Smriti Kiran: The creator-mentor, Sudhanshu Saria, is currently busy writing, directing, and show-running a new show for Amazon Prime. He has just been signed to write and co-produce Delhi Crime season three, and his short film, Knock Knock Knock, premiered on MUBI in September this year.
I first spoke to Sudhanshu in 2016 when his debut feature Loev was selected for competition at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. The reason I bring this up is because I remember taking that call in the middle of 8,000 things. Something in Sudhanshu’s voice made me stop everything and listen. It is this quality, this effect he has on people coupled with talent and passion that has propelled him to turn impossible propositions viable. His first feature Loev and his short film Knock Knock Knock being prime examples.
Sudhanshu is a producer, writer and director. He has also worked in development, acquisition and distribution in the States for over seven years before he decided to come back home and tell stories about his own people. It has not been an easy ride, but an exciting one. Sudhanshu is here on Dial M for Films to share his vast experience in pitching projects. He has been on both sides of the table. Sudhanshu has always taken the road less travelled, carved out a path for his ambitions, and never taken anything for granted.
Sudhanshu Saria: Thank you so much, Smriti, for having me. It’s amazing what you guys are doing, what you continue to do for the filmmaking ecosystem in Mumbai. I’ve certainly benefited from it. So, it is absolutely my honour and privilege to share whatever it is that I’ve picked up on my journey.
When we first started talking about what to do with the session, we were discussing whether we should talk about rehearsals or about how you prepare for a shoot, or about post-production or sound design. Every filmmaker nowadays really has to train themselves in every aspect of the filmmaking process. Then this idea, this notion, of pitching and sales started coming. I remember my first reaction was, ‘Is that who I am? Is that all I am? Am I a car salesman? Is that really the thing I want to talk about? What about my artistry, my shot design, or the brilliant observations I have about human life, or how I want to turn genre filmmaking on its head?’
But that first negative instinct I had made me latch on even harder, where I was like, ‘Well, what is it about sales that is making you uncomfortable? Why don’t you want to talk about that?’ It kind of made me realise that it’s considered invisible. It’s this dirty, quote-unquote, part of our business. We just like to pretend, ‘Oh my God, I’m so brilliant that I just come up with these thoughts and people are just falling over themselves to make them because, humblebrag, you’re so brilliant,’ when in fact everything requires an insane amount of selling. I feel, especially now, with the advent of social media, in a way, everyone is selling all the time. So let’s talk about how to pitch and bring together different energies, people, money, distributors, actors, partners, collaborators and HODs to take your little idea from a notion to something that people can actually watch and enjoy.
Smriti Kiran: Sudhanshu, pitching is traditionally understood as a process where you’re getting your idea either commissioned or financed. That might be true. Would you like to speak about the larger sense in which pitching is so important to the process of creation?
Sudhanshu Saria: I’ll start by contextualizing something you spoke about a little bit earlier: this idea of being on both sides of the table. I’m someone who had no connection to filmmaking at all. I loved cinema as an audience member, but I just never understood who made them or had any notion that I could become part of that. I found it in film school. I was in upstate New York, where I met fellow film students and got into it that way. But after graduating, instead of making films right away, I spent some time on the executive side of the business, doing acquisitions for US buyers – buying films for us to put into American theatres. Then I moved to LA where I worked with foreign sales companies that would travel the world selling individual country rights of different independent films to buyers. Then I did development and production on American studio projects.
Each of these jobs was really about working with other creators, hearing what they wanted to do, figuring out what they needed and then arranging those resources for them. None of this was helping me make my film or tell my stories, but I understood that the process was teaching me and empowering me for when I wanted to tell my story. So, I did that and then transitioned to filmmaking; came to India, to tell these stories. That is my little bit of experience in terms of being on both sides of the aisle.
Now, speaking to what you were talking about, in terms of how pitching is integral to your filmmaking, there’s a word you used, which I love: co-opting. Every person you want to work with, hopefully, is extremely talented and they have a good sense of self-worth. There are a million pressures on their time and energy. You were in the middle of MAMI doing a thousand other things. What made me feel so entitled as to go, ‘I’m going to interrupt this person’s day, because I’m going to talk about when they are slotting my film and what it will do to the audience and how many tickets I get and what press have you arranged.’
Well, it requires a certain level of delusion. It requires a certain level of tunnel vision, where you have to leave on some planet this idea that what you want to make is so important that if it doesn’t get made, something seismic will shift on the planet.
Now, if you take a step back and look at it, it’s clearly wrong. There’s no such thing. The planet is going to be spinning fine. No one really needs this. But at the same time, if you don’t have that kind of sheer vision, will and belief, how do you possibly justify getting other people to stop whatever it is they’re doing and instead work with you?
“It begins with you being able to convert that little idea in your head into something so exciting that it makes other people want to say yes.”
The first pitch captures your idea in a nutshell. It’s really about communicating to people, reaching out to them, and telling them why it is that you’re so excited and passionate about making this that they should put their life, their priorities on hold and come on board. I’m still not out of that rut where I’m often asking people to work for me, on my projects, for little to no money, which adds a whole other level of challenges because you can’t even just stamp them with a big paycheck and tell them that this is what they do and that I’m paying them for it. How does it matter if I’ve co-opted you?
Setting aside the fact that the performance level, the contribution level, of any collaborator you go out to will be exponentially greater when you have managed to co-opt them, when you’ve managed to infect people. Think of yourself as the carrier of your idea. You sometimes literally get a microsecond. If you find that microsecond and can recognize that microsecond, you can prick them and infect them, which means now they’d have the idea. They’d have gone home and thought about it, and they might still be thinking and obsessing about it, which means that the idea is taking hold of them. Now it’s not just one person trying to turn this idea into something real, it’s two, and two will infect four, and four will infect 16. Before you know it, that entire thing will have happened. So where does all of it begin? It begins with you being able to convert that little idea in your head into something so exciting that it makes other people want to say yes.
I don’t even know what gets made without pitching. This is not the kind of profession where you sit by yourself. It requires collaborators, and collaborations begin with pitching. It’s integral. You can’t get away from it.
Smriti Kiran: Why don’t you break this down for us step-by-step? I’m a creator. I get an idea. I stay with that idea for a while, and I feel that I want to commit to it. Now, first of all, there’s that stage, right there, of whether you want to commit to this or not. How does this process unfold and what do you do?
Sudhanshu Saria: I know what you mean. Once you have an idea, there’s always the testing ground for the idea, the incubation period, when you’re playing with it, you’re flirting with it, ‘Do I want this? Do I not want it? What do I want to do?’ Then at some point, it starts to become. For me, even at that stage of it-starts-to-become, I use pitching to check how it’s looking, how it is landing – I test it on people. I’ll float it at a dinner party, or I’ll mention it to a filmmaker friend, or I’ll test it on a collaborator I trust. Sometimes the first questions they ask me forces me to start chipping away at it. It can be your managers, agents, representatives, or collaborators. When they express scepticism, it makes you answer to that; when they express excitement, it makes you want to answer to that – it turbocharges you to continue developing that; or when they tell you, ‘Oh, hasn’t that already been done by X, Y and Z?’ It forces you to go, ‘Oh, great. That thesis has been explored. I don’t think I have a new take on that. Let me put that aside and use the energy elsewhere.’ Even at that level, a soft pitch helps sometimes. I start doing it at that stage. I’m already thinking of it at that very gentle level.
Smriti Kiran: What you said is so valuable, Sudhanshu. One has to be convinced about the idea to launch into this long process that you’re going to break down for us.
Sudhanshu Saria: All of us are on different levels of the spectrum, and there are aspects that I’m talking about that will be very obvious to you and others that you’ll want more details on. We’ll try to modulate and go step-by-step.
Let’s start by de-stigmatizing sales.
It’s really basic: sales isn’t dirty, and sales isn’t something you can escape. Sales is literally everywhere. You try to get a repairman up to your house; you try to sell your fridge in a second-hand deal; you buy veggies; you’re trying to get a date on Tinder – all that stuff is sales. All of it is about knowing who you are and being able to put your best foot forward.
“The minute you have an idea and you want to convince other people, there will be an element of sales that will come into it.”
Every time you put out a tweet or you’re writing a Facebook status, there’s an element of a second draft, third draft that goes into it because we know that perception is everything. What we put up on our profile picture tells people how to view us and how we want to be seen. Whether we know it or not, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, sales is omnipresent. You’re allowed to be on a different spectrum of comfort with sales. You can be an extrovert who loves talking to people and is super social and doesn’t mind it or an introvert that is just supremely uncomfortable.
Let me start by giving you the bad news: You can’t get away from it. There is no version of a filmmaker who is so brilliant that they’ve managed to escape sales altogether. Even Martin Scorsese, Amit Dutta, everyone is selling.
