Seeds For Cinema: An Interview With Dr Shravan Kumar, CEO, CFSI

Seeds For Cinema: An Interview With Dr Shravan Kumar, CEO, CFSI

by The Daily Eye Team February 24 2016, 6:31 pm Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 13 secs

“At CFSI we not only want to make films but also make film makers”
-Dr. Shravan Kumar
On the fifteenth of February, Director, Producer and Managing Director of ACEE The Third Eye, Vinta Nanda and Program Outreach Manager, Deepa Bhalerao sat down with DR. Shravan Kumar, The CEO of the Children’s Film Society India (CFSI) to discuss CFSI past present and future. The conversation throws open interesting insights about filmmaking and the democratization of content, outlining and navigating a nebulous and changing entertainment landscape.
ACEE is set to collaborate with CFSI on the creation of new content; and digital as well as grass-root outreach.

Vinta Nanda- Tell us about your journey with the CFSI

Dr Shravan Kumar- When I found that CFSI had a potential of reaching out to the audience of children, we did some interventions in the mainstream as well as in the North-East of India (for which we have a separate project), which are gaining results in the terms of acceptability by the global audience.
We have recently held the Golden Elephant Film Festival where we had 1204 entries coming from 80 countries. This tells us that we have been able to portray our commitment to the cause of films for children in the world audience.

But it all began when I could see that there are certain strengths of this organization, which could be leveraged. One strength is that this is an exclusive organization not just in this country but in the whole South Asian continent which caters to content for children.

These days, because of the decay of the traditional joint family system there is a void. Being a culturally rich continent, there has always been the practice of passing on values in the family through storytelling. Earlier, this was done by grandparents, uncles, aunts and other members of the older generation. This no longer happens owing to urbanization. An agency is now required to do it and fill the vacuum.

This could be filled by an organization which is able to give the right kind of messaging through the content

You only have some content on television which is not suitable for our values, and is therefore not relevant. There is a need for the creation of content. This is why we felt the need to create that content. I felt the need to organize this business of content making in the CFSI and we succeeded in a big way.

In June 2012, when I joined, the movie Gattu had just been completed, and had won a special mention at Berlinale. So I decided that we should go to the market, and into the theatres. We needed to tell the stakeholders that we mean business, and that we are in the business of content making. We ensured everything that was possible for making this movie widely accessible to children and ensure the greatest number of footfalls in the theatres. We had chosen Rajashri as our distributor.

There were also certain learnings. This was our first theatrical release. It was released in 100 screens. In the 57 year history of this organization, and 250 films behind us, no such theatrical release had ever taken place.

All this was in the first month of my taking over. Among the lessons we learnt was that we already have a niche audience waiting, and we have the product in our kitty. Only the medium had to be built between the audience and the producer. This whole exercise made me realise that we need not go through the traditional way of involving the P& A (publicity and advertising) partner as also a distribution partner, since that kind of a ball game required a lot of expenditure. In this genre of children’s films, the kind of funds that are being put in are not large enough to support an equally large amount of P& A.

On an average that time, the CFSI films were being funded within Rs 1 Crore. Now we have increased the budget to between Rs 2 and 2.5 Crores. If you have to spend another Rs 2.5 Crores, it is not a viable strategy to reach out.

We realised that we can do without that. The audiences is sitting in the schools and the multiplexes are almost empty in the morning shows. What we needed to do was to convince the principals to send the children to the nearby multiplexes, and this would work for both. We could bargain a very good price for those morning shows. We will then not only cut the cost of distribution, but also not incur the expenditure of the P& A.

This way, we were able to do a very good marketing. So we did the first pilot project for the film ‘Gattu’ with the Ryan Group of Schools and the PVR chain of multiplexes. We did 12 shows in 2 weeks and both CFSI and PVR Cinemas had a net income of Rs 3.5 lakhs each. Not a single penny was spent on P& A. If revenues from 12 shows gave Rs 3.5 lakhs, this could be multiplied further. This way, it has the potential to become the 100 Crore Club, if we are able to do it.

