The popular producer talks about the lessons he’s learnt in the film business, developing detachment over the fate of a project and the USP of Agent
Last Updated: 03.37 PM, Apr 26, 2023
With enough experience as an entrepreneur, distributor and handling nearly 30 films as a producer for over 12 years, Anil Sunkara is a natural with business and he inherits his leadership qualities from his father. Now, he’s clearing all the decks to ensure that the most ambitious project in his career, Akhil Akkineni’s spy thriller Agent, releases without any hassles this Friday.
Squeezing time while he supervises its post-production and the promotional activities of Agent, Anil Sunkara converses with OTTplay.com.
As a businessman, isn’t it chaotic to handle something as structured as the corporate sector and as disorganised as the film trade?
I enjoy both businesses equally and I don’t view that as a problem. Whenever I deal with my software company, I detach myself from other businesses and function accordingly. Similarly, on a day when I only focus on a film’s business prospects, I can’t think about the corporate sector. I however don’t have a specific interest in software or computer science.
I’m an electronics student. When I noticed there were more opportunities in the software space, I migrated. I belong to a business family (it runs in the genes); I did my MS and pursued my MBA later. I took the job only for one and a half years and entered the business early; we created a niche for ourselves and it expanded with time.
As someone who is into the industry for a long time, does a common man’s focus on the box office/business prospects of a film amuse you? He/she doesn’t get anything out of it anyway...
When Narendra Modi wins an election with a certain majority, wouldn’t you be interested to know the official figures? Of course, yes. Numbers matter, create an element of curiosity and you can’t ignore that. When a film makes big money on day one, it’s an indication that it is good and convinces a viewer to watch it. The box office competition motivates you to work harder as a team.
It was Dookudu that helped me understand the importance of numbers. A film that released in 2011 before Dookudu ran a campaign around the box office alone. They released the numbers for the first day and the next day, it collected better. When we analysed it, we felt Dookudu could do such numbers too, given it released in the highest number of theatres for a Telugu film then. Hence we planned a campaign around the day-wise collections and it worked well for us.
So, butterflies in the stomach two days before the release of Agent?
I’m equally excited and nervous; of course, there’s pressure. However, it’s not about the result but the stress to wrap up formalities and release as per schedule. Since the last month, the entire team has been burning midnight oil, working tirelessly and it’s taking a lot out of us. Agent is a special film because of its scale, the surreal locations amidst which it was shot.
Was it physically/mentally taxing as a producer too?
It’s not easy to pull off a spy thriller, unlike a regular commercial film. It’s filmed mostly in exteriors and it’s a genre where a few mistakes can be forgiven/corrected during post-production. Nearly every sequence has CG work. We’ve spent for the film as per the content and not market norms. The barriers between industries no longer exist and we’re confident of recovering our investment.
How do you decide the scale/canvas of a film generally? Wouldn’t you want to make films where the story takes precedence over the hero too?
When we hear a story, we think of who’s the best possible hero for it and plan our budgets accordingly. Much like Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, we too are making story-driven films that are not solely dependent on a hero. We want to head in that direction but when a good hero gives us callsheets, we can’t say no. It’s a safe bet for us ultimately.
What makes Agent special?
This is an out-and-out action film and the story is its USP. The plot revolves around three agents and the emotions are equally strong. Akhil plays a funny spy and he has a ball when he’s on a mission. Agent is a story with a universal appeal but to promote it as a pan-Indian film, we need to wrap up the shoot three-four months earlier. We plan to focus on the Telugu market now and promote it in other languages a week later.
Isn’t it challenging to make a spy thriller like Agent, a space where there’ll be constant comparison with Western equivalents?
As a producer, I’m a happy man because we’ve achieved what we set out to do with the film - Akhil’s career will be discussed before and after Agent. If they compare it with Hollywood films like James Bond, I’ll take it in my stride. If audiences feel Agent has the appeal of a film from the West, it’s a morale booster for us. It’ll be a great theatrical experience.
For Agent, you’ve tied up with the director Surender Reddy for the production. You are one of the rarest producers in Telugu cinema who’s open to collaborations with banners. How do you make it work?
In my case, I ensure everything is concrete. Only one person deals with the business. When a partner wants to handle the day-to-day matters and the finances, I don’t interfere with them at all and find it more relieving that they’re handling the responsibility. I’ll have lesser problems to deal with. I’ve had pleasant associations with most production houses to date.
Is there a reason why you sold the film’s rights to a single distributor alone? Couldn’t you have distributed it yourself?
When I decide to distribute a film myself, there are too many last-minute formalities, calls to make and there’s a lot of coordination involved. When you sell the distribution rights to someone, you’re freed from the stress and can focus on the content instead. You need to view this as a business and hope until the last minute that the move will pay off.
Also read: Agent Trailer: The Mammootty, Akhil starrer is stylish, has rich visuals and top class action
On Akhil Akkineni jumping off a 150-feet building for a promotional event:
Akhil deserves full credit for that. Personally, I wasn’t in favour of the idea and wanted to organise the event in Hyderabad where it can be performed under the supervision of stunt choreographers. He was particular that Vijayawada will be an unconventional venue for the feat; the film will showcase many such stunts on the big screen too.
Was it nerve-wracking to handle Surender Reddy’s hospitalisation in Budapest?
I wasn’t at the shoot location. Only when I spoke to him after the hospitalisation, did I understand the gravity of the situation. There are only government hospitals in the location he’d stayed in Budapest and people were dying, vanishing into thin air around him. He was mentally disturbed imagining his plight and overcame it with courage.
While you were busy with several projects as a producer, what was it like to be a director and take creative control of a project (Action 3D) some time ago?
I was very happy to be taking creative control. It’s the best thing that can happen because you have nothing else to worry about. In a creative position, you generally don’t worry about the budgets and the numbers. However, in my position as a director-producer, it was a different challenge - I focused on the film while starting the shoot on a working day but the numbers came back to haunt me by the end of the day.
In a film world where you taste more failures than successes, how do you develop detachment?
We always think our product is the best and when it goes to the people, it’s their choice. Luckily, the first four movies I produced were hits - Bindaas, Dookudu, Aha Naa Pellanta and Namo Venkatesa. However, you tend to get overconfident when you taste success and believe audiences will watch anything you make. Then, you end up making something like Action 3D.
When I look back at it, I wonder what was the necessity to make it in 3D. However, back then, I thought it’ll expand our business prospects but ultimately only 15 theatres could showcase it in 3D. In other cases where you are confident of the product and still, the film doesn’t do well, you realise the importance of timing and that you can’t control its fate.
Kirrak Party (the remake of the Kannada hit Kirrik Party) was a movie that I believed in, it opened very well in the US. However, it wasn’t an ideal time to release it in India owing to clashes with the college exams; the students were our target audience. It was a good film though it didn’t do as well as expected. You learn from these mistakes.
Any plans to direct a film again?
I want to direct a spy film too. It’s the same reason I registered the title ‘Agent’ five years ago. I was surprised to know that Agent was one of the titles Surender had also suggested for the film and he didn’t know I’d already registered it earlier.