Look at that poor man. He’s selling his heart out. (Joe) Pesci’s probably like, ‘That take makes no sense. I’m not going to fall across the car for you.’ Scorsese, at that moment, has to dig into every resource he has to try and convince Pesci that the particular way he has broken down the shot is the way to do it.
So even if you’re not selling because you want the money, you’re going to be selling to actors because you want to convince them on your take. The minute you have an idea and you want to convince other people to follow your lead and take up that idea, there will be an element of sales that will come into it.
The bad news is, you can’t get away from sales. The good news is, it is something you can get good at especially if you stop thinking of sales as something you can get away from. It’s here to stay. Dig in. It’s omnipresent. We’re going to do this.
In terms of attitudes, two things have helped me in my life: One is what I call the Virus Theory. Inception is a good way to look at it. I feel like once I have an idea, it’s like a little ball I’m carrying around with me. If I like your work and you’re someone whose recommendation I need, my job is to co-opt you, to include you into that circle, to infect you with that idea. The minute I’ve infected you with that idea, you have grown the circle. Now it’s two of us thinking about how to grow. I’m not alone; I’m not by myself. You’re a sounding board. You are someone I can lean on. You’re someone I can test things with. Those early collaborators often are more essential than any financing to get your film made. They are the people that get you through the dark days. Those are the people that pick you up when the film that’s almost about to get made falls apart.
When you walk into a meeting, a session or a conversation, your goal is to transfer this excitement and this energy you have about your idea to the other person so that they now understand what it is. It’s not about the details. Sometimes when you go into a pitch, you can start babbling: you get nervous and you start talking really fast, because you’re like, ‘If I pause to take a breath, this other person’s going to tell me to shut up. So, my goal is to just read through it.’ When you first make contact with someone, they’re not standing there to hear a story so brilliant that they decide chequebook kahan hai, abhi main paise de deta hoon bande ko. When you first get started, all the person is looking for is, are you sane? Are you excited? Are you passionate? Are you cool? Are you someone they want to hang with? Then it’s going to get to the next stage. While every stage is about transferring that energy and infecting the person, to me the early contacts are the most about that. More than the particular film you’re selling or the particular series or the particular idea, it’s about your energy and your excitement as a person, so really try and visualize this idea of you having a little infection that you have to transfer to the other person.
In 2013, Ava DuVernay gave a Film Independent lecture where she talks about confidence. This was back in the day when I was switching from being an executive to a filmmaker. All I wanted was mentorship; all I wanted was a leg up. I was looking for Jesus – that’s how I like to put it. You’re looking for someone to save you. You’re like, ‘Save me! You have all the answers. I am a tucch praani. You are param bhagwan. Just save me. Can’t I just latch onto your coattails and fly off to the seventh heaven?’ So, I would obsessively look for people, try to get coffee with them, try to figure out what’s the crack, how do I get a recommendation, how do I get a lay-in.
Ava, in that lecture, talks about how she was doing the same thing, and then one day she realised that when she was following her career that way, there was a stink of desperation that she was throwing off. When she walked into a meeting, she immediately came off as someone needy. ‘Give me your energy, give me your contacts, give me your experience, give me your career, give me your legacy.’ And she’s like, ‘One day, I decided on my own that I’m just going to stop wearing this coat of desperation. It’s a 40-kilo coat. It’s weighing me down. It’s stinking up the place.’ Ironically, the day she stopped asking for it is the day she started to get help.
“Most people are themselves looking for a leg up. They have their own goals, their own complications, and places they are trying to get to.”
When other people see you with a goal, with focus, going towards your target, it inspires them. It makes them go, ‘Oh, wait, where’s that person going? How do they know where to go? Why are they delusional enough to think they’ll get there?’ But at least you come off as a person who has a goal and energy and someone who’s doing things. That is a person other people want to help, not the person who is actually asking for it.
I started testing this in my own life and I started to see that it really happens. Instead of focusing all your energy on getting the coffees, and getting the mentorship, and getting Jesus and the saviour, invest your energy in yourself. You have to save yourself. You have to help yourself. You have to decide. You have to start walking. People who are ready for you, people who think you are worthy of their time, are going to come and find you. I found that to be a much more productive experience. So, I bring that little theory up when it comes to pitching because the mood with which you walk into a pitch affects your chances. It affects the success you have with that pitch. What is the person’s attitude? Are they here because they’re already going somewhere and they just are looking for a little help? Or is this person here because they think they are simply going to fall at my feet and expect me to do everything for them? That’s not something most people have the time or energy for. Most people are themselves looking for a leg up. They have their own goals, their own complications, and places they are trying to get to.
I get messages saying, ‘Can you do this?’ ‘Can you help me?’ ‘Can you save me?’ and I’m always reminded of Ava then. I try to respond whenever possible. Once in a while, I’ll meet people and I always tell them that the amount of energy they’ve spent in getting coffee with me, if they had put that energy into their script or project, it would be further along. I always like to tell them about the people I’m messaging myself. There are people I’m trying to get to.
One of the reasons I’m a filmmaker is Mira Nair. I’ve got lots of friends who worked with her, but I’m trying to make work that draws her attention. Everyone’s on their own journey. There are people they are trying to get to, and I’m sure there are people that Mira is trying to get to. So, just put it in context. There is no hierarchy, there’s no blade of power. Everyone is trying to go on their own paths. The sooner you find your path and start walking on it, you’ll start to see the conversion rate improve in terms of the pitches you make and the times you ask people for help and how often and early they start to say yes.
When you’re talking about removing that coat of desperation, when you’re talking about walking into a meeting with confidence, there are a couple of components to that. The first one is, know what you’re selling.
You really have to know what it is. I’m not talking about a casual understanding of your idea or a basic sense of it. You have to know it inside out. That’s part of the preparation. What is my idea? What is the beginning? What is the end? What is the USP? What is the through-line? What is the short version? Do I know what the thesis of my idea is? Do I know what the big change, on an idea level, it’s trying to bring? What genre does it fall into? What are the films that it feels like? What kind of business have those films done? What kind of actors do I want in it? What are the technicians I want to work with? What are the kinds of budget levels it falls in? Is it a theatrical film? Is it a digital film? Is it a limited series? Is it a five-season thing? Who is the protagonist? What is the protagonist’s biggest issue? What is their downfall? What is their Achilles’ heel? Who is their love interest? You need to have a very deep philosophical understanding of your idea, to the business context of your idea to the possible sales strategy on your idea.
“Every time someone asks you a question you don’t know, that’s homework. But with every pitch, you get better.”
I’m not saying you wake up in bed and you have an idea one day and all of this figures itself out. But figuring all this out is part of the process. When you know your idea inside out, when you understand all the aspects of your idea, the confidence you’re going to have is phenomenal. It is going to remove insecurity. It’s going to make you sit up. It’s going to make you talk to your idea with confidence. It’s going to make the other person go, ‘I don’t know mujhe samajh mein aa raha hai ya nahi, I’m not sure if I fully get it, but he knows.’
People you’re selling to don’t have the time to make your film. They have 20 things going on. They want you to have the time. If you know what you’re doing, it’s going to become easier for them to invest in you, to trust you, to latch on to you. Some people start with business questions, some people start with creative questions, no matter what they start with, you want to be able to speak to it.
Initial pitches, when you first start pitching, are disasters, because every pitch teaches you what you don’t know. Every time someone asks you a question you don’t know, that’s homework. Sometimes you wing it and in your head, you make a little note saying ki ye figure out karna hai. But with every pitch, you get better. Pitching is actually part of the creative process. Every pitch that fails, I learn from it.
“The only person you can blame for not knowing your idea is you.”
Right now, I’m in the middle of setting up a film. Every time an actor says no after a narration, I try to listen. Does it apply? Is there a lesson here? Of course, there’ll be plenty of times when an actor will just say no because I’m not Rohit Shetty. So, there’s not always a lesson in there. But most of the time, the people you’re talking to are highly intelligent, creative people, who’ve struggled hard to get to the place they’re in. They do have insight. They may not always know exactly what the problem is but sometimes they’ll have a discomfort level around a scene or a moment. ‘Vahan pe it didn’t connect with me.’ I don’t need them to tell me what’s wrong. I’ll do the research, I’ll do the digging, I’ll do the tasting. I’ll try it another way. This is also how pitching can help you make your product stronger. With every pitch, you’ll get to know your film and your series and your idea that you’re selling better.
You must have supreme deep-rooted confidence and understanding of what you are selling. Sometimes people will be like, ‘I like that film. I like what you’re doing, but can the protagonist be a 25-year-old man?’ but I know my idea so well that if I do that, the third act will fall apart. Being able to speak to that with confidence and immediately can sometimes be the thing that makes someone else go, ‘Okay, you really have thought it through.’ Itna casual nahi hai ki a guy like me who knows five minutes about your film is able to change your whole film around, and you’re like, ‘Yes, sir, ho jayega.’ Flexibility and pliability are good. You don’t want to be like, ‘I know everything and I’m up for no changes.’ It’s not that. But it’s about knowing your idea so that you can speak about it with confidence.