By this time, I had done another very good film- Goopi Gawaiya, Baagha Bajaiya’ which was an animation project. The effort was to now to increase the quality of our content. Only then could I do a global positioning and global marketing.
Goopi Gawaiya was fortunate enough to be almost invited to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Cameron, being the artistic director of TIFF had come to Mumbai to scout for films. Our film which was not even in the final cut at that time. He saw the unfinished cut and invited it for the TIFF.
We got good reviews for the film at TIFF and I was invited to speak at TIFF Industry. However, I decided that I will perfect my own system and only then will go and share my experiences, which I did, last year.
We had very good collaborative talks with Ms Elizabeth Muskala, Director of TIFF Kids. She is now gung-ho about partnering with CFSI, especially in the other initiative within the film festivals- films to be made by the Little Directors – the children themselves. This is an investment in the future.

When you are thinking of strengthening an organization, you have to invest in the future. These Little Directors will become the bulwark for spreading the children’s film movement. Even today this idea is so enthralling, that some of the mainstream Bollywood filmmakers have been associated because of their children getting into this space. For example, in this context, Samaira Kapur was here this time, so Karisma had come and Kareena as also Babitaji.

I introduced the concept of Little Directors in the 18th International Golden Elephant Film Festival in 2013 when I became the Festival Director. Along-with this, there was another concept of the ‘Festival Hotel’, where children from all across the world, 500 of them come to the festival. This includes children from villages who may never have seen a cinema hall. And on the other hand, there are others from the international community like Chicago. The children stay together with the international directors, filmmakers and national film delegates. This is an energising exposure for both the children and the delegates. I have received feedback from the adult delegates, where they have said that the energy they felt being in the hotel, by living there, was something commendable. This serves the purpose of making the environment of the festival truly a celebration of childhood.

Both these prime innovations, introduced in the festival curation, were repeated in the 19th edition of the Golden Elephant Film Festival and the initiative to reach out to more and more audiences resulted in the increase in the numbers. From the 500 to 600 entries that were being received before the 18th edition, the numbers increased to 894 in the 18th Edition itself. The 19th Edition saw much more.

We did not have to hire anybody from outside. I made the system automatic. This automation resulted in entries and most of the content coming to us online. We showed this content to the Selection Committee from which they selected the finalists. This was the next big challenge that was met.
The Selection Committee comprised of senior filmmakers, and film critics. Ruma Da Cunha, senior film critic, Mr Ram Mohan, senior animation professional, Mr V. J. Sawant, another senior animation person, Ms Rinki Bhattacharya, our vice chairperson and noted filmmaker Bimal Roy’s daughter were some among the august members of the Selection Committee.

Vinta Nanda- What are your plans for the new productions you are doing for the coming year?

Dr Shravan Kumar- I have decided that we should pool in the resources and the strengths of CFSI with market leaders so we have more market presence.
We have been able to really put our house in order, and made good content, and gone to the best festivals in the world. So we have tested our qualitative strengths. Now are trying to build bridges with the market leaders who have a presence.

Vinta Nanda- So what are the projects in the offing?

Dr Shravan Kumar - We have already greenlighted one which is called ‘School Chalega’ with Satish Kaushik. We will market the film together with him. There is one more in the pipeline, which is yet to be finalised.
But beginning April 2016, we will have 4 or 5 projects where we will have a kind of synergy and ask the marketing people to do the P& A. We will make world class movies and take them to various markets abroad.
The last year, we had appointed a consultant for taking our films to Cannes Film Festival. This year we are going to the European film market at Berlinale.
We will be reaching out to various film festivals and markets which provide the platforms where the sales agents from the world converge. We can show them our product and if they are interested, take it ahead to the marketing section.

