Stratum's Reputation, Already Strong, Grows Brighter by Anthony Vagnoni 3 April, 2012
Stratum Films has worked with shops like Smuggler, MJZ and Hungry Man. Now it's looking to join their ranks as one of the industry's best known brands.
If you can't find the right people to execute your vision, sometimes you just have to do it yourself. From this simple observation sprang the beginnings of India's Stratum Films, the Mumbai production house founded by AvinashShankar that occupies the unique turf of being both an independent production house and a company that shares joint ownership with Indian ad agency, Blank Slate.
In its former role, it produces top Indian TVCs for a roster of global brands and agencies, working with a team of Indian directors as well as some of the best-known international directors like Tarsem. It also handles high-profile, big-budget production service jobs for a veritable who's who of production houses in the US, the UK, Europe and beyond.
In the process, Stratum has developed an insider's reputation for being one of the "go to" shops in India, according to a top American EP. As we'll see, their reputation is poised to expand, just as the Indian ad industry is set to widen its reach beyond its own shores.
Stratum was established in 2002 by Shankar and his wife, Brinda, who are partners in the agency Blank Slate AdComPvt. Ltd. Its origins have an almost pre-determined quality to them. Shankar had never worked in production before he opened Stratum's doors, but as an agency owner, he'd worked with many production houses. "We had some projects of our own that we needed to shoot," he explains. "They were celebrity-driven and had to be shot overseas, because of the celebrities' locations."
Shankar was unsatisfied with the production solutions he was getting in India, so he took matters into his own hands. "I hopped on a plane and said, 'I'm going to find people I can do these films with.' And we ended up putting the productions together ourselves." Shankar says those spots turned heads, and as a result they started fielding calls from other clients asking if they could provide them with the same kinds of productions.
"We used to just refer them to others, but eventually it just became too time consuming," he says. "We thought, 'If clients want us to be involved in this, then we should do it professionally.' And from there it just took on a life of its own. We felt it was just meant to be."
Shankar still runs Blank Slate, which counts as its clients the Business Standard, an Indian business newspaper. His background having a foot in both worlds - working directly with clients at his agency and working directly with agencies at his production company - has given him a unique insight into the industry. "It's helped quite a bit," he admits. "We know how agencies think. It makes a difference."
When working on original productions for agency clients, Stratum taps a range of directorial talent, including native Indian directors, many of whom are major Bollywood feature film talents. Their roster includes AshutoshGowariker, who's been nominated for an Academy Award, and Sanjay LeelaBhansali, who was nominated for a BAFTA award in the UK. "But we've also worked with many international directors on projects for Indian agencies," Shankar adds. "For example, we got Tarsem to shoot his first commercial for an Indian client back in 2004."
Shankar turned to international talents to fill the gaps when his Indian feature directors were shooting movies. It's helped that his production service work has opened doors for many directorial relationships. But he also understands the specific needs of the Indian marketplace when it comes to foreign directors. "There are certain categories where Indian agencies and clients look for international talents," he points out. "Hair and beauty is one, for example, as is automotive, things like that." It's typically the kind of work that involves lots of high-end visual effects and CGI, he adds.
What sets Stratum apart from other production companies, Shankar says, is not just his background as an agency professional, but also their attention and their even-tempered, "can do" approach. "Another thing is our transparency," Shankar says, "which has helped us to work with the biggest names in the business." When he says big names, he's not kidding. Stratum's production service clients can be found in Europe, Asia and the Americas. The list includes MJZ, Smuggler, Hungry Man, @radical.media, Gorgeous, Tomboy, Velocity and many others.
"Our production service business has grown a fair bit in recent years," says Shankar, noting that it now represents about forty percent of their overall volume. Recent projects include spots for Canon with Paragon out of Japan, Cobra Beer via Somesuch & Co. in the UK and several US jobs, including spots for Sony and Biscuit Filmworks and DuPont and Prologue Films. The company is also represented by Global Production Network, a consortium of international production houses run out of L.A. by producer Harry Tracosas.
Much of their production service work has been via word of mouth, Shankar says, and Kevin Byrne, Managing Partner and EP at Hungry Man in New York, backs him up. "I first heard about Avinash from associates in the business who said that if you ever need production in India, he's the one to contact," Byrne says. "After years of talking with him I finally got a project that needed to be filmed in India, and we bid it through Avinash. He was knowledgeable, professional and kind, and while that project didn't pan out, I knew we had our 'go to' guy."
