By Barbara Twist
Dear Producer sat down with Shrihari Sathe, winner of the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards Producers Award, and discussed the struggles of producing a Tibetan language film, how he raises money for non-English language projects, and how for six years he didn’t have an apartment and lived from festival to festival and market to market.
Much of your film work is international, what draws you to choose the films you work on?
I’m primarily drawn to the screenplay, the content, and the filmmaker’s vision. I don’t go out to seek a film from a particular country or a particular language. It’s mainly a director’s voice and what they want to tell about the current state of the human society. I’m also looking at films that are stories typically not being told in mainstream cinema or, in some cases, even in art house cinema.
Of my latest two films, one is an Arabic language film and the other is a Tibetan language film. They’re not very ‘popular’ movie-making languages. It was their underlying stories that I felt deserved a voice and deserved to be told. They were challenging because they took a long time to make.
Where are you building these connections for your international films? Are you finding contacts at festivals? Through recommendations?
It’s kind of broad. Between 2012 and 2016, I extensively traveled the film festival and market circuit. Almost every year I went to Rotterdam, Berlin, and Cannes. I went to Toronto a bunch of times as well and also to Busan in 2014. I used to go every year for about 7-8 years to a market in India called Film Bazaar, which is primarily focused on South Asian content. I go to Sundance whenever I have a project or a film there.
A lot of the people I’ve met, for the films that I’ve made, are through these markets or through the people I’ve met at these markets. I would say the film festival circuit was the starting point, definitely.
Would you recommend the festival circuit to up-and-coming producers even if they don’t have a project showing at that particular festival?
Definitely, yes. An emerging producer or someone who is starting out should definitely do a cost-benefit ratio. Certain festivals are extremely expensive. For instance, Cannes is very expensive. If you are not able to financially support yourself for that, maybe it’s not worth it to go to Cannes, go to Berlin instead. Berlin is a little cheaper, the flights are cheaper, it is cold, so people are actually working inside rather than only partying.
It’s very important to understand the cost-benefit ratio when going to festivals, but I highly recommend, even if you don’t have a film, trying to attend one or two of these festivals/markets. Even if you don’t go international, there are markets like IFP Film Week in New York, Film Independent Fast Track in Los Angeles or International Financing Forum in Toronto, which have a lot of international directors, producers, and programmers, so that’s a good place to attend.
I did the Film Independent Producing Lab way back in 2011 with MAN WITH A VAN, an English language feature film. It was my first time spending more than a few days in Los Angeles. I was paired with some great mentors and also got a chance to meet some other emerging producers through that. It was a nice little community — I’m still in regular contact with some of the people I met then. FiND has continued to support my work throughout the years. In 2012 we received a Dolby DCP grant through FiND for IT FELT LIKE LOVE. The staff at Film Independent has been part of my big film family for almost a decade now. It’s nice to come a full circle and receive the Film Independent Spirit Award this year. I’m very thankful for the award, the grant and their continued support.
Even if you don’t live in New York or Los Angeles, most people have friends here. You can crash with a friend or piggyback it on other meetings that one might have. Markets and festivals are very essential to finding collaborators or business opportunities in independent film.
One of the two projects you have out right now is THE SWEET REQUIEM, a Tibetan language film, which is not very common. How did you get involved with that project?
I met Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, who are the co-directors of THE SWEET REQUIEM, at Film Bazaar in Goa in India. That was in 2014. They sent me the script. I liked the idea.
It’s about a young girl who makes a treacherous journey from Tibet, escaping into India, through the Himalayas. The guide who takes them across the border betrays them. Fifteen years later, she runs into the guide who betrayed her, and all these memories of that traumatic escape flood back to her and she becomes obsessed with trying to find out why he abandoned her father and the rest of their party. The movie is a psychological drama. Ritu and Tenzing had made one fiction film before, a film called DREAMING LHASA, which premiered at Toronto 12 or 13 years ago. They’re primarily documentary filmmakers and have been working together for 30 plus years.
I really liked the two of them. I liked their vision for the script and I developed it with them, sending them notes. Tenzing was writing the script in English so I was able to really work with them on it while they rewrote over the next year.
I officially came on board to produce the film with them just before 2016 Berlinale. Ritu and Tenzing had only worked with each other before as producing partners so it was something new for them to work with a different person as a producing partner. It’s interesting to have that collaborative relationship with them. The two of them are so much in sync with each other that I really felt a part of their team.
We tried to raise money through traditional equity and granting. Ultimately, the film ended up being a U.S.-India co-production and we shot the film in Spring of last year. The film is set in Delhi and in Tibet. We shot in Delhi for Delhi and we shot in the Indian Himalayas for Tibet. Tenzing, who is of Tibetan heritage, speaks Tibetan fluently, and we did the casting in the Tibetan diaspora community in India as well as in the U.S.. We actually had two actors come from the US for the film, and one from Nepal. It’s entirely in Tibetan. All actors speak Tibetan, so it worked out pretty great.