The best part about knowing your ideas is that it’s free. The only person you can blame for not knowing your idea is you. I love that because it means I have so much work to do. Koi kharcha nahi hai. Get to know your idea while you waste time, while Netflix is not loading, whatever. That’s work you can do.
As you get to know your idea, someone will say, ‘Who’s your cinematographer?’ Now the shortest answer to that question is, ‘What? I have no budget. I have no money. I have no shooting schedule, and I have no dates. Why do I need to know my DP?’ The correct answer to that question is, ‘I really think Pankaj Kumar would be great for this.’ As if he’s just waiting for me to call him. But that’s not the point. The person is trying to understand to what level you thought about this. In my head, I’ve already cut the trailer, made the poster also. You saying yes is just an excuse I need to get started. Film actually mere dimaag mein ban chuki hai.
Smriti Kiran: What really connected with me was the point that my idea is my responsibility. A lot of creators develop a victim complex, that the world doesn’t get their idea. The other mindset is that pitching should be left to producers or the “suit”. I want to break that mindset right now because you’re the germinator of that idea. You need to carry it through. Nobody else carries it for you.
Sudhanshu Saria: Something very rude and brutal I tell people is that no one cares. No one wants your film. People will pay you money not to make your film. There are too many films that no one is watching. If you can afford not to make your film, please don’t make it. You still want to make it, do the work. No one owes you a film. The world has not decided you’re a genius, they won’t bow down before you and help make the film. The world doesn’t really need you. You need the world – you need financing, you need distributors, you need producers, actors, collaborators. Please let’s not judge them. Let’s give them the respect they deserve. They have worked very hard to get to a place where you need them. Let’s understand what they have to teach you, how they can take your idea, which they’re not relating to, and find elements of relatability, saleability and of financial sense.
I’m talking as a guy who made a queer road trip movie about three gay dudes in a country where homosexuality at the time was criminal. No one will give me a censor certificate. The theatrical exhibition is guaranteed not going to happen. Netflix has not even come to India. So, I have gone around and made people give me money for this film that is sure to never be seen by any human.
It can be done – that’s the good news. The bad news is, if you feel bad for yourself, it’s not going to happen. Please don’t sit at home and blame other people for not getting it. It’s not their job to get it. It’s your job to make them get it. So, let’s work hard, let’s figure out ways to talk other people’s language. This lends very nicely to our next section, which is, know who you’re selling to.
You have to know your idea really well, and when you get to your pitch, you have to know the person you’re pitching to. Knowing who you’re selling to is essential.
Sometimes people ask, ‘Who do I pitch it to? Who do I sell it to?’ I’m like, ‘That’s knowing what you want. That is part of that.’ Once you know your idea well, you now have to look for people to whom that idea might be attractive. People often are like, ‘What are financiers? Ped pe ugte hai kya? Which stall at Juhu beach do I go to find a financier? Is there some secret club they sit in?’ All this information is out there in the public domain, free of cost. Any film you like was financed by someone. Unka naam credits mein aata hai. All you have to do is scroll to that section, pause on that slate and take some notes. Then start doing the research.
“It’s your job to research and understand the person you’re selling to so well that you can figure out what is it that they want.”
What do they want? What have they done? Sometimes speaking to it with accuracy earns you their respect in the room. If I’m a producer or a financier, and you’ve come to me, part of what I’m evaluating is, can he go out and convince that actress? Can he go out and get that technician? Main kitna karunga? Last mein bande ko spark karna hai. If I’ll put you in a room with Shraddha Kapoor, will you be able to convince her? I’m like, ‘Ghanta convince her. He doesn’t even know what I do. He has not done any prep.’ On the other hand, if he is operating with a razor-sharp knife, firing little Ninja stars, I’m like tope. I just have to put him in the room, he’ll khatam karo anyone who comes. I’m like, ‘One more problem solved. I just have to set the meetings. Saara ye karne ko tayyar hai. He’s done his work.’ So, it inspires confidence in other people because how you behave with me, I’m assuming you’ll behave like that with other people.
Insecurity comes when you think of yourself as someone who needs and the other person as someone who provides. One-sided relationships rarely work. In a successful relationship, there is going to be mutual interest. It’s your job to find it. It’s your job to research and understand the person you’re selling to so well that you can figure out what is it that they want. Then figure out what of those things you can provide. For example, if I’m a starting filmmaker, I can provide easy access. I can provide constant availability, an insane work ethic, cheap labour, unlimited amounts of free rewrites, free pre-production that is done before the project is even greenlit, a pitch book, a poster, a trailer, an audiobook and everything you need, to be convinced that I know how to make this. I will do it for free in advance. Established filmmakers won’t do that. When a producer is looking at a filmmaker who’s already successful, they pretty much know they have to pay them money to discover if this idea even works, because an established filmmaker will not dance with me for free. So, play to your strengths.
What is mutual benefit? I remember when I was a producer, some people would come and pitch reality shows. I used to be like, ‘Look at my resume. Have I done a reality show? What makes you think I’ll do a reality show?’ On the other hand, if I’ve made a film like Loev and every story that I’m getting is some gay, queer love story, then I have to make sure that my resume is wider than that so that different kinds of things start coming to me.
It is our responsibility, especially with social media, to research the person. You can figure out what their tastes are. What is it they’re looking for? What kind of stories do they like? Are they looking to make digital? Are they theatrical only? Do they have access to a particular star? Do they not work in certain kinds of genres? Are the technicians you want to collaborate with realists or studio people? Are they thirsting to do an indie film?
“The biggest myth-busting here is that there is no superpower. It comes easily to nobody.”
I remember when I wrote Knock Knock Knock, I wrote it for Mithun Chakraborty. I researched a lot before I called him. When I called him, I knew I couldn’t give him what he already has. I can’t give him that big-budget Bollywood blockbuster. I’m not able to provide it. I’m not even capable of it. So, I called him up and said, ‘I want to give you your eighth National Award nomination. The world has forgotten what an accomplished, phenomenal, fantastic actor you are. I want to remind them you’re better than the dance chair you sit on.’ I went for it. It could have been incredibly rude. That was my pitch and it landed. He called me and said, ‘Come meet me. I want to hear your story.’ Believe me, he could have said, ‘Who the hell are you?’ He could have easily been like, ‘You don’t get to have a perspective on my career, and what I should and shouldn’t do, or what I won’t and will do.’ I don’t blame him, but I did my research. I was like, ‘Maybe this is a mutual benefit here. Because that man really has nothing left to prove to anyone, so what can I bring to the table? Why would he say yes to me?’
Once you find that mutual benefit, it gives you incredible confidence. You’re walking into the meeting with an infective idea that you are going to pass on, which you know really well. You also now know where their vulnerability spot is. Rib cage ke niche this person has been hurt, there’s my vulnerability. If I’m able to land one uppercut on that lower rib, knock out ho sakta hai. Again, researching the person is free. So, know your idea and know who you want.
Often, I come across people, who call me up saying, ‘Listen, help me out with this. I have to do this deal. I’m not able to figure this out,’ or, ‘Oh my God, I hate pitching or narration.’ Sometimes people think that it comes naturally to me. Maybe, it comes naturally to you or there are people you look at and say, ‘This person just knows how to pitch. I wish I had that superpower.’
The biggest myth-busting here is that there is no superpower. It comes easily to nobody. Everyone has to rehearse. I wish I could show you videos of me in my flat, going on the phone, talking to myself, trying the answer, and re-modulating it multiple times. In every narration, in every pitch, I make changes to what I would do. Sometimes the best way to prepare is to pitch it 20 times. You’ll remember the important things that are working and forget the ones that aren’t.
It takes shaping and cutting and carving and chipping. It takes rehearsal. As an executive who used to take creatives into studios to get them to sell their ideas, I would do that all the time. I would save them from going into dark alleys. I would ask them leading questions.
I also love it when I have a producer or an agent who I can go to meetings with because they can praise you. I can’t open the session with, ‘Sudhanshu has this singular vision and he has done these impossible ideas.’ I need a Smriti to do that. To get yourself a Smriti also you’ll need to pitch. But now that you know the mutual benefit trick, you’ll be like, ‘What does Smriti want?’ Smriti wants Indian filmmakers to succeed. So now, if I can do something which is of value to Indian filmmakers, Smriti’s in my camp. I have co-opted her.
Now you rehearse. You can bore all your friends. If someone loves you enough, they’ll hear your pitch. Initially, they’ll be excited. ‘Oh my God, I’m part of the privileged circle.’ After the third time, they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, he’s coming. I have to run.’ It doesn’t matter. You also do things for them. They will hear you out. If you can fascinate them the fifth time, then you know you’ve got it. Rehearsing is part of knowing your stuff, so when you walk into a room there’s no element of doubt – the minute I say my first word, khatam hone wala hai.
