankfully the vote is in February instead of December, so we have those two months, but we’re still running against time.
Also, the committee that gets set up here to decide which film from India gets submitted, they need to send films which have a large festival footprint and possibly have an American distributor. I cannot emphasize that enough. Lagaan had Sony Pictures Classic and so did The Lunchbox, which was a huge missed opportunity.
If you’re a voter in the US and there are a hundred countries vying to get your attention, your first thought will be which ones have been picked up by the big distributors like Sony Pictures Classic or Focus Features. The film must be good to have got these distributors. These are known and respected names and it’s like a stamp of approval for voters and helps draw their attention.
There’s a reason why we haven’t reached that point despite making so many good films. We’ve been fighting a losing battle for years.
The other forms are more people experiencing our stories and our talent. There was an article recently in The Guardian about which filmmakers should direct the next Indiana Jones if Spielberg doesn’t, and out of the five global filmmakers, one of them is Lijo. That journalist would have experienced Lijo’s film at a festival which led to that. That’s the beauty of being out there and that’s the kind of tangible impact you can have.
What would you say a good Best Foreign Language Film campaign looks like?
Nothing works better than making a good film. Jallikattu is a visual masterpiece, it’s so unique and original and Lijo is one of the most significant voices from India. So I do think people will relate to it and thoroughly enjoy it and I’m very hopeful.
Then it comes down to finding the right distributor. Also, a good campaign doesn’t start 40 days before the nomination, it’s a year round process of being out there at all the major US festivals and being seen and heard. Jallikattu has had that because it premiered at Toronto and has travelled around the world.
It’s really about the positioning of the film and how you capture the attention of a voter in a new market. There will be trade related interactions and screenings and QnA but a lot of that again comes with choosing the right partners, distributors and PR team. It’s about promoting the experience of your film and saying ‘come into this language, into this world and you will experience something amazing’. It’s what Bong Joon-ho said about ‘crossing the one inch barrier of subtitles’.
This year it’s all online and not like before where voters and screenings are based in LA. This is the first year voters are based globally. We’re all seeing movies on the Academy website. So it’s a year of many firsts. Also the Academy has increased their voter base significantly over the last 4 years. It’s a lot more diverse and global.
Now we have a lot of people from the Indian film industry who have become Academy members over the last few years. They should also be on the front foot and support it, whether it’s on social media or however else as a soft campaign. Every little thing helps.
Everyone assumes that with an Oscar campaign you have one goal which is to secure the nomination. But are there other advantages of having those audiences experience Indian cinema, even if you don’t get that nomination?
Yes, absolutely. The other forms are more people experiencing our stories and our talent. There was an article recently in The Guardian about which filmmakers should direct the next Indiana Jones if Spielberg doesn’t, and out of the five global filmmakers, one of them is Lijo. That journalist would have experienced Lijo’s film at a festival which led to that. That’s the beauty of being out there and that’s the kind of tangible impact you can have.
What advice would you have for Indian films that are out on the festival circuit that are hoping to secure an American distributor? Is it just about networking at those festivals?
I would say for foreign language films, it is festivals and every festival has a market which is for that exact purpose. Festivals aren’t just about landing up there and doing a screening and drinking champagne and coming back. There’s a lot of producing work that needs to happen in the months before, like finding the best buyer. That festival has hundreds of films so how do you stand out amongst those? That process needs to start very early on. That’s also why we miss a lot of creative producing and hands-on producing in India. I remember for Peddlers and Gangs Of Wasseypur, I went to Paris two months before Cannes (film festival) to figure out sales agents and buyers and get a lay of the land. You have to just put yourself out there and knock on doors. That’s the producer’s job.
I do think the needle has moved since then. I really liked how Guuly Boy campaigned. But yes, we have a long journey ahead. As a start point, all Academy Members from India should unify and support their country’s nomination – that in itself will make a huge impact in the footprint of Indian cinema worldwide.