What was the financing process like for this film? Do you find it different financing the international films you’ve done, versus the domestic films that you’ve done?
Yes. In the U.S., it’s very hard to finance a non-English language film, unless it’s maybe Spanish, which is okay. ‘Non-popular’ film languages are extremely difficult to get financing out of India because there’s no such traditional marketplace for them. Financiers don’t really have metrics to work in terms of recoupment or sales estimates. It is definitely challenging.
For THE SWEET REQUIEM, we raised some equity out of the U.S., some out of India, and a little bit out of the UK. We had a fiscal sponsor in the U.S. so we generated a lot of tax-deductible donations for the film. We got a small grant from the Sundance Institute and we had a couple of foundations who gave us grants that had worked with Ritu and Tenzing before.
That made up a bulk of the budget. Then we did the post-production in New York to take advantage of the New York State post-production tax credit. Most of our crew and cast worked for almost no money. It was really a challenge to put the financing together for the film. We also did a Kickstarter for the final post-production before we premiered in Toronto because we had a few more expenses that we had to meet.
The film premiered at Toronto, and had its U.S. premiere at Mill Valley Film Festival. And it’s continuing its successful journey to other parts of the world.
That’s really incredible. Especially since you have a second film out at the same time, MAFAK (SCREWRIVER), which is an Arab language film. How did you get involved with that project?
I met Bassam, who is the writer-director, at Columbia when we were both there. Bassam was in my class, and I graduated in 2009, Bassam graduated in 2010. Soon after he graduated, we started working on this project. From the initial treatment stage to premiere was eight years on this film. It really took a long time, it’s the longest I have worked on any film. Bassam started working on the screenplay and we went through a few drafts and then we realized that he had to write from an insider’s perspective. He did the Rawi Screenwriters’ Lab in Jordan, and then moved back to Palestine, to Ramallah, to work on the screenplay. The script started changing because he was able to do a lot of research and do a lot of interviews within his community.
The writing process for him became a lot more from within, whereas earlier when he was writing in the U.S., it was very much an outsider’s perspective. I think him moving there really helped change the script, the story, and the characters in a lot of ways. The project over the years has been supported by many organizations, including the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture.
I also did the Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellowship with this project back in 2013. That same year Bassam and I presented the project at Film Independent Fast Track which really opened doors for us in Los Angeles and helped build up the project’s profile. We received a production grant from the Doha Film Institute (2015) and a Kenneth Rainin post-production grant from the San Francisco Film Society (2018). It was presented at the New Cinema Network, which is now the MIA Market in Rome. We received some small grants from Sundance while we were in post as well. It took a while. We received our first major production grant from the Doha Film Institute in 2015 during Cannes, and then we shot the film in Fall 2017, premiered 10 months later in Venice, followed by Toronto as the Discovery Closing Night film.
And all the post for that film was also done in New York for the tax credit.
Besides all of the grants and lab support, how else was the financing structured? Did you have private investment for this film?
Yes, we had equity out of Palestine, Kuwait, and the U.S.. The rest of it was grants and the tax credit out of New York.
Was the equity easier to raise for this film than for the Tibetan language film?
It was a little easier but still challenging because the subject matter of the film itself is very challenging.
Since you’ve produced both English-language and non-English language films, what differences do you see in the distribution process between the two?
With IT FELT LIKE LOVE and A WOMAN A PART, both English language films, it was definitely a little better, particularly because I’m based in New York, which is a market I know better. IT FELT LIKE LOVE was self-released theatrically in partnership with Variance and Kino Lorber distributed digitally and BluRay/DVD. A WOMAN A PART was released by Strand Releasing and is available on Showtime and Netflix.
In general, American, English language films are much more available than non-English language films, which is quite unfortunate because audiences are wanting films about their own culture and/or in their own language. With MAFAK (SCREWDRIVER) and THE SWEET REQUIEM, I’m hoping that the films do get distribution either in the U.S. or internationally. We are still working to get the film out there because they just premiered.
I agree very much that audiences want to watch films in other languages, that they want films representing themselves. Where do you see the roadblocks in getting these films in front of audiences? Festival programming? Distributors? Exhibitors?
It’s firmly distributors because I think distributors have a particular taste, a genre of films that they cater towards and anything that is beyond what they’re used to is challenging for them and they don’t want to throw their weight behind it. Unless you as the filmmaker are generating that outreach to get that audience into the cinema, a distributor is very unlikely to do that. And you have exhibitors who are afraid of showing films that are on Netflix or Amazon Prime, which is often where most independent, non-English language films end up. Or at least, they used to. Netflix is greatly reducing the amount of independent films they are buying in favor of original content.
