It’s been a nightmare of a year for the movie business that has suffered unimaginable losses world over. Producer Shobu Yarlagadda, CEO of Arka Media Works, says there isn’t a day when he’s not grateful that the pandemic didn’t strike while they were making a magnum opus like Baahubali. That said, the Telugu industry appears to be recovering faster from the crisis with back to back movie announcements by their biggest stars. Yarlagadda breaks down what the future of the Telugu industry looks like, the role streaming will play, and why Baahubali continues to be the gift that keeps giving.
How has the pandemic treated you?
Touch wood, we have been better off and not as badly impacted as many others. This is primarily because we only had one film – Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya – which was pretty much complete and we moved it to Netflix. In TV we have 4-5 projects in Telugu and Kannada that came to a halt for some time. But in the last couple of months we have restarted those and thankfully without much incidents or scares. I think this month we are almost back to our pre-Covid levels in terms of story discussions and new projects. We have one project for OTT that’s just starting to shoot. But those first three months were really stressful because of the uncertainty that was involved.
Have you had to take any particularly hard decisions during this time?
I think the hardest was when we had to cut salaries and trim some of our staff after two months. That was the hardest. If we knew it was going to be for three months, it would have been easier but we didn’t know how long this would last. Luckily we are now back to our pre-Covid level salaries and workforce.
The monetary risks you took with Baahubali are unthinkable now. I can’t imagine the nervousness you must have felt before the first part released. On a scale of zero to the pressure you felt then, where would you place these last few months?
Honestly, there’s not been a single day we have not felt grateful that the pandemic didn’t happen at that time. We were doing something that had no precedent, and without an understanding of the Hindi market or for that matter any market outside Andhra and Telangana. At that time there was no streaming. Imagine, five years ago there was nothing. Today so many films have been bailed out because they were bought by streaming platforms. So not just me, so many of my close friends and family keep telling me, ‘imagine if you had taken this risk at that time, god knows what would have happened’.
Even now we don’t know what the theatrical market is and when it will be back to normal. Rajamouli’s current project RRR is in a similar situation and it is a very scary one. But at least now you know that there have been films like Baahubali and KGF in the past. We didn’t have that either.
Are you going to rethink the scripts you’re green-lighting now?
Absolutely. We’ve been very conservative as far as films are concerned. We’ve not been very prolific. We do TV shows but films only when we are committed to the script and believe in the team making it. Now we are focussing only on small budget stories set in a limited scope. None of these are even close to Baahubali. We are weighing the pros and cons of what we will get from streaming and satellite and then taking a very conservative approach on what we can get from theatrical. We are limiting our expectations from theatrical to a minimum.
But even so, I feel Bollywood is still in wait and watch mode but the Telugu industry is powering through. There are so many grand announcements being made. Prabhas alone has announced massive movies one after the other.
Yes, that’s true. My personal observation is that projects like the ones Prabhas is doing will not come out immediately. Hopefully when they do, things will be back to normal. I think in six months we will all be back to making films the way we used to. That is the belief. The advantage Telugu films have is that now they are seeing a potential across India. That gives them a lot more confidence. Even Hindi films don’t enjoy that right now. How many Hindi films do well in Telugu? It’s still not proven that they can. They are yet to break the barriers.
We’ve been hearing conversations of actors having to take pay cuts to be less of a burden to the film’s cost. Are these conversations you’re having as well?
There are conversations but I think ultimately it will be decided on a project by project basis. Right now either projects have gone straight to OTT or they are waiting to release or are under production. Most likely we will see a regular stream of films only in January. That’s when producers will feel the pinch and they will have to cross the bridge of whether artists need to take a cut or put in some money into the film to ensure it releases.
I’m sure everyone is dreading it!
Oh yes! It’s a tough conversation to have and I’m sure the artist will be receptive if it’s a genuine case. In the past too there have been many instances in the South where artists have come in and bailed a project. If it’s still a viable project, stars won’t be inclined but if it’s a difficult situation it will be in everyone’s interest to make sure it releases. But right now we are still pushing this conversation under the carpet. We are delaying the pain!
A lot of films that were meant for the big screen ended up on OTT. You also had Uma Maheswara on Netflix. Take me through what that decision is like. How do you weigh the pros and cons? What do you tell the artists involved?
