Telugu cinema is going through a revolution of sorts: creatively and commercially. Digital cinema has enabled new, budding filmmakers with no studio backing not only to make a film with their own resources, but also release it successfully and profit it from it. Ee Rozullo, the smash hit that was made on a budget of Rs 60 lakhs and grossed Rs 800 lakhs at box-office is the talk of the industry. This has inspired an army of young filmmakers who out on the streets with digital camera, amateur actors – making their own dream: an independent feature film.
The film was produced on a meager budget, through efficient planning, eliminating all the excesses of big-budget filmmaking. It deserves to have a case study on its own.
Today, I am happy & proud that folks who around me had done something I only aspire for, but could not achieve – an ultra low budget independent film. While the director Maruthi deserves a full interview, on the creative aspects of the film – the focus of this article is on how the project was designed, executed and marketed on such a shoe string budget. I was a first-account witness to the whole process of Ee Rozullo, but feel the facts should come from the horse’s mouth. Hence, I am going to interview a long-time associate, PRO for all our films, personal publicist for Allu Arjun & Ram Charan – Sreenivas Kumar aka SKN, one of the Producers of the Ee Rozullo
My idea behind this interview is the’ wheel should not be reinvented’. These guys have already gone through struggles, made mistakes, rectified and finally produced their film. Newbies starting out too need not go through the same grind again – but learn from these people and make lesser mistakes. There is no patented secret formula these guys have, yet I have seen some smart things these guys did which could be of help to other filmmakers. I have requested them to reveal it all for the greater benefit of the industry. They were gracious enough to do so. Hope the conversation inspires you as much as I did doing it.
You were a movie PRO. How did the idea of getting into Producing start?
Me, Maruthi & Shreyas Srinivas were friends from a long time. Maruthi was working in an animation company and later did many ad-films, including the Prajarajyam TV campaign. He wanted to become a director and developed a script, which he narrated to us. Upon hearing it we got excited and thought why not well all produce it? And we floated a banner called “Good Cinema Group”. Till then me and Shreyas Srinivas were in the movie-marketing profession. With Ee Rozullo, we decided to enter production.
So it all started with Maruthi, his story and his idea of becoming a director. We’re lucky that he was our friend. I think for all three of us, the right thing happened at the right time. That’s how we took off.
Small budget films have a success rate of 5%. How did Ee Rozullo get it right?
Not its budget, not its marketing – but its content. All those things come later. Film goers are not bothered how much the movie cost or if its Producers made money – they’re only interested if its nice. Our movie had something that appeals to them hence it clicked.
That’s understood – content is King. But how did you get your content right?
How we’re different from other small films is that instead of trying to appeal to everyone and impressing none, we chose our target audience – youth. We dint project this as a family entertainer, mass-masala film or dilute the story by inserting such elements. We picked only one theme and stuck only to that. Most small films in trying to impress everybody insert a lot of other elements and end up diluting their film. Maruthi did not do that, which I think is the biggest reason for its success.
How did you go about slicing the budget to a fraction without compromising on quality?
The biggest cost for Telugu films these days is remunerations. For big-budget films nearly 50-60% goes in remunerations towards top stars, star directors, heroines and name brand technicians. Even the production is lavish as a star’s film needs 6 songs, huge sets, backdancers, fighters, foreign locations.
We chose a simple, honest story which purely relies on storytelling and devoid of all these trappings. There itself our budget was reduced to a fraction. For all of us, this film was a break – so none of us got remuneration. Infact, we put in our personal money as investors and worked towards the film. Our skill & talent were the only thing we had to offer. The only expenses we incurred was purely towards production.
All the actors too newbies. Except Reshma, the heroine none of the actors got paid as all of them were on the lookout for a break. Once the movie released and was a success, we paid them as a token of gratitude. So technically the cast & crew fee for the film was zero, where as its in tens of crores for big budget films.
I came to your set. I was shocked seeing only 20 people. Even TV serials don’t operate that lean these days.
I’ve worked and attended so many shootings of big-budget films. There is so much of wastage and lack of efficiency. A big film nearly has 150-200 people on set everyday, who have to be paid, whose transport has to be arranged & food to be served. For example, a big hero comes with 3 additional staff like hair, make up & boy. Heroines get along a lot of staff too, and senior character actors too get their own staff. Then the direction department has upto 10 people, also camera crew upto 10, on-location drivers, electricians, set workers. I am not telling these are completely waste – but the way in which big budget films are made, these are essential. For a big film anywhere Rs2-4 lakh is spent purely on production – like location rent, outdoor unit, food and wages. Our film cannot afford this. Hence, we kept our crew size to a minimum.
But small budget films have 40-50 people unit members. How could you make it twenty.
There is a lot of work duplication, we eliminated that. Usually big films each big actor gets their own makeup artists. But, we had a unit makeup man, who did the makeup for all artists. Food was arranged from outside, instead of maintaining a canteen. Usually for big films – direction department is given one car, production another, set crew another, some times cars for outstation artists too. But we just had one car was used to pick up & drop all cast and crew. We asked the Actors to get their personal clothes as costumes. On an average, our crew size was about 20 people including all the assistant director, camera unit, production people and actors.
