Bangalore-based film-maker Pawan Kumar, who recently sold his feature U-Turn to Netflix, explains how he used crowdfunding and digital distribution to launch his first three films.
Perhaps it’s because he’s based in Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, and has a background in IT that Pawan Kumar has been able to combine filmmaking and technology so successfully.
But he also has a creative and strategic flair that serves as a useful case study for other up-and-coming filmmakers.
Kumar’s second feature, trippy sci-fi drama Lucia, grossed $600,000 from a budget of just $75,000 and won the Audience Award at the 2013 London Indian Film Festival. His third film, mystery thriller U-Turn, recently sold to Netflix after grossing $1.2m from India and around ten international territories.
The two films’ box office and international reach are impressive for an indie filmmaker working outside the studio system, without stars, and making films in Kannada, the language of the Indian state of Karnataka, rather than one of India’s three major filmmaking languages – Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. And it all started with social media and digital distribution.
After launching his career as a writer in film and theatre, Kumar made his directing debut in 2011 with low-budget romantic drama Lifeu Ishtene. Rather than pursue a conventional release, he put the entire film on Facebook using the now defunct Movie Locker VOD system. “Within five minutes, someone had paid three dollars and was watching the film,” Kumar remembers. “I received $2.80 from each transaction and everyone was talking about the film.”
Encouraged by this early success, Kumar decided to try crowdfunding for his second feature Lucia, which traditional investors had shied away from. “I figured if you have an online audience ready and waiting, then why not let them pre-order your film and use a digital platform to deliver it to them?” He raised the initial budget in 27 days.
After a three-week theatrical run, Kumar delivered Lucia to the film’s funders, which included a large number of Kannada speakers living overseas, as well as in India. In an innovative twist, Kumar allowed people who had contributed a certain level via crowdfunding to set up their own digital stores using tools from Distrify and release the film themselves. “One guy created a website that was better than our official site and made around $10,000 from the film,” Kumar says.
When it came to his third feature, initially intended to be anti-smoking drama Nicotine, Kumar had a feeling that crowdfunding wouldn’t fly – despite the huge buzz around Lucia – and soon discovered he was right. “Crowdfunding only really works when the person pitching the project is an underdog,” Kumar explains. “After Lucia, I had become a hero, so the audience thought, ‘why should we fund his next film’? I think this is especially true in India and has something to do with the way we’re brought up.”
Kumar then changed tack and decided to make U-Turn as his third feature and deploy a different style of financing. Although the film has a linear structure, rather than the drug-induced, time-skipping of Lucia, the supernatural thriller about a rookie reporter investigating a series of traffic violations on a Bangalore flyover wasn’t obviously commercial material. As with his previous films, there were no stars and no dance numbers.
So as equity crowdfunding is not allowed in India, Kumar marshalled 65 of his more serious funders and got them to jointly set up a company, Pawan Kumar Studios, to finance the $400,000 film. Each funder is a shareholder in the company.
“Working like this gives us the freedom to explore all kinds of distribution. We could delay the usual practice of selling to a satellite broadcaster,” says Kumar. India’s TV networks are powerful and usually buy out all ancillary rights to movies on a global basis. But as Kumar explains, “By funding ourselves, we could explore Netflix and other digital options.”
Following a premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival on May 8, U-Turn received a pan-India theatrical release from May 20, with Mumbai-based indie distributor Drishyam Films handling all regions outside Karnataka. Jolly Hits, an international distributor of Kannada films, handled theatrical outside India.
Then riding high on the theatrical release, Kumar was able to sell the SVOD rights of U-Turn to Netflix, and still do a satellite deal with Zee Kannada, marking the first time that the digital and satellite rights of a South Indian film have been sold separately.
As there are no crowdfunders waiting to receive U-Turn online, Kumar decided to extend the theatrical window – he believes the early digital release affected Lucia’s box office – and is only now turning on TVOD across platforms including Vimeo, iTunes, Google Play and YouTube. Netflix will stream the film across its global platforms from October 15.
“If we had sold the rights to a single TV network, we would have made more money but had limited reach,” says Kumar. “Netflix has 70 million viewers worldwide and we really wanted to reach out to that audience.”
He adds that he’s learned two valuable lessons through this whole process. The first is that your online fanbase are not film investors, who can dispassionately evaluate projects, and the crowd will only fund you if there’s an emotional connect. This works particularly well if you’re making films in a specific locale or language that is not considered mainstream – Kannada has around 40 million native speakers – and can reach out to a diaspora as well as a local audience.
“Since Lucia, people think I know the tricks of crowdfunding, but if you don’t connect with the crowd, you don’t get the funding,” Kumar add. “It all depends on whether you’re going through experiences that your audience can relate to.”
The second lesson he’s learned is that when you explore the digital space, you build an online fanbase that is converted to a theatre-going audience for your next film. Like many up-and-coming filmmakers, Kumar embraces digital but still wants his films to be seen in theatres.
“When you do a feature film, working with surround sound in a big screen format, you really want the audience to see it on a big screen. But you have to accept that smaller screens are growing in number. You can then explore phones, tablets and laptops as a secondary revenue window.”
For his next project, Kumar is taking another look at Nicotine and entertaining offers to remake U-Turn in Hindi. But for now he’s most excited about the fact that the Bangalore government is dealing with the flyover featured in U-Turn – a real-life traffic hazard where reckless drivers blithely ignore road dividers. “The government has blocked the flyover and is repairing it. It was the movie’s impact.”
Anyone who’s sat in Bangalore traffic will be fully conscious of that particular aspect of U-Turn’s emotional connect.