It’s definitely a hard call because it was designed for the theatres. You release a film in the theatre hoping that there will be an upside. With streaming there is no upside. You sell it for X amount and that’s about it. So that’s the commercial aspect. The other aspect is telling the writer and director – it’s difficult for them to let go. They want the audience to come and appreciate their work in person, but here all you have is people saying things on Twitter. It was hard for them to let go but as a producer I had to take a practical call. I had to convince them that this is the best thing to do. I explained to Maha (Venkatesh, director) that it doesn’t mean people would not have appreciated it in the theatre. It’s just that we don’t know when that will happen and to hold on to it would mean the film becoming old and losing its sheen. When people are sitting at home wanting content, why not give it to them. We can always come back with another project for the theatres. So it was a difficult conversation but not a messy one.
One of the fears is that streaming is changing our viewing habits. It will take a lot more to make us leave our homes for a movie. The other fear is many theatres may not even survive this period. What about streaming scares you and what makes you hopeful?
I think streaming and movies are co dependent. Streaming is also about series and binge-viewing. As far as movies are concerned, now every film can’t be made for theatrical release. That has to be decided the day you read the film with the director. You have to make a conscious call and ask yourself if this film is something that can bring people to the theatres or not. It needs a marketing hook.
As for OTT, they are picking up films now because they need content but ideally they also want films to release in the theatre. When it goes to the theatre there is a buzz that helps them too. They get the roll over benefit of the marketing. Without that the onus of pushing the film becomes the streaming platform’s which they don’t always want.
In the last few weeks, both Netflix and Amazon announced Tamil anthologies. Disney plus Hotstar has announced their Tamil slate of web shows. There’s a Telugu anthology for Netflix being shot. But why has this taken so long when Hindi shows are now entering second and third seasons?
It is a more of a trickle down effect. I think what they were trying to do is build a base around Hindi and now Tamil and Telugu are their next major bases. I think for these languages they were building their subscriber base first by acquiring major movies. They built a regional audience like that and now they are creating content for them. It’s not easy to make a series. We too have been working on one for over a year. It’s taking that long to get a good product in place. There are only so many good writers and actors. The talent pool is also far smaller than Hindi. It’s a learning curve for all of us.
You put up a post on your social media where you said you’re looking to hire scriptwriters from a reputed film school. I’ve never associated writing and acting in India as something that you needed qualifications for. It’s something you stumble into and if you’re talented and good work gets you more work. At Arka are you looking to make things more professional?
Yes, and how else do you filter people? We got 700 entries on that call. Now there are so many film schools and free courses available online. If you’re really serious about writing you have to understand that there’s a structure and science to it. Even if you can’t go to film school you can put effort into learning. That shows that you’ve gone that extra mile. That’s why we said you must be from a film school. We are looking for someone who is really fresh. Not someone who is a few years into the industry and has already built a way of working. We want to mould them into what we want, like management trainees who we can fold into the culture of the company.
Isn’t this a uniquely professional route for the movies?
Yes, but we have to. We are now running short of writers. We need to create a talent pool for ourselves and the industry. There is a questionnaire we are sending out to the shortlisted candidates. I’ve asked them to write a synopsis for a movie or take a particular scene from Baahubali and treat it their own way. The idea is to get it down to 3-4 people from 700.
One of the most amazing things you did with Baahubali is create an IP that can be leveraged across various platforms. There are books, video games, merchandise, animation series. I don’t know if you can share figures but just for my understanding, how is it going? Is Baahubali the gift that keeps giving?
Yes, it is. We still have a lot more to derive out of it. These characters are so well etched into the Indian popular culture so there’s a lot we can do. There’s a Netflix series too.
What’s happening with that? Why did you scrap whatever you shot?
We and Netflix felt that we needed to reimagine and scale up so we went back to the drawing board and started from scratch. It’s in progress. We are working on other franchise opportunities too. It’s mainly me and Rajamouli who keep brainstorming on what else we can do.
There are reports of the thousands of crores the movie industry has lost during this time. It’s a bleak situation. But do you think there’s any silver lining at all? Has something good come out of this time?
I hope we will look at our cost structures and find ways to reduce it if it’s bloated. I’m not talking only about man power but also about spending more time on the script. Basically we need to go back to the basics. A great example is the Malayalam film C U Soon. That’s the silver lining. When your constraints force you to think outside the box.