Vinta Nanda- So you have told us of your plans of reaching out to the children across the entire spectrum through the theatres and through all the possible mediums. I know that you have plans to reach out to children who are even out of this discourse- the children who don’t have access to theatres or any other mode of communication. Can you tell us a little about that?

Dr Shravan Kumar - You have raised a pertinent question. As you rightly said, we have already worked on our methodology for this.

CFSI has been carrying out a program of exhibiting films in Municipal schools from the time it began to as recently as the year 2007, where the charges were just a token amount of Rs 5 per child. After 2007, the films are being shown for free. However, despite this program we were not able to really connect to those who are interested in watching our films. For this program, we used to take the help of district authorities and then show the films to the people selected by these authorities.

Our aim now was to be like the multiplexes or theatrical shows where people go and buy a ticket to see the movie of their choice.

We felt that our program for the Municipal School should be such that any child sitting in any corner of the country should be able to see a film of his /her choice (rather than we just showing a particular film to them). I was trying to make the system really accessible to the children of the Municipal school sector as well as for those outside the school system, because much of the creativity lies there.

Also, not just film appreciation, but I would want the children to also participate in the filmmaking through the Little Directors program. To enable this, we have launched a mobile app on November 14, 2015 during the Film Festival at Hyderabad at the hands of Kareena Kapoor, who is also the brand ambassador of UNICEF.

Now for a minimum number of 25 persons/children in a school or a locality, a Self Help group can make a request and we will arrange for the movie to be shown at a theatre nearby. Alternatively, they can get our content on any other platform (for example LCD) and show it to their audience. Mobile technology has made it easy for content to be reached to the remotest corner without the need for much paraphernalia at the infrastructure available to them.

3G is available throughout most of the country and this way I am sure that the interiors of the country can be penetrated, and we can facilitate the generation of a creative revolution in every child, and we are able to make little directors out of them, once we expose them to the kind of content that relates to them.

We are making beautiful content after deliberations. Sometimes it takes 6 months to lock a script itself, with it going to and fro between the writer and the director.
We make movies in all our national languages. We encourage the emergence of innate stories that are lying within communities, so that these stories watched by that audience.

Vinta Nanda- Do you have plans to do short digital films? That way we can include a lot of young people in the process. Digital films are doing very well and these short 5 or 10 minute films can be made in multiple numbers. Is the CFSI planning something like that?

Dr Shravan Kumar- The idea behind Little Directors is where we encourage children to participate in films made on digital platforms. These films are mostly 2 to 10 minutes in duration each which we package and show, each package being of a half an hour duration.

Vinta Nanda- Anything episodic like TV Serials?

Dr Shravan Kumar- We have just commissioned a TV serial ‘Aalu Kachalu Beta Kahaan Gaye Thay. It is a jasoosi (investigative) serial, where every episode will be a different story. This will be telecast as a web series and also on satellite channels and other platforms, but primarily intended as a web series.
We have plans of making films of short duration by children which will be funded by us. To achieve this objective we have made the organization accept at the policy level, films made by children to qualify for grants under the head -production. So the short films made by children will be entitled to grants like other big filmmakers. This will serve as a great enabler.

Vinta Nanda- What would you like to say to industry of entertainment?

Dr Shravan Kumar- Whenever I have interacted with the entertainment industry I have seen that they are all interested in making content for children. Where they somehow become reluctant finally in executing is their inhibition to take risks because it is not yet an established practice, so the return on investments, they say, are not guaranteed.

But I can say that there is a research by an organization in Europe conducted over the last ten years which has done a survey of 10,000 films, which has concluded that children’s films give 5 times more return on investment than a film made for a general audience.

So this is my recommendation to them- Don’t be apprehensive about return on investment because that is the only thing that is inhibiting you. This research is well documented and available on the net.

If they will start making films for children that are liked by parents, then they will come in droves to see these films.

I ask them to come forward and start making films. CFSI is always available to partner, and to provide the enabling environment.

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