On a trip to New York a few years ago, Shankar swung by the Hungry Man offices to meet with Byrne. "At the time, we hoped that we could work together soon," Byrne recalls. "A few months later, our director Bryan Buckley got an American Express board that featured Conan O'Brien in India. At last the opportunity to work with Avinash came to fruition."
The spot, titled "Curtain," was well-received in the US and generated quite a bit of publicity, given that O'Brien had just left his hosting job on "The Tonight Show" and was planning his TV comeback on a new network. It features the lanky comedian on a search throughout India for just the right fabric and dye to make the curtain for his new TV show studio.
Byrne's reflection on the experience is flattering. He rates Stratum's production service work "as good as any production company in any part of the world - great crew, equipment, locations, nothing was a problem. And Avinash's calm demeanor certainly set the tone for a successful shoot."
His overall impressions of working in India are similar. "We had a great experience shooting there. Naturally the texture and locations cannot be copied easily and cheaply, so if you require an India backdrop, it can't be beat for the money."
Byrne is not alone in his feelings about the company. "Stratum was recommended to MJZ a number of years ago by another US production company that had worked with him in the past and found it to be a great experience," say MJZ Producer Janet Nowosad. The global production powerhouse has worked on two jobs with Stratum, a Tanqueray campaign directed by Tom Kuntz and more recently a spot for Mahindra which was shot last year.
Nowosad's impression of Stratum is highly positive. "They were very professional in all aspects of production, and available to work with and revise the bids during the bidding process," she says. "They were also straightforward as to the production possibilities in India regarding the variety of talent, locations and time frames necessary to produce the job. The crew is excellent."
MJZ Line Producer Laurie Boccaccio, who produced the recent Mahindra job, says that her first impression of shooting in India "was excitement, quickly followed by a lot of questions that needed answers. Avinash is a very understanding producer who never lost patience with me."
She found the overall experience moving. "India is one of the most beautiful countries I've ever had the privilege to travel to for a job," she remarks. "The people, the country, the textures and colors are amazing. Avinash and his company made us feel welcome and took care of all the details. India has an experienced crew and incredible locations to offer."
As comments like these might suggest, one of the biggest changes Shankar and the Stratum team have seen in their ten years in business has been how many more people are now interested in working in India. And while this is a welcome shift, it's not without its challenges, most of which are cultural issues, he says.
"It's as if I went to the United States and tried to shoot something," Shankar notes. "It's a different country, a different culture and a different style of working. Ours is one of the biggest film industries in the world, and has been for many years. And we have our own style of doing things. So if you're willing to embrace that and go with the flow, you can have a great production here in India.
"But if you expect that everything is going to go the way it goes in the West, obviously that's not going to happen," Shankar continues. "It's a question of how you approach it. There have been people who've loved the experience of working here and have embraced the chaos, and they keep coming back. It's really about the individual."
Would Stratum be interested in expanding beyond India? In some respects, it already is. "We're looking at working with agencies and clients from across the globe," Shankar says. "In fact, we are currently bidding on projects from three different countries." And while they already have several co-representation deals in place with foreign production houses, Shankar says that any efforts to establish a full-time presence for Stratum outside of India don't seem necessary just yet.
"The way I look at it, I wouldn't try to open an office without being fully prepared to go through the whole grind," he comments. "There's a lot you can do these days with communication being what it is; you can easily put together a production from a remote location without necessarily having to be there. You just need to work through the right processes. I would do that (expand) once there's significant merit in doing it." He knows what it takes to make a foreign office succeed. "It's not just the work," he notes. "That will come. It's more about setting up all the agreements you need to work in a given space. You either do it right, or you don't do it."
For now, he's satisfied with continuing to build on Stratum's current relationships with agencies, clients, directors and production companies, while working to expand the reputation of the shop on a more global level. "We're pretty well known here now, because of the kinds of companies that work with us," he says, "but of course, you always want to be better known in this industry and to have a higher profile.
"We'd really like to be known as the guys who do good work," he concludes. "It doesn't matter how many people know us, as long as the people who matter know us."