But be careful about something: sometimes when we are practising and rehearsing, we are having a one-way conversation with ourselves. The other person is not there. When you go into a room, remember the other person is a real breathing person, not a mirror or a doll. It’s a conversation. Don’t talk at them. Listen and converse. Pay attention to the curiosities they have, what are the specific questions and areas that they are interested in. Maybe you have a brilliant creative pitch and vo tumko 10% pe rok denge, because aisi kahani nahi karni. Don’t then become crazy and start jamming that. Have a conversation about something else. Maybe what will come out of the meeting is, ‘Oh, I like you, you like me, but this idea isn’t working for us. Nonetheless, let’s find something else.’
Knowing your idea, researching the person, finding mutual benefit and rehearsing are components of confidence, and confidence is what you need to take off that coat of desperation that Ava talked about. All of this is also helping you with the goal of infecting other people. We’re moving in one sutra.
Let’s see what materials you need. First, you need a log line.
This is the log line that Netflix wrote for Loev. This is why Netflix is Netflix. This is better than any log line I ever wrote for Loev. They didn’t clear this with me. They didn’t send it to me for pre-approval. The film launched on Netflix. I went up there, saw this and I was like, ‘Damn it, why didn’t I think of this?’ They’re really good. They know their stuff. They know how to get people. Fantastic.
Another reason why I could never write this log line is because I never wanted to attract the attention of any conservative right-wing protester. I used to always tell people that it’s a story about friends figuring out the boundaries between love and friendship. Not using the word ‘gay’. Half of my crew didn’t even know.
If you look at my version, it has a time-frame, ‘friend”, “love”, some sort of a thrilling insight, sudden turn, and a little intrigue. Again, I stayed honest. I pulled real log lines I used when I was pitching the film. In 2020, maybe I would workshop it more. I would have more specificity.
Sometimes, you can’t write your own log line because you are too close to the project, so it helps to have a friend go, ‘Look, I’ve written it, but I don’t know how it is.’ Someone from the outside will have total clarity. ‘What are you talking about? That’s not what your film is about. Your film’s about this.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh yeah. Okay, cool.’
Knock Knock Knock was a very tricky film to write a log line for. Everything felt like a giveaway. I don’t know what I wanted to talk about. Is it important to mention Nepali-Bengali? Is it very important to mention ‘thriller’, ‘death’, ‘mental health’, ‘ageism’? So, ultimately, this is what I went with.
Now, let’s hear from the participants. Mithun, if Gully Boy was your film, how would you pitch it to us in one line?
Mithun Bajaj: ‘When a young amateur rapper, from a large slum, is forced out of home by his abusive father, he must overcome his own insecurities and find his voice in order to stand up to his father and ultimately become a rap star.’
Sudhanshu Saria: That is brilliant. Mithun, you killed it. I have no notes for you. That is fantastic. I have goosebumps. I’m so happy. That is the kind of log line you want to hear. What Mithun did is, he stared at Gully Boy and figured out the unique selling points. What are the USP’s of this film? It’s about rap. Did he talk about rap? Yes. Did he talk about the complicated father-son relationship? Yes. Did he talk about the class barrier? Yes. Did he talk about a specific location? Yes. He gave me the world of the film. He gave me the protagonist. In a minute, I understood.
Rishabh, we’re in the elevator. Jump in and pitch your idea.
Rishabh Sabarwal: ‘The story is about: In post-independence India, in rural Punjab, which is now divided into two nations, a river and fate brings two boys together to become best friends for life only to discover love in unusual circumstances in a masculine Sikh community.’
Sudhanshu Saria: Nice. A lot of detail there. If I had to edit it, I would edit out the first part. For example, when you say ‘the story is about’. Why am I wasting my jhaag on it? Why am I talking about post-independence India? The minute you say post-partition, do shabdon mein ho gaya, unless you’re pitching to a financier in Germany – they may not understand the politics of the subcontinent.
Then, think about posturing. Is it a political story or is it an intimate story?
Rishabh Sabarwal: It’s an intimate story.
Sudhanshu Saria: Then put a twist on it. Don’t start with the partition and the politics. Start with: ‘Two people, living across the river, fall in love only to realise they come from different places.’ So, I get my kahani mein twist. If you want to lead with the gay part, be like, ‘Two men fall in love…’ If I want to keep the gay part as a second twist, I can layer it that way. It’s all about designing that little experience even in those 30 seconds. Hook ho gaya na? ‘I’d love to meet and talk to you about it.’ Kaam khatm. If the hook has landed, the person will meet.
Rishabh Sabarwal: Your log line of Loev didn’t mention the gay part.
Sudhanshu Saria: That’s done. That was 2015. In 2020, I would lead with it. Chhati pe rakh ke I would lead with it because duniya badal gayi hai. People are looking for such different stories. The most boring stories you can pitch now is ek ladka aur ek ladki milte hai. Kuch toh karna padega. You can’t just say ki milte hai. You could be like, ‘Oh, they are adopting their parents.’ Absolutely nuts stuff. ‘Their parents are having a baby.’ You have to do something zany now.
Go for it, Kunal.
Kunal Chopra: This is a five-minute short film that I’ve written, and the log line is: ‘It’s a story of a boy who comes back home and realises the reason for his sufferings, and reaches torpor.’
Sudhanshu Saria: Not enough. I don’t know anything. I don’t know the context; I don’t know what makes it unique; I don’t know what the twist is; I don’t even get the genre. One good thing is that you told me up top that it’s a five-minute short. I don’t like to say it up front, I like to say it later. I’m like, ‘It’s a feature.’ ‘It’s a series.’ ‘It’s a short.’ So, I understand what kind of commitment you’re looking for. Is that the genre I’m looking to work in?
But, Kunal, it will need a lot more detail. You have to find your unique point. Sometimes what happens is, the worry of getting stolen from is so huge that you become coy about your idea, or you don’t want it to reveal itself from the page and hence you keep covering it up. What comes out at the other end is just vanilla ice-cream. We are not in a place where we can sell vanilla ice-cream. We have to sell Jalfrezi Potato Rocket. You’re like, ‘What the hell is Jalfrezi Potato Rocket?’ ‘Mere se pucho, main bataunga. Meeting ke liye bulayiye.’
Next, Rishabh Rastogi.
Rishabh Rastogi: It’s a pitch for an urban web-series. The log line is: ‘It’s a dramedy about a group of people who run a service which provides human connection on hire for psychological gratification. We live in a world where we can hire….’
Sudhanshu Saria: Rishabh, I got it. It was crisp. It was short. You covered the genre. You gave me the unique twist. You gave me the setting. I would call you for a meeting. That was good. Also, the only fault was: take that pause. Let me give you the yes. Trust your log line. If people were like, ‘That sounds really good. Tell me more,’ maybe then I would talk about the protagonist, because in the series world that matters the most; or I would talk about where it is set. Already, the area of focus and genre are very interesting. Now I want to understand, usme kya unique take hai.
But if I was running from one meeting to another meeting, and I heard that I’d be like, ‘Oh my God! You know what? Just send me an email. You’ve hooked me enough to want to hear more.’ That’s the job of the log line.
Let’s hear from Diganta.
Diganta Dey: ‘Mental Manifesto is an investigative feature documentary to find the actual definition of sane and insane, which includes socio-political perspectives along with the sufferings and consequences experienced in the world.’
Sudhanshu Saria: Again, pretty good. What I would tell you is, can you make it a little more personal? I feel that the log line you gave is very good for an academic grant. It has a very formal approach, almost a researcher’s or an anthropological approach; but if I’m approaching a layman, it doesn’t hold. I don’t know who the log line is for. If I’m looking for a grant or submitting a research application, I would stick with that. If I’m approaching a layman on the street, or a distributor or a financier, then I will find a way to make it more personable.
“You have to find your unique point. We are not in a place where we can sell vanilla ice-cream. We have to sell Jalfrezi Potato Rocket.”
Anytime you can take a log line and relate it to your own life, it answers the question, ‘Ye project toh badhiya hai, but why should you make it?’ That is a question people will expect you to answer. Why you?
Log line ke baad jo discussion aata hai, I get into that. ‘I’ve noticed this about my mum, and it was always bothering me.’ Immediately people understand that you have a personal investment in this subject. That’s why you’re so passionate. It takes you away from being some robot and makes you real and vulnerable.
There are two types of log lines: for emails and for verbal conversation. The former has a formality to it. It has a ‘when’ structure: when this, so that; if this, so that – you describe the premise, the conflict and the possible resolution.