Also 35MM cameras need a lot of camera assistants, we dint need that many. Big films have a 5-6 people in the direction department and another 5-6 people in production. We trimmed that by assigning more responsibility for each person.
In big films work-load is so much that people specialize a lot. For ex: One production manager’s role is only traveling arrangement & food, another takes care of location rentals and police & municipal permits (incase of shooting in public places). But, in a film like ours we can’t specialize – but generalize. So, one person has to take on multiple roles.
Nice. Now, how did you get that rich look? The locations seemed nice.
The credit goes totally goes to our cinematographer Prabhakar Reddy. Despite, using minimal equipment – he ensured a rich look for the film. One thing that sets apart a big film from a small one immediately is the cinematography, but we focused on getting the look right.
From the production side too we did a few things to get good locations. We tied up with noted real estate company Manjeera as promotional partners for the film and gave them in-film branding. In return they let us use their upcoming apartment without location fee. We saved a lot on that. Nishita Engineering College too was one of our sponsors, who gave their college premesis in exchange for promotion. So, we did all these little things, which seem like small amounts – but when tallied saves a huge chunk as films are not shot for 1-2 days, but 55 days in our case.
What’s this fuss on doing digital? Why not 35MM?
When we were starting the movie, we consulted Ram Gopal Verma. I am his personal publicist for AP. He gave us some insights on how to use a Canon 5D camera, which he did for Dongala Mutha. I thank him profusely for that. He was our inspiration.
RGV eliminated lights totally for his film and shot only using natural light. Their story was such. But, we had to use lights. Our cinematographer Prabhakar Reddy actually designed, lights that are battery operated (see photos). These are made out of LED, a lower cost alternative to the expensive most movies use. It was really smart thinking and out-of-the-box thinking on his part.
With battery operated lights, you don’t need much power. So you guys also eliminated the need for an outdoor power van?
Yes. One of the biggest expenses in film production is the “outdoor unit” (generator van + equipment rental). The big van you see outside most shootings is this. It runs on diesel and is a source of power. Since a film uses so many lights, some times as much as a cricket stadium it needs a lot of electricity, which is not available in regular locations. So, a generator van has to be arranged. But by going for battery lights we totally eliminated a generator van. We saved a few lakhs through this.
Other than the generator van, most films also hire equipment like trolley, cranes, camera from suppliers. We bought our own camera, and built our own equipment. We actually studied the mechanism of how these things work and recreated them on fraction of a cost, using cheaper material. We made mechanics and carpenters build them! You have to see them in action to believe it. (See photos)
I think eliminating the outdoor van & building our own equipment and not renting it is our biggest achievement, in terms of production planning. This is the single largest factor for reducing the film’s production budget.
Smart! How did you go about your post-production? I am presuming you had cost-saving there too, as it’s all digital.
Yes, we did. The thing about movies shot on 35MM is that, they consume a lot of film cans. All these footage will be then digitized, this process is called digital intermediate (DI) which is expensive. If you have to color-correct the film or add graphics DI is a must. But, we dint have to do this process as the whole footage itself was digital. We had the whole film in our 10TB hard disk in our office. Since its digital, we again could do the editing in-house without expensive equipment 35MM films require.
Now, how did you convert this digital footage into prints for releasing it in theatres?
After the whole film is edited – this digital version needs to be put back on 35MM because theatres play prints not digital video. This process is called “reverse tele-cine” and is another huge expense. We could have done that if we wanted to, but we decided not to release the movie in prints, and only in screens that have digital projection. I don’t think we could have done this 3-4 years back, as there were hardly any digital screens. But today thanks to Qube & UFO Cinemas, we would release our movie only in digital screens and skip prints. This was another huge cost saving to us. Had we shot in 35MM, converted to digital and then put it back on print, we would have incurred an additional expense of Rs 20-25 lakhs. So by doing totally digital and eliminating prints, we could bring in that huge cost saving.
But the challenge for small budget, independent films is marketing & distribution. How did you guys manage that?
This is where most small-budget filmmakers falter. Its not enough if you make a decent film. You should ensure people walk into the theatres for you to make money. Just making a film and putting it out there is not enough, it will get lost amidst the 80-100 small budget films Telugu cinema releases every year. We wanted to make sure our product sticks out.
Being the publicist & PRO for over 30 films I realize the value of marketing & invested heavily on this. Firstly, we chose a date where there are no other big movies around. Using our contacts, we could secure a few good theatres for release – this is another thing most newbie Producers cannot manage, which we could.
One of our Producers Shreyas Srinivas, owns a marketing agency called Shreyas Media which does the marketing & publicity for most-budget films. So, he contributed by putting an expensive campaign, matching the spends of a big budget film. This made the audience notice that a small, interesting film called EeRozullo is coming out. If we dint get this part right, we could have made a nice film – but not got noticed and gone home empty handed.
You guys did it fine, but what if some one new want to make an indie film, market & release it on their own.