I think we have to take a page from documentary filmmakers in terms of outreach. For some reason, documentary filmmakers and documentary subjects are able to create good outreach with their films either doing direct distribution or partnering with the distributor to use their booking services. I think the kind of films that I’m doing can benefit from that approach because they discuss social issues as the underlying themes of the film. That’s an approach that I’m considering if I can raise enough P&A money to do a theatrical self-release.
Do you see a gap in funding for something like P&A? Is that an area that would benefit from increased funding in grants and private equity?
Yes, for sure. Sundance is working on it with their Creative Distribution Fellowship. They did it with two films in 2017 and another couple this past year, including THUNDER ROAD. Distributing yourself, the numbers are still complicated and challenging in terms of making it profitable, but I think Sundance has taken a really great step to empower filmmakers. Then again, a fair amount of filmmakers would rather get a distributor because it is a lot of work to distribute the film.
Right. And you want to go on and make your next movie. [laughs]
Exactly. Distributors are definitely necessary, but for filmmakers who want to take the reins in their own hands and do distribution to reach the targeted audience, I think Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship is pretty amazing, and I hope some other organizations join in to help filmmakers release their films in the American market.
I’m excited about it and I loved reading the report last year. I’m looking forward to reading the one about THUNDER ROAD – Jim Cummings is a tour de force. What has your experience been like with self-distribution?
We had a little bit of experience doing direct distribution with IT FELT LIKE LOVE, but that was in partnership with Variance who mostly handled everything. I distributed a film called DUKHTAR, which I co-produced, in the U.S. and Canada. I called the theaters, the programmers, and I booked the film myself. Between the two countries we were able to release it in over 20 cities.
It was three and a half months of work for me, full-time, just getting this film ready and booking and coordinating DCP traffic and posters and publicity. It was a lot of work. That’s when I realized that there is an audience for these kinds of films. It’s just that it is a fair amount of work to do the deeper outreach and a lot of distributors don’t have the bandwidth to be able to do it.
Absolutely. I think that’s a really good point that you make about the connection you have as a filmmaker directly with your audience. When you’re not involved, it’s mediated through the distributor and you’re just looking at box office numbers. It makes such a difference to hear from the actual audiences (and not just your peers) who are seeing the film, who paid for a ticket, and what they liked about the film.
We get messages on Facebook and on Twitter from people who have seen the films on Netflix, Kanopy, or on DVD, which is pretty amazing. Some of these movies were released three or four years ago. I’m always happy. I make it a point to respond. I say, “Hey, thanks for checking it out. Please rate it on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes.” You’re just slowly building a fanbase in some ways. A lot of filmmakers who do that engage with audiences either in-person or on social media. They’re really building a fanbase for themselves and the kind of films that they’re making.
What are you working on right now and what are your projects on the horizon?
Currently, I’m selling both MAFAK (SCREWDRIVER) and THE SWEET REQUIEM. We decided not to bring on sales agents because the deals were not very favorable. We’ve been booking the festivals ourselves, which is turning out great. The sales side of things is picking up a little bit now. Primarily, I’m focused on licensing the film to distributors in different territories, which is taking a fair amount of my time at the moment.
In terms of other projects, I have quite a few things in the works. I’m in post-production on a film called SLOW MACHINE, which is an English language film that was filmed in New York over a period of about two years. It’s the directorial debut of two filmmakers, Paul Felten and Joe DeNardo. We are in the final stages of the edit. I’m developing a TV series with Afia Nathaniel, with whom I made DUKHTAR; it’s a dramatic thriller set in New York called WATCHED. We presented WATCHED as part of the IFP Film Week during the IFP market in September. We are beginning to put our package together to pitch the series.
I’m developing a feature film with Lana Wilson, director of THE DEPARTURE; it’s her first fiction film called BACK SEAT. We received the Westridge Grant out of San Francisco Film Society last year. That helped with the development of it. I have another project, an Arabic language film called DOHA – THE RISING SUN with a writer/director named Eimi Imanishi. Eimi participated in the 2018 Film Independent Directing lab and later on was also invited to the Sundance Institute Screenwriting and Directing Labs. We’re looking to shoot later this year. It’s a few different genres, different countries, and different languages. And I’m in late development for my own second and third film that I want to direct, hopefully next year.
Are you always this busy?
I like to keep it varied because some projects take a while. If I had decided to work only on MAFAK (SCREWDRIVER) eight years ago, I would have made one movie, but I made 12+ movies [chuckles] in between. I do like to have projects in different stages, in different genres, maybe in different languages. I haven’t lead produced a movie in the U.S. since A WOMAN A PART, so I’m just starting to get back into the U.S. English language side of things for next year along with my international projects. Also, I’m very interested in TV and starting to get into that space a little bit.