More often than not, when it comes to pitching, it will get into a verbal conversation. This is what we call an elevator pitch. That is the equivalent of a log line. I’m in PVR Juhu, I enter the lift on the ground floor and I find myself standing next to Zoya (Akhtar). I’m like, ‘Oh my God, she runs Tiger Baby. She may make my film.’ Now, what do I do? I could either stand in the corner, like a sane person and not harass her, or I could take my shot. This is a woman who champions underdogs. I’m going to take my shot. Instantly, I have to know what’s my way. I’m like, ‘Hey, Zo, I’m making this film about this young professional in Bombay, and she’s a career woman who’s dealing with a very specific challenge relating to motherhood.’ I have to get her to go, ‘Oh, that sounds intriguing. You know what, why don’t you email me? Tell me more about that idea.’ If I can get that, I’m done. I don’t need to sit with her and give her the entire narration.
I knew my little log line. I knew how to tailor it to my audience. I turned it into what’s called an elevator pitch. If it lasts more than 30 seconds, it’s too long. You still need a little bit of an opening, like there’s a fine line between passionate and crazy. You have to know how to walk that, and often you do cross over to the other side.
Having that little one line in your head is important, even when you go to a party, you never know who you will run into. First prick of the virus you have to infect. Then the person opens themselves up, then the person will never be able to stand – they’ll be consumed with your idea. But pehle opening chahiye, right? Log line ke basis pe you cannot sell your film. So, don’t overburden it.
“Writing these materials sometimes can help you understand your own film.”
Next, synopsis. There are multiple things related to a synopsis, too. You will sometimes run into someone, and the person will be like, ‘Can you WhatsApp me your thing?’ What they’re saying is, I don’t want to waste my time here talking to you. I don’t know you well enough. I will waste 40 seconds of my time reading a long-ish message. Uss message mein I will have enough checks and balances to be able to tell yahan daal gale ki nahi. WhatsApp pe daal nahi galegi toh I don’t want to invite you to my office and waste my time and your time. So ye back pocket mein hona chahiye. This is longer than a log line, but not 10 pages. It’s almost like in two paragraphs you have to give people what it is.
The first time I write, it’s hard; second time, it gets better; third time I write, it gets even better. Once I have a version, I save it in my notes file, so I can cut-paste. Dheere-dheere karke har film ke liye these things start getting developed. Log line ho jaata hai, short synopsis ho jaata hai. Sometimes actors will ask you for a two-pager. They basically want to go on that journey as that character. This is the start. This is the middle. This is the big complication. This is the ending. They don’t have time to read your full script. They don’t want a narration. They want to understand it through a two-pager. So, a two-pager is a little bit longer than a WhatsApp message. Then, grants and foundations, if they don’t want to read your screenplay, they’ll ask you for a 10-pager. So, these are typically the kinds of synopses you need to have in your back pocket. This is also part of knowing your stuff. Writing these materials sometimes can help you understand your own film.
I bet you that when Zoya started working on Gully Boy, she did not have the log line. She may have had a different log line. By the time she finished working on the film, the log line changed, because the film teaches you what it wants to be.
So, thik hai, you know your log line, you know your synopsis. Let’s go to the next.
You have your full script, right? Not everybody can write, in which case you have to get your writer, you have to get that script written. Especially in the earlier part of your journey, a finished screenplay is kind of a bare minimum that people expect. So, it’s not just about ‘Oh, you have a phenomenal idea,’ it’s also about having sat down and done the work, and demonstrated to me, with a reasonable degree of execution, that he can deliver this idea. I still have a lot of doubts about whether they can direct the film. ‘Can they get the actors?’ ‘Can they run a crew?’ ‘Is he a good leader?’ ‘Does he have good time management?’ There are a hundred questions I have before I invest in them, but at least I know it’s not like ki kal shower mein khada tha, usko idea aaya aur aaj mere office pahuch gaya hai. A script tells me that he has sat down and done the work, and that he’s quite confident about what this film is. So, a script should be something that writers get paid for, but especially in the earlier part of your journey, you kind of have to finance that process yourself. It’s part of the material you need.
Next is the pitch docket. This is where you take all the material (log line, synopsis, script, attachments) you’ve got and turn it into a pretty little book. The pitch dock for Loev was made before there was a single frame of the film. Nobody was on board. Even I barely knew the idea of how to make it, but the script was ready.
So, what did I want to do? I knew I needed a convertible. I couldn’t go and get a convertible so I looked on the internet. I didn’t want a picture that was too clear. I wanted the fun feeling of a road trip. In a way, I’ve picked an image that kind of is a log line. If you notice, I’ve given you the basic details at the bottom: the genre, the length, the target audience, and the fact that it’s a film. I’ve pitched it as a romantic dramedy. I’ve not pitched it as a heavy drama. Is it romantic? Yeah, I think it’s romantic. Is it a drama? Yes. Is it a comedy? I don’t think so, but I think I can push it into the dramedy zone a little bit to get more interest from people. The 90 minutes and the world cinema are very important so that I can also weed out buyers. I’m not looking to go into T-Series and sell them a hardcore Bollywood masala film. When I do my ‘know your audience’, I know they’re not right for me. You write it on top, so everyone knows what to expect. Nobody wants to make the film just by seeing the pitch dock. Pitch dock will get you the meeting.
Here is an example of a synopsis. I’ve given a very short one. Look how huge the page is, but I don’t want to look desperate. I’ve not bombarded you with information. I’ve just given you a little glimmer. This picture is from one of our location recces where we were going to shoot the film. In the last paragraph, I’ve given references, because I have not made Dil Chahta Hai, Before Sunrise, Once, or Y tu mamá también. So, I’m going to stand on the shoulder of giants. The people I want to make films with, the kind of film I want to make, will be fans of these films. These are all ways to get people into your embrace.
It also tells people instantly ki acha ye feel hoga, ye hoga. The word gay is not mentioned anywhere. You have to modulate your pitch based on who you are pitching to. It’s about knowing your audience. Maybe if I tell dad X, he’ll buy it; if I tell mom X, she won’t.
This is where I talked about my bio. If I’m the reason people are going to want to make it, I have to play to my strengths. I have to know myself. What are the things people get with me? I don’t have any massive projects, I’ve made my short, which went here, there and everywhere. I’ve talked about my shows, the kind of press I’ve gotten. So, you’ll have to figure out how you market yourself. Write a bio that speaks to your strengths. While you’re selling your idea, continue to build that bio. Assist the right people, work on the right films, win some contests, whatever it is you can do to tell your story about why you should.
Sometimes the bio is also the place where you can show the other person why you are in fact the best person to tell the story. For example, if the story is about a shoemaker, in the bio you’re like, ‘I’m the son of a shoemaker,’ or, ‘I’ve worked in a shoe shop my whole life.’ That is a good use of the bio as well.
This, for me, is textural. Sometimes I’ll include excerpts from the script and put it on the photos taken on location, so people really start to understand what it is and start getting caught up into the dream of the film. I don’t know what the scene will be in the film. The above scene wasn’t even in the film – we cut it.
Then, we talk about the production. Here, I talked about my collaborators: the people who are going to edit it; who are going to sound design it; who are going to be shooting it. When I’m giving it to you guys, as you’re going through it, don’t you get the sense of ye toh banne wali hai? It’s about whether I get involved or not. Nowhere in the meeting have I said, ‘Sir, main aapke charno mein hoon. Ab aap hi ka haath hai mere sar pe. Aap mujhe bacha lijiye, aapke bina nayya doob jayegi.’ I have written a kick-ass script. I know that I’m making this. These are the people I’ve gotten on board. If you can do better, do better. If there are other people you want to bring on board, great. The film is getting made. You have to decide if you will be a part of it or not.
We talked about little salient details. All of this gives you a real sense of ‘this is going to get made’. ‘What have you actually done? Paisa lene toh tu mere se aagaya. Tune kya-kya kiya hai?’ I’ve done whatever can be without paying. Saamne wale ko bhi lagta hai ki you respect my money or you respect my involvement. Even actors react to it in a way where they know that a bulk of the work has been done, and that it’s not just a person who has rolled out of bed and called me. Especially in the early part of your career, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re looking to take advantage of the 12-15 years I’ve put in to build this career by simply taking advantage and piggybacking. What do you bring to the table?’
Then, you talk about who else is making this.
These were my amazing partners who said yes to me, a phenomenal company called Bombay Berlin Film Productions. Arfi Lamba and Katharina Suckale were the first people who said yes to me.
Every time you’re developing a part of your ‘know your materials’, the pitch docket keeps getting made. You’ve gone from that little idea you had to you having a log line which has been tested, you’ve written your script, you’ve been looking for collaborators, you convinced some people, you’ve tried to do location scouting or developed reference photographs. Now you’ve started building a team. Budgets are aligning, schedules are getting in place. Even you will feel this forward momentum, which is so much better than sitting at home and feeling sorry for yourself. So, pitching, once again, has saved the day.
Next, significant attachments can be part of your pitch docket. Sometimes your access to a particular actor, your access to a particular DP or an editor becomes the reason for those attachments. They give you credibility. ‘I don’t know you, but I know X. And if X is willing to work with you, then you must be worth my time.’ So, don’t only look at it from the singular perspective of I-need-money. Come at it from all directions. Remember, you have to infect the person. Increase the number of people. Eventually, where will they run? You’ve surrounded them.