That would be an uphill task. Luckily, we could get it right because we’ve been around for years and had contacts. Most newbie Producers overlook this and end up failing.
For newbie Producers & filmmakers I advise who wish to make independent films like Ee Rozullo to tie up with a big studio like Dil Raju’s Venkateshwara films, Geetha Arts or Suresh Productions, who have the marketing and distribution clout. Imagine this, you’ve already put in your life’s savings to make the film. You have to shell tens of lakhs more to market the film.
The spirit of indie films is not tying up with a studio or big-producer. What if as a filmmaker I am willing to pay the marketing costs, can I get theatres to screen my film?
More than for publicity, you need a studio or big producer for distribution. This is where you make your money. Tell me, with a 5% success rate for small movies, why would theatre owners lease you their cinema in the first place? Big distributors have existing understanding with theatres, hence can secure them easily.
It costs lakhs a week to run a theatre. Most small films which have no buzz get an audience of 20-30 people a show. How can a theatre owner survive if the occupancy rate is like this? With what trust can they hand over their money-generating source to you? Out of sympathy that you’re a small filmmaker? Come on, this is business. People need to get real. If a big studio is backing you, they know that the studio will do a good marketing campaign for the film & ensure good theatres in other towns also. Even if one film doesn’t do well, they will compensate with the other. They have a lot of business understandings amongst themselves.
No, but the point is upcoming filmmakers believe in DIY (do-it-yourself) and don’t want (or) could not manage to get a big producer to back their film. Now what?
You can still go on your own – do the marketing & distribution yourself, but imagine the challenges facing you. Can you convince the Geminis, MaaTVs, Eenadus & DCs to give your small-budget film with no-faces prime coverage? Without such publicity, how theatre owners be will convinced that, if they screen your movie people will come to the theatres. You should also convince top-notch theatres to skip all other small & big-budget movie and give their theatre to your independent film? So, being practical now is better than being sorry later.
Hmmm… So, what is it that you’re trying to say?
Simple. I advise upcoming filmmakers and wannabe Producers to focus on marketing & distribution as much as they do on the filmmaking process. Being in the industry, I have seen so many worthy films, which went into oblivion because nobody even knew of them in the first place – as they were not marketed well. So seek the challenge & thrill in making a great film, not in releasing it. You’re a filmmaker not a film-marketer. But still on paper, you can do all these on your own – if you want to. Your call.
See, a lot people have this perception that big filmmaker are big fish and don’t let smaller guys survive. How did you people survive all this?
I’ve told this in the movie’s press meets and would tell them again – no big wig is interested in suppressing new filmmakers. That’s one big myth floating by some people in the industry for their petty gain. Nobody suppressed us, infact our association with Allu Arvind garu and Dil Raju only helped us.
It’s common sense - you can’t make a bad film and expect them to give you their valuable infrastructure. Infact, if you have a good film, they would want you to put it in their distribution office or theatres and monetize it. They also stand to profit from it.
So, Ee Rozullo did not face any opposition or arm-twisting from industry biggies?
Not at all. In the case of Ee Rozullo, Allu Arvind garu and Allu Arjun attended the audio function and gave a big boost to our marketing campaign. Media & public started noticing our film after that. Dil Raju garu acquired our movie state-wide after release, gave us more theatres, enabling more people to watch our movie, and in turn generate more revenue for us. So, all this biggies suppressing newbie’s is untrue. Without the support of them we wouldn’t have got this kind of success.
These ‘I got suppressed’ stories are usually told by people who fail, to comfort themselves. If you’re film is really worth it, the biggies would be the first to sniff it and acquire or release it as they also stand to profit if your film is good and does well.
Inspired by EeRozullo, a lot of new talent want to work with you guys and make independent films. How do they go about it?
I am open to working with new filmmakers. I am easily approachable through Twitter, email or even real life. I keep meeting budding filmmakers all the time. If anyone has an interesting story, they can pitch it to me – I would definitely take it up. Else, I have told them all my secrets – they can do on their own too! ;)
Twitter handle : @sknonline, email addr : sreeborntowin AT gmail.com
Fine. Anything else you would like to tell them?
But trust me guys, it dint come easy. I started as a film reporter, then a publicist, then into film-marketing & finally film production. It took me 8 years. Maruthi has been in the creative field since 10 years. Shreyas Srinivas was in the media business for equally long. Though it might not take you that long, you might need to work that hard to get it. You need perseverance to survive here. Taking a shot blindly doesn’t work. You need the strength to stick it out till you make it.
But if you have talent, then you need not struggle that much. Right?
Another myth! Film industry is highly glamorous and so many people want to be a part of it in different capacities. Direction, music, producing, acting – whatever you chose : it’s a highly competitive environment. For every job, there are 10 guys as good as you or better than you, willing to do it free or for a fraction of what you would expect. If 100 guys come every week to Film Nagar to enter this industry, 80 of them will be returning a year or so later with shattered dreams. Ask yourself, if you have the grit and willingness to stick through it. Hope I dint scare you, but only tell what you should be willing to go through to make it here.