Part-3: How Yarlagadda ran Baahubali like a startup

This is the third and final installment 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 in Indian cinema by collecting over 1500 crore rupees (approx. $240M) worldwide.

Like starting a company, making a film is an inherently risky process. It is impossible to know the fate of the movie. All the ingredients for success can be present: a strong storyline, an ensemble of well-known actors, liberal advertising, and much-needed hype. However, one can never be sure if enough people will watch the film, to guarantee that the money invested in the movie will be repaid. The success of entrepreneurs is dependent on the way they manage and mitigate risk. Successful decision-makers continue to learn, adjust their goals and move forward no matter what challenges they encounter. “If you want to make a good film, you must trust your instincts, and work hard to make it happen. We knew that there were risks involved. But we wanted to go big or go home.”, explained Yarlagadda.

Managing risks like a pro: When it came to risk, Yarlagadda was a calculated risk taker. Yarlagadda had known S.S.Rajamouli for over ten years, much before they worked together on their first film together, Maryada Ramanna in 2010. While working on the movie, Yarlagadda and the director had become familiar with each other’s working styles and became friends. His familiarity with the director’s working style and commitment to the project helped Yarlagadda assess the likelihood of a good working relationship. Yarlagadda “prefers to work with people that he knows well.”

Entrepreneurs with high confidence perform well in stressful conditions. They believe that bigger challenges bring greater rewards and persistent effort increases the likelihood of success. They see little possibility for failure, choose courses of action that have a high probability of success, and avoid situations where they feel less in control. When others see risk, they sense an opportunity.  When others see roadblocks and failure, they see victory.

Yarlagadda was a confident entrepreneur who tackled several challenges over the course of 5 years that went into making the two-part film.

Lead Actor’s shoulder surgery: In early 2014, lead actor, Prabhas had to undergo shoulder surgery to repair a labral tear. This was right after the crew started shooting the film. Although the actor was reluctant to undergo surgery, he was left with no choice as leaving the tear unrepaired meant the possibility of a more severe damage to the shoulder given the various action and fight scenes that were required by the films. According to the actor “When Yarlagadda heard the news, neither did he fret or become flustered. In fact, he exhibited composure”. Producing Baahubali was the biggest risk that Yarlagadda had undertaken. The high-interest rates associated with financing the film increased the financial burden with every delayed day. When the actor explained his health issue, Yarlagadda asked the actor to “take care of his shoulder first and then return to the film” Prabhas underwent surgery and that caused a two-month delay to the project. Not having the lead actor for two months meant substantial monetary losses apart from dealing with the chaos of realigning all the filmmaking processes that had already been in place.

Film Workers Union Strike: The film unions called for a strike over proposed increase in wages in October 2014.  The team had already lost a few months earlier in the year due to lead actor’s surgery and couldn’t afford to lose more time. The other actors and technicians had already been scheduled and paid for. According to Yarlagadda “Getting them all back in place would have been a scheduling nightmare. A further delay in also meant an increased interest burden which was already very high.”

Yarlagadda decided to continue with shooting the film despite the strike. He was successful in hiring some of the crew from Ramoji Film City, where the film was being shot. These were un-unionized workers. Yarlagadda flew in workers from the Mumbai union. According to Yarlagadda “Some of our crew members, although they were union members, decided to come to work defying their union diktat. This was because they felt that the unions were being unreasonable to us as we had provided employment to them for over a year and we were very fair to them all along”. Yarlagadda continued negotiating with the union and proposed to pay the revised wages per their demands. He could convince the union to call off the strike and have them back at work on the sets.

Yarlagadda was able to conquer the rather untimely and expensive roadblock. When the strike was called for, many members of the union who had been working on the movie did not agree with the strike and came to work. Defying the union dictum was not an easy decision for the movie workers, who live off the per diem that they earn.

Requesting the producers of Srimanthudu to postpone the film’s release: The producers of yet another awaited film, Srimanthudu, starring superstar Mahesh Babu was getting ready for release. The movie was scheduled to come out on July 17, a week after Baahubali’s release on July 9. He met with the makers of Srimanthudu and convinced them to postpone the release of their movie to avoid a potential clash at the box office. The Srimanthudu team was satisfied of Yarlagadda’s intuition and decided to defer the release of their film. The film was released on August 7. Srimanthudu also performed extremely well at the box office.

Long-Term Focus: Yarlagadda’s vision for Baahubali was to create a franchise that would persist long after the audiences were done watching the film. After the success of Part 1, he was convinced that the storyline could be developed further to create other opportunities.

Through his company, Arka Media Works, Yarlagadda teamed up with several players to extend Baahubali’s franchise. By partnering with Graphic India, they released the graphic novel “Baahubali – Battle of The Bold” and the animation series “Baahubali – The Lost Legends.” Both the novel and the animation series focused on stories not shown in the two films. Arka teamed up next with AMD Radeon Technologies group to create “The Sword of Baahubali.” The virtual reality experience is set against the backdrop of the climax of “Baahubali 2 – The Conclusion”. The next partnership was with Westland Books and Graphic India to come up with a novel trilogy. By partnering with Moonfrog Labs, “Baahubali: The Game.”  was launched. Apart from these partnerships, the company came up with various Baahubali themed memorabilia for its fans. To keep Baahubali’s fanatic fans up to date, they launched the Baahubali mobile app.

While history suggests that a regional film cannot be compared to a typical Indian film in the context of film production, budget, viewership, or box office records. Yarlagadda has successfully defied this perception with the Baahubali movies by creating a Hollywood-style film. Beyond directing his efforts to the economic aspects of filmmaking, he entrenched himself in every aspect of the filmmaking process. From ideation to managing the film’s project plans. From building and motivating a team of experts to explore opportunities that enabled the creation of the Baahubali brand. Yarlagadda had an unwavering passion for bringing the best cinematic experience to the Indian crowds. And as Nolan Bushnell explains “A true entreprenuer is a doer not a dreamer.”


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Part-2: How Yarlagadda ran Baahubali like a startup

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