In terms of pitching for a series, the materials are slightly different. You still need your log line, but you need a much, much deeper sense of character, you need your season arc, which is like your script, and people will want your pilot script.
Now, let’s talk about some practical stuff like body language, postures and mannerisms.
When you don’t know your material inside out, when you haven’t researched your buyer or the person you’re selling to, when you don’t know what the mutual benefit is, when you don’t have your materials in deck, all of that results in a lack of confidence. It shows itself in the things that are not about what you’re saying.
“You have to find a way to reveal yourself to them in optimal condition.”
It’s all in the body mannerisms. Half the time, what I’m buying and selling is comfort, excitement, passion, energy, enthusiasm – those things come through in your body language more than anything else. I want to be excited. I want to be interested. I want to lean forward. I want to speak with clarity. A big mistake I find people making is that they speak too fast. That is a function of insecurity. Take your pauses. You are worth listening to. What you have to say is worth it. Not everyone will agree and if they don’t agree, they’ll never buy. So why waste time? Not everyone is your soulmate.
‘Is it true that only one person needs to say yes?’ Yes. One person of every type: one cinematographer, one editor, one choreographer, one financier, one distributor, one festival, one programmer; but lots of people say no. Lots and lots and lots of people say no.
I love hearing stories of rejection. I don’t know if Amit Masurkar will mind me saying this, but before Newton became India’s Oscar submission and one of the highest-grossing independent films, you should try to find out how many film festivals it was rejected from. In hindsight, it’s insane to think of how Newton could be rejected from film festivals. So was Court! Everyone now is like Chaitanya (Tamhane) is the second coming of Jesus. But it’s part of the deal.
You know who you are, others don’t. You have to find a way to reveal yourself to them in optimal condition. If you didn’t do the research, your fault; if you didn’t figure out mutual benefit, your fault; your body language, clothing – make sure you’re smartly dressed – and turned up with appropriate manners like waiting, letting the person invite you to begin, making sure how was their day, checking in, even during your pitch is very important for you to maintain.
If the person doesn’t end up saying yes, I would love to end the meeting with the other person saying, ‘He’s a kick-ass guy. I don’t know about this idea, but I should keep in touch. I’ll keep checking in every six months. ‘What are you up to? Is there something else?’’
You know you’ve infected the person when they start asking you questions which seem to be attacking your idea. That’s when I know the hook is in, when the person’s getting scared. ‘I like it. I want to do it.’ Now, they’re looking to find reasons to say no. They’d be like, ‘It’ll cost 100 million.’ I’m like, ‘No, no. It’s five bucks.’ They’d be like, ‘What? It will need huge crowds, right?’ ‘No, it’s a single person in a room.’ So, that’s when you know the hook is in. But you have to get them in.
To me, the worst pitches are ones where afterwards people say, ‘That sounded great. Let me get back to you,’ because to me, when we fire people, we are really kind; but when we love people and we want to work with them and hold on to them, then we really fire them because we want them to improve. Ussi ke sang toh rehna hai.
“The trick is to practice and it’s very important to make the other person feel like they matter.”
Body language is key. How you dress, confidence level, knowing your stuff, pausing, speaking at the right pace, waiting to be asked, checking in with people (‘Are you with me?’ ‘Is that something you don’t get?’ ‘Do you want me to repeat something?) shows that they’ve come to a party and you’re running the party.
Part of this is also narrations. How do you know if it’s going well or not? I’ll give you a tip I got from writer Niranjan Iyengar. I was talking to him after I had a bad narration and he said, ‘Sudhanshu, the first two scenes – that’s where it’s at. If the first two scenes go well, that narration will be great. Aur agar tum first two scenes mein thukra gaye toh gayi bhains paani mein. You can’t recover.’ It’s true. So now, I really pay attention to the first two scenes where the pace of the narration, clarity and confidence is all found.
If you are not confident about your script, what will you do? You will rush because you want to get to the end and end the torture that is the script. But if you love your script, if you believe in your script, you’ll be like, ‘This is great. I don’t want it to end. Saamne wala is going to enjoy it. I should give them enjoyment.’ You have to modulate a little.
Sit up straight, maintain eye contact. Eye contact is key. For some people it is difficult, especially if you’re an introvert and you’re feeling awkward. The trick is to practice. Practice until you can get it out of your system. It’s very important to make the other person feel like they matter. You’re not talking into the wall. Hand gestures, smiling, being enthusiastic or slouching are all part of it.
Part of it is also understanding yourself, where your strengths and weaknesses are. Not everyone can do all of this. Some things you’ll be good at, some things you’ll be weak at – just emphasize the strengths. This is not a natural thing. You have to work at it. You have to get good at it because this is important.
Lastly, don’t beat yourself up. Enjoy the process. The journey matters. It’s not important to just make the film. You really need to enjoy it because you will get there. You will.
Why is this important to me? Because it’s the flip side of what Ava said. We don’t want desperation, but we also have to really want it. It’s a very tricky flip. You do have to want it. Sometimes when I find myself not being able to pitch passionately, the problem is that I don’t believe in it or something’s wrong with the idea, or the idea hasn’t taken hold. It’s not doing that thing to me where I can’t sleep.
I’m currently writing a show. My problem is, whatever five hours of sleep I get is enough because I’m restless, I’m breaking storylines all night – not healthy and not recommended, also not voluntary. So, you have to want it enough. That is a good way to test how badly you love this idea. Has the idea infected you? How can you infect others until it infects you? I think the films I’ve made don’t come from me. They come from the universe, they get into me and then I make them. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense. Why these films?
“Pitching is an omnipresent part of our job. So, it’s best to dig in and get damn good at it.”
Sometimes people think pitching is about getting the film made, but in reality, that process continues even after the film is made. You have to pitch to distributors, buyers, to audiences, and to film festival programmers. To get your film selected for India Gold at MAMI, for an Indian filmmaker, is a high honour. I spent one year making my film travel around the planet before it got its India launch in the India Gold section. Part of it was me not calling Smriti or harassing her. I did my work. I went to SXSW, I went to Cannes, I went to Berlin, I went to BFI. So, the programmer started hearing about it. ‘Accha ye ho raha hai, isne likha hai, ya usne likha hai. Ye kaun tope hai? Leke aao isko. You’re bigger than MAMI or what?’ ‘No, we are desperately waiting to get the phone call.’ And it was, I have to say, one of the most memorable and exciting parts of my Loev journey.
I had some 30 family members who had descended to Bombay to see the film because I refused to show anybody the film. I was like, ‘You will see it with the paying public. Line mein lago, film dekho.’ MAMI was the first opportunity people in India had to see it. When the film opened, I was at Cinemax, which is now PVR Versova, with the badges for the tickets. I got my dad’s ticket, but the show sold out when I went for the next ticket. I had 15 more tickets to get. My own film was sold out! Instead of being sad, I was so excited.
So, that is also pitching – to get the audience to select your film, that’s why you make your trailers. Journalists require pitching. They have 50 films they can write about. Why should Namrata Joshi write about your film? That email you send them, with the right name, the right festivals, the right log line, you can’t get away from it. It is an omnipresent part of our job. So, it’s best to dig in and get damn good at it. Develop, keep it on the side, reuse the material over and over.
Smriti Kiran: Sudhanshu, as you said, the pitching is never going to happen in a way where you have a mirror in front of you. There are people and they will react. How do you prepare yourself for that buzz off or judgement from someone?
Sudhanshu Saria: I’ll give you my easiest trick: I just shine a light on it. Sometimes telling people how nervous you are is the easiest way to get all the tension out. I also believe in knowing your audience. Again, if it is Zoya, I’ll talk about reading stories about how hard it was for her to make Luck By Chance.
But they have the right to reject you. They don’t have to listen. You can put your best foot forward. It’s also about the other person’s mood. You are not always in a mood where you can summon the courage to change that. You don’t have to take every opportunity life gives you. Life isn’t one finite thing. Take your best shot. We’ll be ready if they say no, the world has not ended; you just took a shot because you were in the mood and you saw the right person. Why not?
There are 10 other ways to do it. Some people are more comfortable on text. Some people are better with email. To each their own. Get to know yourselves and then play it to you. But people absolutely and always have the right to reject you. It’s their time, after all. It’s their energy.
Part of wanting things is knowing that you can’t always get them. If you’re scared of rejection, then don’t want anything – sorted. But you can’t be petulant. It’s okay to be rejected.
Lastly, you’re not alone. If you ever feel otherwise, please know that. Even when I feel like that, I remind myself and reach out and connect with fellow filmmakers. Filmmaking is a perennial journey. It’s to be cherished and celebrated, not to be lamented, not to be felt bad about. There is no ‘making it’. There is no filmmaker you admire, you love or you know who has made it, who doesn’t deal with restlessness, who doesn’t deal with ineptitude, lack of resources, failure, or rejection constantly. That is the nature of this journey.
Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on YouTube
Diganta Dey: What is the current situation of pitching in the Indian film market? Do you think there are enough available avenues, especially for documentary filmmakers?
Sudhanshu Saria: I don’t know if it’s only in India, I think it’s worldwide. The avenues available to filmmakers who want to make a certain kind of film is always going to be very niche and limited. I can’t tell you how I made Knock Knock Knock. I honestly don’t know. It’s a freak show. Same with Loev. It’s unlikely. It’s like a bolt of lightning. It’s just mad.
It sounds good in retrospect, where you can go, ‘I went to X and I went to Y, aur ban gaya,’ but in reality, it wasn’t like that. When I choose to make something offbeat or unusual, the burden falls on me to make that happen. So, if you’re choosing to make a documentary, for example, in a country that is not hungry or desperate for it, where the sales are not there to justify the manufacturing of a bunch of docs, it is going to be hard. But if you still want to make it, you will find a way.
Maybe I’ll start by looking at all the docs that have been made in the Indian ecosystem in the last 10 years. Make a list of everyone. Start looking at how they got financing. Find out the organizations that are there in common. Which festivals can I go to? Are there pitch fests? Who can I write to? Are any of those filmmakers looking for assistance? Looking for ADs? Are any of them looking for people on their teams to write grant applications? Is that how I can learn everything about grant writing? How do I start?
The good thing with a doc is, nowadays with digital technology, if you have a good phone and decent sound, you can pretty much start rolling. I can cut a five-minute trailer for my doc without getting a single dollar in financing. So, I’m going to focus on all the good things. I’m not going to focus on the bad things. Do we deserve an HBO that is violently and actively and enthusiastically investing in documentaries? Yes. Do we deserve Netflix the way they support docs in the US to do it in India? Yes. What will come out of me sitting and looking at what people don’t do? I really don’t have the time to fix anything. I just want to make my films, so I keep a very tunnel vision.
There are days when I do feel down, of course, but for the most part, I feel like I have this annoying optimism. At least, I get told that by my friends a lot: ‘What the hell are you so happy about?’ So, you just try to keep that perspective, where you’re like, ‘I want to make it. I can either sit and whine about it, or I can just crack it.’ One thing at one step at a time, you know. Keep moving forward.
MAMI shows some phenomenal docs. I remember last year I saw that doc, About Love, about this Marathi family. It also went to Busan. I had four bookings that day. I saw About Love first and I cancelled the other three. I was just under the spell of the movie, fascinated. I later realised that the filmmaker and I were in the South Korea embassy together, getting a visa done for Busan. You have organisations like MAMI that will help you platform it.
At least now, as compared to 10 years ago, you have so many more buyers. All these OTT platforms might be looking to pick it up if you’re able to make it. So, I would say focus on all the pluses instead of lamenting the fact that we don’t have as many outlets that you can pitch and get financing from.
Samar Narayan: How do you decide at which stage a pitch would be good?
Sudhanshu Saria: It depends on who it is. If the person is someone who buys things or collaborates with people at an idea level, go for it. If it’s an outlet like Netflix, who gets fully matured pitches all day long, then I would wait, get the idea super formed out and then go for it. If it is, for example, a cinematographer, it’s going to be after you’ve shot the pilot. If it’s a writer, it’s going to be at an idea stage. In general, my rule of thumb is, I will try to present as mature a version of my idea as I can. But sometimes you’ve got to take the shot because the opportunity is now. If the opportunity presents itself and my idea is in an earlier phase, I’ll go for it. If I have to set the meeting, I’d probably wait until I have done everything I can for that.
There is also such a thing as overdone. You don’t want everything to be all defined and locked. You want there to be an opportunity for people to collaborate.
Nehal Gupta: How do I convince other people to join and help me make my idea a little more concrete before pitching?
Sudhanshu Saria: Even the barest, most simple germ of an idea will have flaws. Let’s say I took Inception when it was first formed. That idea had flaws. The right part of pitching that idea was not focusing on the flaws, it was focusing on the positives. ‘I kind of want to do a film about a guy that goes into people’s subconscious and plants ideas.’ So, what’s the flaw? Let’s say you told me that. I would be like, ‘Urgh, what do you mean? How will you show the subconscious?’ Flaw. ‘How are you going to make it tangible?’ Flaw. But you didn’t focus on the flaw. You focus on the good. Your ability to pitch will make me go, ‘It’d be really cool if the subconscious looked like the real world, and you could tumble into it.’ And then you went, ‘Let’s play with gravity. Let’s make that up. The rules of physics get altered.’ We’ve started brainstorming, right?
I don’t think your idea will ever reach a phase when it won’t have flaws. Don’t be insecure because your idea has flaws. Look for collaborators that celebrate what’s good and help build and brainstorm, and proceed from there. If I never pitched until my idea was perfect, I would never pitch at all. The films I’ve already made have flaws, but I still find a way to pitch them. If a distributor never pitched a film that had flaws, half of them would just shut down. How many films have you seen in the theatre that the distributor pitched to you via a trailer or a poster? They pitched it by dressing it up. That’s what you have to do. Bit by bit, with every collaboration, at every stage, shave away the flaws. Every flaw is a question waiting to be answered. Every loophole is a brainstorming session away from being plugged. Nothing is permanent.
Rishabh Rastogi: As a filmmaker, how do you pitch a movie that’s not at all commercially viable to a financier?
Sudhanshu Saria: That is a great question! This is the pitching: Let’s put you in the room. You’re a financier. You’ve heard me out, and you’re so smart that you’ve seen through all my crap. You’re like, ‘What will I get? Look at the subject you’re doing. This is not commercially viable.’ If you’re honest with me, you’ll say that. If you’re not honest with me, you’d be like, ‘That was lovely. Let me get back to you.’ If you’re honest with me, you’d be like, ‘Kya hai ye? Kya hai?’ To which, I’ll be like, ‘Rishabh, I love that you asked me that question. Thank you so much. What is commercially viable? If I invest 10 rupees, I should make back 12 rupees. That is commercially viable. If I invest Dabangg money in Loev, Loev is not commercially viable. But if I can make it for the price of one of Salman Khan’s costume changes, is it then commercially viable?’ I will remind you that you have not asked me what the budget is. For you to determine if something is commercially viable, first you must know what it costs. I have taken this question and led it into a topic of economics. I’m also going to assume that because you’re asking the question, you already like the subject. You’re now trying to figure out if you can make money or not. For me, this is progress.
You’d be like, ‘Okay, good point. How much money do you need?’ Then I’ll tell you, ‘Look, I understand that this film will not be theatrically released, but I have seven years of experience in the world sales market. I have a sense of the places from where we can get back from it. If we make it at such a compelling cost that the bare minimum can be recovered, then in reality, your upside is huge because you’ve invested so little money to own a disproportionate percentage of the film. If the film succeeds, the return on your investment will be massive.’
Now you’re thinking, ‘If I invest in a Salman Khan film, ek toh kharcha bohot lagega, respect nahi milegi, return bhi kam aayenge, collect karte karate main pagal ho jaunga. Yahan pe, I get to be the top dog for a very low amount of money. I get to become the top person and that’ll get me access to on the ground learning, if I want to learn.’ So, I’m showing you the advantages of investing in my film rather than a bigger, conventional, sure-shot commercial hit. No doubt, if you’d have been a financier, even you’d have liked to invest in a film that has Akshay (Kumar) or Salman. Unfortunately for you, the kinds of films that are guaranteed money-spinners are not looking for investors like you.
Sometimes you have to also remind people why they are in this meeting with you. If you had access to Akshay, you wouldn’t be sitting with me. If you had the kind of capital to bankroll those films, you would not be sitting here with me.
Every time you have one of those meetings, those questions will force you to come up with the answer and attack your proposition from a different place, because we are not entitled. Every question that is presented to us, we must have an answer for it. We are not going to assume ki saamne wala stupid hai ya usko yaad nahi rahega. Anybody that has made enough money to be capable of investing in my film is actually incredibly smart. They must be satisfied with enough answers.
Don’t stress if you don’t know how to answer every one of those questions. You will learn along the way. You will meet other people. Every meeting would teach you. Watch this, if I’m not capable of answering you, I would tell you, ‘Rishabh, my speciality is making films. I’m passionate about that. Even I’m not able to figure out exactly how to make this viable. Can you help me? Even if you’re not willing to invest in my film, I would love your insight on how I could make this proposition into something attractive to investors.’ Your ego is up. You’re like, ‘Good, I don’t have to invest. Plus, banda seekhna chah raha hai. Aaja bhai, baith. Let me tell you why I can’t invest in this.’ It’s still good, right?
Rishabh Sabarwal: How does a fundraising campaign help a film? How would you pitch a film that has nothing to do with a social cause or anything about how it will bring about a change to a community you speak about in the film?
