Funding a movie – Filmmaker Onir tries the Facebook way

abhimanyuFinancing for Bollywood movies has always been a murky, subterranean business. Not long ago, the funds came from dubious overseas investors, reportedly with ties to the mafia in the Middle East. Threats and coercions to stars were common and directors often modified their casting and their scripts to pander to the investor’s whims.

Lately, things have been much better. Film studios have adopted a more professional attitude, registering as public limited companies and making their books more transparent. In return, they have been able to attract funding from banks and venture capital firms, in recognition of the enormous potential for success of the Bollywood industry.

However, the small budget film-maker still has to have a powerful script and well known actors to attract funding. Like any other business, the plan has to be, as they say, “solid.” So what happens if the subject of the movie happens to be controversial and the actors unknown? Filmmaker Onir( My Brother Nikhil, Bas Ek Pal), perhaps encouraged by the success of social networking and community organizing in other spheres, attempts to fund his new project through the internet. His first short movie is Abhimanyu, which deals with the story of a survivor of sexual abuse. He spoke to WNI from Mumbai.

First let me ask – how much does it take to make a movie?
Onir – It depends on the scale of the film. It could take about  a crore and a half to 40-50 crores. My aim is to make a collection of 5 short stories for 30 lakhs each. The reason for making 5 movies is that each is a short and it is not possible to screen a short movie by itself on screens in India. The films are interlinked but also stand on their own. For each movie, I am putting in 50% and hoping raise 50% through the public.

Abhimanyu, one of the movies, is about a survivor of child sexual abuse. Is there a market for movies like these?

O: One has to always experiment. At the end of the day if the stories are engrossing there will an audience. When I made my first film (My Brother Nikhil,) people were worried that its subject (AIDS) was controversial, but it found its audience.
Sometimes we get are too scared to try but audiences are quite bored by the usual run-of-the-mill Bollywood movies. The world is also getting smaller and we can find receptive viewers around the globe.
Yes, it has to be made within a certain budget to make money for its investors.

Have your movies done that?
O: The last one (Sorry Bhai) didn’t because it was released after the Mumbai attacks last year. The entire release got very badly affected. It made money for the producer but the distributors lost money. But one has to note that last year it is the small movies like A Wednesday and Welcome to Sajjanpur that made money when big budget movies like Chandni Chowk to China were flopping.

Is it the multiplex phenomenon?
O: Partly. The fact is that big cities like Mumbai have only multiplexes, so good or bad, small or big, all movies get released in multiplexes. Yes, I would not release a movie like My Brother Nikhil on a single screen. In smaller towns, you still have single screens but these kind of movies would not have released there before and they would not be released there now.

What about the international audience?
O: Till now the international audience for a Bollywood movie has been the NRI population. And these are typically attracted to big budget movies with well known stars. Small movies generally get only a DVD release. But there is a wider international audience that is interested in movies from India, just like they would be interested in movies from Korea or Iran.

How do you reach these audiences?
O: Film festivals. Festivals typically attract a discerning crowd. Only films of quality get picked up the local markets. I traveled with My Brother Nikhil to many of these festivals. In that instance, I was hampered because I had already sold the overseas distribution rights and was not able to take advantage of the demand for the movie in , say, the German cable television market or Canadian distributors who saw the movie in the San Francisco festival. This time I am keeping the overseas rights for the movie.

Why did you decide on this unique method of finance?
O: I’ve been wanting to make a movie on these unconventional subjects for a while but traditional finance has just not been there. My movies have no big names, and uncomfortable issues. All my stories are inspired by  real-life events. Abhimanyu deals with the story of a survivor of sex abuse. Omar, the next one is about the nexus between the police and male sex workers to entrap gay men. Afia is about a girl working in an NGO who discovers how deep the corruption in the system is. I am still developing the 4th and 5th stories called Megha and Rudra, respectively.

It sounds like the NFDC-financed movies of the 70s like Ankur, Nishant, Manthan. Has that source of financing disappeared?
The difference is that those movies dealt with corruption at the individual level whereas mine deal with endemic and systemic corruption in the government. I am shining a light on dated sex abuse laws and asking for them to be changed, for instance. That is out of the comfort zone for governmental sources of funding

So how is the funding coming along for your first project?
O: Facebook has been a tremendous source. We have a page for each movie and details on how to contribute. It is a new thing and the response has been great. I’ve already raised the money needed for Abhimanyu and shooting starts in mid-July. Of course, I am also helped by the many people working on the movie as volunteers.

How does the contribution system work?
O: There are different categories. The first is a  student category-1000 rupees; that is about the money they would spend on one weekend going to a nightclub. These contributors get credit on the movie. Yes, it is a little bit of sacrifice for them but they get a sense of community and the recognition that they had a hand in getting this movie made.

People contributing between 25,000- 1,00,000 get their money back. Contributions  over that get a share of the profits. We’re not a real big company. If I do profit sharing for everybody, I’ll go crazy doing the accounts.

What kind of a cast have you been able to get for your movies?
O: Fortunately, I have a good relationship with the actors I’ve worked with in the past. Juhi(Chawla), Sanjay Suri and others are very happy to be part of the project. I am also launching many new faces.

I did approach some of the big names, arguing that given their interest in animal rights they should be interested in human rights too. But I did not get any response.

What has the reaction in the industry been to this novel way of funding?
O: When I went public with my idea people called and told me I was spoiling my reputation and making a cheap movie. But I don’t care. I feel people will be involved with the movie. They will have ownership in the movie and will encourage friends and family to see the movie. In a sense it is a community project.

A lot of people thought I was slotting myself. But I have an identity and I treasure it. I want to have the independence to make the kind of movies that interest me, not 20-crore extravaganzas.

How does one become a part of this project?
O: Facebook members can look up “Abhimanyu” and they will find directions. Others can check out where there is an online donation system. I will thank and recognize everyone who is kind enough to support this project.

Where has your biggest support come from?
O: Facebook. The response has touched me and left me speechless. A lady in New York who was an early investor called to ask about the status of the movie. I told her we were still 5 lakhs short. She sent me a mail saying, I am sending you 5 lakhs, can you start shooting, I want this film to happen. I actually had to tell her to hold back because there were other people who were interested in being a part of Abhimanyu too.

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