Part-1: How Yarlagadda ran Baahubali like a startup

This is the first part of a three-part series that examines how Shobu Yarlagadda followed an entrepreneurial template to produce Baahubali, a two-part film franchise that is continuing to shatter box-office records worldwide.  Merely three weeks after its release, Baahubali: The Conclusion created history by collecting over 1500 crore rupees (approx. $240M) worldwide.

Why did Katappa kill Baahubali? – The question has anguished millions of crazy Indian cinephiles for the last two years. The internet became flooded with theories that attempted to explain the reasoning behind Amarendra Baahubali’s murder. We scratched our heads, came up with our versions of “this is why..”. The popularity of the question earned itself the hashtag “#WDKKB.” Why would a film forgo the expected formulaic happy ending for a cliffhanger?

Baahubali is a trendsetter in many respects. For one, it had a strong storyline that was complemented by Rajamouli’s knack for storytelling with éclat. Instead of relying solely on performances, the story shines through the breathtaking visuals. These visuals are vital to position the tale in its intended perspective. Then, some compelling performances encouraged the viewers to affiliate emotions of love and hate for these characters. The movie relied on the socio-cultural component that highlighted the struggle between the good and the evil. There were also some melodic songs that completed the inventory of ingredients that is required for an Indian film.

Behind the film’s success stood an ensemble of actors and technical experts that represented the best talent in the industry. And the most critical part that remains intangible to the outside world is how flawlessly this two-film franchise was managed and executed over a period of some five odd years.

In the movie world, the director is often portrayed as the demigod while the producer doesn’t enjoy any powwow. A common perception of a producer’s role in the filmmaking process is the one that concerns mainly with the economic aspects of the filmmaking process. They are understood to be the ones who take up the risk of financing the film potentially to reap the rewards of its success. As explained by Bordwell and Thompson in 1977, the distribution of work on a movie project is thought to be the director, who is responsible for the creation portion of the undertaking, while the producer is concerned with the administration and finances.

But here, we have the story of an entrepreneur who stepped beyond the role of a producer to become an entrepreneur. This entrepreneur managed the movie franchise as a startup that’s been created to solve a problem in the market.

1. Identify an “unmet” need in the market: The transportation system operated as an unreliable and sometimes unsafe system until 2011. Taxis are expensive by design and the lack of an efficient public transportation system in cities such as Los Angeles made commutes expensive and hassled. Uber identified the need for a transportation system that enabled residents to get from point A to point B quickly, safely, and cheaply at the press of a button. This made riding cheaper for customers and drivers were able to work when they wanted. Many were able to create a source of secondary income by becoming Uber drivers. Just as riders and drivers have benefited, so have cities: local businesses in outlying neighborhoods are newly accessible enabling more businesses to blossom and thrive.

The primary reason new products and services are launched is when a gap is discovered in the market. This difference relates to a segment of users in the market who have a “need” that is waiting to be fulfilled. Although the context here is movies, the same rule applies.

Historically, Telugu audiences had been fed films that comprised of a liberal dose of romance, comic trappings, and heroics. Visually stimulating film franchises such as The Hunger Games were drawing huge crowds in India and were enjoying popularity in the metropolitan cities. Yarlagadda was convinced that a culturally-themed storyline built with Hollywood-style visual effects would find a fan base in the urban as well as rural parts of India.

2. Do your homework: As Edison pointed out “Ideas without execution are hallucinations.” And without a strategy, execution is aimless. Take the case of Siri, the intelligent voice assistant that enables iPhone users to perform basic phone actions that include calling friends, fetching the current weather information, and setting alarms apart from answering silly questions that its users pose from time to time.

Siri started out as a research project and remained in stealth mode for a long time. This was because Siri was based on some cutting-edge technologies such as natural language processing(NLP) and conversational dialog. It took the team two years to transition from the initial prototype to something that was ready to deploy and scale. The team believed that their product was going to create a new category of products and hence invested the time to ensure product robustness. A few weeks after they launched, Steve Jobs called the Siri office, and the rest is history.

Yarlagadda decided to invest a whole year exclusively to develop the strategy to execute Rajamouli’s vision. To translate Rajamouli’s grand vision into reality, the team engaged in extensive storyboarding with every minute detail carefully reasoned out and visualized. According to Yarlagadda, “Our vision was to create a brand called Baahubali- one that transgressed beyond the films.” The team studied several successful franchises such as Hunger Games and Game of Thrones and explored transmedia storytelling to make the product more robust and appealing.

3. Develop the solution: In the summer of 2008, there was a design conference in San Francisco, and hence a hotel shortage. Three roommates needed to make rent and thought a good way to make a little additional cash would be to rent out the air mattresses in the apartment. One of the roommates, Nathan Blecharczyk, had strong technical skills and the other roommate Joe Gebbia had creative design skills. So, they made a website and listed their air mattress. They got an incredible amount of responses and realized that they could be on to something. This something is Airbnb as we know today.

Yarlagadda and Rajamouli were family friends. They had collaborated on a film several years ago and enjoyed a good working relationship. Rajamouli was looking for a producer who would help him execute his grand vision, and Yarlagadda was looking for a story that would “patch” the gap in the market. According to Yarlagadda, “I’ve known Rajamouli way before our professional association began. When he did Maryada Ramanna for us, we struck a good rapport and became family friends. After Maryada Ramanna, he was to do a project for Raghavendra Rao. Since Rao didn’t want to handle it on his own, given the scale, we stepped in.”

In the next part of this series, we will explore how Yarlagadda was able to create a team out of accomplished subject matter experts and how he was able to leverage emotional intelligence to motivate, inspire, and help the team achieve the glory that we see today .



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