Sudhanshu Saria: You know you want to make one idea. Now you have to figure out why you want to make that idea. More often than not, the answer’s in there. Why you want to make the film is the reason why other people should want to support it. Not every film is going to change the world. That also isn’t an obligation a film should have. I think Amol Palekar’s Golmaal changed the world. Rajkumar Santoshi’s Andaz Apna Apna changed my world. How many times have I been down in the dumps when I’ve turned to that movie to just pick me up! How do you pitch Andaz Apna Apna for a fundraising campaign? ‘I’m going to make an insane movie, which will barely make any sense. Please help me.’
Part of pitching is understanding your project. For example, if I had to pitch Andaz Apna Apna, I’d be like, ‘You know, the world has become too serious. Everybody’s going after the dark side. Hero ka anti-hero ka anti-anti-hero. Batman has become Super Batman. Batman is darker than, bloody, Joker also. I want to go in the opposite direction and I want to make you laugh. I just want you to have a good time. I want to make a nonsense madcap caper that is not going to save anyone.’ That’s your USP.
Now they’re leaning in. They’re like, ‘Oh, what is he trying to make?’
I’d be like, ‘I want to have a blast. These are the technicians I’m partnered with – name drop, name drop, name drop – this is where I’m going to shoot my film.’
‘This is how I want to make it. This is the budget level. Here are the benefits I’m selling.’
Writing a crowdfunding campaign requires the same pitch materials. It forces you to understand what film you’re making. It forces you to understand your own work and your audience. All of which help you as a filmmaker. Ultimately, the biggest benefit that comes from a crowdfunding campaign is, you’re building an audience before the film is even released. There are a lot of people out there who are creative but don’t have an outlet. They don’t have the time, the ability or the circumstance to be able to do it. They have the money, though. If they can, for a little bit of money, feel like they have scratched a creative itch, they’ll go for it. But like anything else they need to see that you are already charging ahead. Now it’s about only participating.
Even when I did those crowdfunding campaigns, I found everyone was vocal and they were supportive. They were sharing and liking, doing this, that and the other. But until I reached 60% of my goal, they didn’t want to pitch. Initially, everyone is sceptical. No one wants to be the first one. So, when you launch a campaign, I always tell people, you should know where the first 30-40% of your money is coming from. They should be lined up. You have to almost tell them that on Tuesday you will donate; on Wednesday, you donate; on Thursday, you donate. It’s so I can show momentum.
Samagata Banerjee: Could you suggest a few entry points to financiers other than social media?
Sudhanshu Saria: The world we live in, those are huge. I feel like you have to have that card in your pocket or in your email. Sometimes you will attend a networking event, a seminar, a speech, where you’ll find them, or you’ll find them outside an elevator. There are a hundred ways to get to a person. For example, I know a particular company: if I was developing a horror-comedy, and I know that Maddock has done one, then I kind of know they are my ideal company. So how do I get to Maddock? I can go to their general website and start spamming it. I can look up who the executives working at Maddock are, I can look at how they take meetings. What are the things they’re attending? Are they at FICCI? Are they at Film Bazaar? Is MAMI doing an event with them? I would reach out to filmmakers I know, friends I know. You know, six degrees of separation.
Knowing who I want to infect is extremely important. I can now start finding a way into their inbox to see who can connect me and who can pass it on. It takes work, but it can get there. You have to know who you want to infect. Half the time people don’t even know that. Then you can take a targeted approach. It’s actually really funny. The minute you verbalize it, the universe starts to bend itself to make it happen; or your point of view becomes so tunnel vision that all you start to see are dots that connect and lead up to the person. Just give it a try. It will happen.
Kunal Khushwaha: Studios and directors always say that they welcome all kinds of stories, but certain genres are always side-lined by them, even without reading. Is that welcome false, or is that grey?
Sudhanshu Saria: You guys have seen my films, please tell me what studio would be stupid enough to invest in them? I feel like I specialise in making films that no one wants to make. But I don’t think of myself that way. I feel I’m a very pliable, commercial guy. I want to make blockbusters. Then I look at my scripts. At the same time, because the idea has taken hold of me, I can’t help it. Somehow, I don’t get angry, maybe because I’ve been on the other side and I understand how those meetings work. I understand there are profitability mandates, there’s huge amounts of money at play, there are jobs at stake. Most of these people just want to get home and spend some time with their kids. They’re trying to get through that day. You will run into only a few executives, producers or studio heads who are literally looking to change the world.
So, if you are choosing to take on extremely challenging subjects, then you know you’ll have to work outside of that framework. You can’t complain about that. On the other hand, let’s please give people examples of filmmakers like James Cameron. None of his films are about nothing. All of his films deal with social causes. Even Steven Spielberg. These are all people who have taken up that responsibility of delivering truckloads of profit while talking about meaningful cinema. If you can’t find a way to say what you want to say within the context of financeable, saleable, profitable cinema, that is your choice. I’m saying that as someone who makes that choice, because I’m going for purity. It’s an aesthetic preference. It doesn’t make me better. Sometimes people come at it with some condescension. I’m not going to go to some fancy white tablecloth, fine dining restaurant in BKC and be like, ‘Ye kya bhav hai?’ like you do when you go to the vada pav wala outside the station. Know your audience.
There are subjects and genres that they won’t even read. There are people, who, if they do their research, will not even meet me. I get lucky sometimes because they don’t do that. I have found myself in meetings thinking, ‘What’s going on here? Have you seen my work? Do you know what I do?’ And that’s okay. I know Amit’s career will be different after Newton makes 20 crores on opening weekend. I bet you to find me a single human being on that team who thought that would happen when Amit was sitting in Starbucks, pounding away at his script and running after Rajkummar (Rao) and trying to make the film.
By the way, I didn’t know Loev would have gotten where it’s gotten. Believe me, I would’ve made it differently. I would have taken so many shots that I wanted to. There would be equipment I would, instead, send back. Arfi would be like, ‘Le lo!’ I’d be like, ‘Nahi le sakte. Jab recovery nahi hai toh kharcha kaise karu?’ I was the one cutting scene after scene, shot after shot, because I would be like, ‘Ab paise barbad karne hi hai, then let’s set a manageable amount of money on fire.’ If I knew it would get this massive deal from Netflix, that would be so profitable and the first film to play at SXSW, I would have definitely done things differently. Sometimes it can only be understood in hindsight. As a producer, the best thing I did was apply the realistic, financial sense to the project. I structured it accordingly so that when I was going into meetings with people who were quite tough on me, I was able to bring them around and show them that I respected their money. I did not just approach them saying, ‘Mujhe paise de do.’ I had done the math. ‘Here’s how you might get your money back. These are the avenues…’ That’s why a person like that would go, ‘Okay, he’s doing something nuts. But that’s also why I have access to him. Let’s roll the dice. Jayega toh kam jayega. Aayega toh zyada aayega.’
Shweta Arora: Even after registering the script with the Screenwriters’ Association, how can one ensure the security of the script while narrating it to even fellow writers?
Sudhanshu Saria: I’m going to give a very controversial answer. Please understand that this is only my opinion and not everyone’s opinion. My opinion is, number one, you are not expensive enough for me to steal from. People who want to steal, for them it doesn’t matter – they’ll steal. Honestly, it will be easier to buy from you, and probably get it for cheap, too. Why would I steal it? Why would I open myself up to all that?
Second, it’s not productive for me to obsess about getting stolen from. I don’t think of myself as a one-trick pony. I feel like I will have 200 ideas by the time you are done stealing from me. For example, XYZ steals from me. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, fantastic!’ I can call up XYZ saying, ‘Hey, you love the idea, I love that. Can I get a job? Can I pitch you five more ideas?’ Now XYZ is like, ‘Oh, shit. Bekaar mein chori kiya, ye toh itni acchi hai.’
Look, I’m not making light of how heart-breaking it is when you get stolen from. I’m not making light of that. I can’t imagine anything worse. Intellectual property theft is awful. It hurts like hell. But I also understand that I’m looking at the long game. If I keep worrying and obsessing about who’s going to steal from me every time I talk, I’ll be paralyzed by fear. So I take the opposite approach. I spread, I disseminate, I infect. I’m like, ‘Tereko pasand hai na, toh le. I’ve got 10 more.’ I make it very open that I’m available to work. I’m happy to collaborate. I take notes. If you like my idea so much, don’t you want me to continue developing it for you? What’s the problem? Is it about money? Is it about credit?
I’m not saying you should just lie down like a doormat and let people walk all over you. I mean it in the sense that it’s the lesser of two evils. How do I conduct my career if I’m constantly worried about getting stolen from? It’s a real problem. I’ll post it here, I’ll post it there, I’ll talk about it openly. I don’t even bother with NDAs half the time. The fact is, even after you take every precaution, you could still get stolen from. It’s the sad truth. So, I focus on becoming a talented, kickass, fun collaborator that people want to be around. I find that to be a little more productive.
To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Sudhanshu Saria in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.
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