What’s in your producer’s tool kit? What tools make you feel like a producer?
I feel like a producer when I open my eyes every morning. I mean if I’m not producing film stuff, I’m producing something else. I’m producing my daily routine. In terms of tool kits, I use Gmail, I use Google spreadsheets and calendar. A lot of it is just memory, just remembering things or making notes to follow up with people without being too annoying in emails. It’s primarily just email-driven. I use this plug-in on Google Chrome called Streak, which basically reminds me to follow up with someone if I haven’t heard from them in a while. You can snooze an email and if you haven’t heard from them, it comes to the top of your inbox on a particular date that you choose. It’s a good reminder system.
And my favorite question: what is your morning routine?
How I start my day? I used to have my ringer on. Since the beginning of last year, I turn off all my notifications and turn my ringer off, so when I’m sleeping, I’m actually sleeping deeply with no electronic interruptions. The first thing I do when I wake up, after I brush my teeth, I check my phone for any emails and messages. If there is something very, very urgent, I respond immediately. Otherwise, once I’ve had my coffee or tea in the morning, I sit in front of my machine.
I wish I had the patience to sit down for breakfast, I just don’t. A lot of times, I used to forget to eat lunch even. Now, I’m making it a point to have at least two meals a day. I eat breakfast when I’m staying at a hotel. I would say almost every time I’m staying at a hotel I eat breakfast.
Well, because usually it’s complimentary. You’ve got take advantage of that. [laughs]
Right, exactly. [laughs] For six years I didn’t have an apartment in New York. I lived from festival to festival, market to market, and then in between I would sublet an apartment in New York or stay with my parents in India. I paid almost no rent between 2010 and 2016. I had an office. I kept my office in Dumbo and whenever I was traveling, I would put my stuff in my office and travel and just live out of two suitcases.
After six years I got burned out. Now, I live in an apartment, I have my things, I have possessions. It was great, though, because I was able to save. Whatever money I was spending on airfare and registration fees or hotels was coming out of my rent that I was not paying because I was on the road. I had films that were on the festival circuit as well. I was able to get the festivals to sponsor my airfare or hotel on most of the cases.
I think between 2014 and 2015, I clocked over 120,000 miles in each of those years just traveling and building my roster. I really took advantage of that, but that also meant that I still haven’t directed my second film and it’s been five years since my first film. I got busy just producing and traveling. I met a writer recently who house-sits, professional house sitting, and hasn’t paid rent in a whole year.
It’s possible, it’s just that it’s a different mindset and you have to be prepared for that. I had prepared myself when I got into it, “I’m getting rid of everything, consolidating as much as possible and then just living this nomadic lifestyle at least for a little bit.” It’s important for producers to find a good work-life balance. I’m beginning to find mine.
Shrihari Sathe is a New York and Mumbai-based director and producer. Sathe most recently won the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Award – Producers Award. He produced Jaron Henrie-McCrea’s Pervertigo, which world-premiered at the 2012 Warsaw and Mumbai film festivals and was a part of the 2011 IFP Independent Filmmaker Labs. Sathe’s follow up production, Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, premiered at 2013 Sundance Film Festival and 2013 International Film Festival Rotterdam to great reviews.
Sathe is a 2011 Film Independent Producing Lab fellow and a 2013 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow. He has received fellowships from the HFPA, PGA, IFP, Film Independent and The Sundance Institute to name a few. He is a Film Independent Spirit Award (2015) nominee and a Gotham Award nominee (2014). In 2016, Sathe received the Cinereach Producer Award.
Sathe is a Trans Atlantic Partners Fellow (2013) and Cannes Producer’s Network Fellow (2014, 2015, 2016). He co-produced Partho Sen-gupta’s Arunoday (Sunrise), which premiered at the 2014 Busan International Film Festival, and Afia Nathaniel’s Dukhtar (Daughter), which premiered at 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and was Pakistan’s Official Submission for Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards®. Sathe’s feature directorial debut – Ek Hazarachi Note (1000 Rupee Note) – won the Special Jury Award and Centenary Award for Best Film at the 2014 International Film Festival of India and has received over 30 awards. Sathe produced Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, a Part which world-premiered at the 2016 International Film Festival Rotterdam and co-produced Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, a 2018 Sundance Film Festival award winner, Anthony Onah’s The Price which world-premiered at SXSW in 2017 and Michael Tully’s Don’t Leave Home which world premiered at SXSW in 2018. His latest productions are Bassam Jarbawi’s Screwdriver (Mafak), which premiered at Giornate Degli Autori in Venice, and Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem, which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor and Senior Production Advisor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America (PGA), Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPPA) and Screenwriters Association – India (SWA).