Edited excerpts from an interview between Mathivanan Rajendran and Ranjani Krishnakumar.
Where does root.ax take root from?
My journey with independent production over the last three years made me realise that there was an opportunity to look at labs which were catering to industries and creators together at the same time. A lot of the labs that exist today are really great in helping filmmakers but there is a gap when it comes to making that final connection with the industry. I started working with The Storiculture Company to build this lab or what we can call an accelerator. This term is largely used in the start-up context but this is something we want to bring to the media as well. By media, I mean not just films and web series but in an all expansive way.
Once we knew this is what we wanted to build, the next step was to see what we could offer. We can work with creators from three different stages. First, in the making phase of the project where one can really dig deep into the project and research. Second, we come in during the pitching stage which we call the Bridge. Third, in an IP extension phase where one might have a piece of content which can be extended to other media as well.
Do programmes like this already exist and where do you stand in this ecosystem?
It would be unfair to say that it does not exist but as far as the South Asian sphere goes, there are very few labs. One such lab is Film Bazaar who have a two-fold approach between screenwriting and production. However, to my knowledge, there aren’t any labs that work with multi-modality or transmedia content. We are living in the age of transmedia where every piece of content has many shapes. That particular space we can make a difference by making sustainable content to help the creators thrive.
Root.ax brings a start-up approach to filmmaking or content-making. When we look at content creation, it is thought of as a creative endeavour existing in the creators head while with a start up, the language, structure, systems are highly driven towards business. Tell me about bringing these two seemingly opposite things together.
We are definitely borrowing from the start-up world but we are also not. At the core of it, the creator is still in the middle and there is no doubt about that. We are not trying to work with just economics where we identify an audience group in an area and ask a creator to make it in that space.
The thing about media is that it is different from a start-up. A creator can make something and it can resonate with people cutting through all aspects of ongoing politics and aesthetics. With start-ups, they have an audience and are driven by market opportunities. On one hand, it is important to take from the start-up world but not systemize things that much. What we take from them are the semantics, framework and a roadmap. These are important even for a creator and an industry to bring their thinking closer.
In a world where a lot of the productions happen through OTTs and when even production houses are themselves getting corporatized, will the start-up language and approach work?
Partially, yes. Many things have changed in the last five to seven years. Back then a narration would be enough but today, a pitch bible, a bound script, formatted treatment are all essential. There are multiple people on the other end who are approving these things. There is paperwork, feedback, legality and such. We need to strike a balance between the two. The creator remains at the core but we also work with industries in the way they programme things. Even for producers, they are able to get projects that are at an advanced level without them having spent too much time in shaping the content.
Who would be the right kind of person to join this lab and how would it benefit them?
We are very clear that we are looking for bold and original voices. That can happen with an aesthetic or in the way they push an idea or identity. It would be preferred, although not necessary, if some form of multi-modality is built into the project. The content should create an impact socially and have potential as an asset that can take many shapes. Most importantly, we would like to work with creators who are open to engage with this system without reluctance.
In terms of evaluating, our panel will primarily focus on two things—their past work and how their current project is holding.
What kind of outcome would make you happy at the end of the lab?
I think what would be great is at the end of the year, if we are able to engage with 80 creators and successfully get their films made. We don’t want to sell empty dreams. We want to make sure that if somebody is selected, their project happens in some form or the other. At least, we are able to contribute value to move it to the next step.
80 films in a year, sounds ambitious..
80 projects, yes. We might not be able to make all of them in one year but they will be in the lab and made over a course of two or three years. It is ambitious but it is also necessary. Requirement for content is increasing so maybe the conduit to access these opportunities is where the problem is.
Diversity is also built into this programme even if we don’t collectivise it as a women’s lab or queer lab. It’ll also make us very happy if these diverse and original voices become successful too.
The first edition of this will happen with South Indian films..
Yes. Our first lab, South Bridge, is for projects which have already reached a stage where creators are looking to pitch it to production houses and platforms. We are also exploring alternative methods of financing as well to support these makers.
Largely, because of my affinity to the South we thought it would be a great place to start. I have personally experienced a gap in being able to interact with an executive from Mumbai because I just did not understand the method and formats. It took me a while but I realised that’s the opportunity.
With South Bridge, we take creators through various steps. First, they meet pitch mentor, Stefano Tealdi and another South African creative mentor, Mmabatho Kau. We also have Indian mentors like Aditi Anand who is currently working with Pa. Ranjith’s Neelam Productions. We will bring in platforms to talk about how to pitch. An entertainment lawyer will take one through the legalities of this process. At the end of it, we are not looking to be producers but handhold creators through this and connect them to producers. South Bridge felt like the perfect place to start.
Today there are several informal setups like script doctors and advisors who do somewhat similar work to what you’re doing. What differentiates you?
Correct, but you used the right word—informal. Informality can help to a point but there is no accountability. With us, two things are primarily different. We are accountable and want to make sure a project gets placed and that this process is personalised. We have eight people at one time and that gives us time to understand and cater specifically to their needs. The problem with the informal setup is that getting a generic script doctor for a niche or genre film doesn’t work. They will give feedback without understanding the creator’s body of work. We take that time to engage with a creator and only then move forward.
What kind of risks do you foresee encountering in this project?
On both the creators and the industry end, we need to continuously grow. Both these entities have to see value in us. I am hoping that we can showcase to the industry that we are able to save time for them. The risk is really just the openness that both sides are willing to have and are optimistic about this endeavour.
From our end, as a trust building exercise, what we have done is that participants have to pay a nominal amount only after they are greenlit. This way, even the platforms know that we are not trying to make a buck off all the creators and we’re really here to make this connection.
Is this not for people who want to make regular mainstream films?
That is not true at all. Today, the lines between what is mainstream and what is not, is. Every time the mainstream becomes independent, the independent becomes a little more independent. We have a lot of pitches here which are super commercial films and can be made in three languages. That is also a craft and this program is simply for makers who enjoy the craft. Today there are commercial films that are so well done. In fact, it would largely benefit them as they would be able to actualise it because of the market interest as well.
We also are working with an executive producer who has worked extensively with commercial South Indian films and we will make sure some of the projects take that route too. The focus on writing is being recognised even if they are mainstream films. So, we are more than happy to work with such projects too.
Are there other dimensions to the project apart from films?
Yes, absolutely. We want to focus on the idea of multi-modality. Most of what we discussed was films but we are also here for podcasts, digital assets and just about anything that can be created. We want to work extensively with IP and build around it. We also aim to create social impact with this transmedia approach.
In picture: Stefano Tealdi, Pitch Mentor; Mmbatho Kau, Creative Mentor; Mathivanan Rajendran; Program Director; Shreya Rawat, Project Solutionist