Writer/Director: Matthew Brown
Producers: Matthew Brown, Jon Katz, Edward R. Pressman, Sofia Sondervan, Joe Thomas, Jim Young
Budget: Under $10 million
Financing: Private Equity/Bank Debt Finance/Grant
Production: 28 days in England and 10 days in India, Summer of 2014
Shooting Format: ARRI Alexa
Screening Format: DCP
World Premiere: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival
Distributor: IFC Films
Awards: 2008, Film Independent: Producer’s Grant; 2015, Tribeca Film Institute: Filmmaker Fund: Production Award
Colonial India, 1913. Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a 25-year-old shipping clerk and self-taught genius, who failed out of college due to his near-obsessive, solitary study of mathematics. Determined to pursue his passion despite rejection and derision from his peers, Ramanujan writes a letter to G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), an eminent British mathematics professor at Trinity College, Cambridge. Hardy recognises the originality and brilliance of Ramanujan’s raw talent and despite the scepticism of his colleagues, undertakes bringing him to Cambridge so that his theories can be explored.
Development and Financing
Matt Brown and Jim Young were working on a movie together when Brown discovered the book The Man Who Knew Infinity, a biography about a groundbreaking Indian mathematician. He was so taken with the story that he gathered Young, and previous collaborators/producers Sofia Sondervan and Ed Pressman, to discuss adapting the book into a film. Everyone was on board, they optioned the book, and Brown wrote the first draft in 2005.
Thanks to Pressman’s vast experience and connections, he was integral in gathering actors, agents, banks, and financiers to help get the movie off the ground. “Everybody’s in his rolodex at this point,” says Young. “That’s a very valuable partner to have.”
The Man Who Knew Infinity was one of the first projects Young had ever produced after graduating from NYU and moving to Los Angeles. And it was a unique challenge from the start. The story revolves around an Indian mathematician protagonist who does not speak Hindi or Tamil, so it wasn’t practical to draw from the rich Bollywood pool. Plus, they were essentially a UK production, but they had an American director, so it was difficult to find a country that would naturally champion the film. According to Young, Indian financiers often asked if they could put a few song and dance numbers into the film to make it more relevant for an Indian audience, but this was clearly not an option. Others asked if they could change the love interest from an Indian arranged marriage to a chance encounter with a white British nurse. Needless to say, Young recalls, “We kissed a lot of frogs on this movie before we finally got it made.”
In 2008, Young participated in Film Independent’s Producing Lab with The Man Who Knew Infinity. He’s grateful for the experience, the ability to build his contacts, and develop a support network while he continued to prep this film and work on many others simultaneously.
During the search for financing, the filmmakers initially met with investors in India, Abu Dhabi, and the UK. Many people would get close to financing the film, even having signed contracts, but ultimately the money would fall through. Young says that happened with three different investors in the years and months and even weeks leading up to production. A group out of India was going to finance the entire film themselves. They were extremely easy to work with, they signed all of the necessary contracts, but ended up pulling out in early 2014, three months before they were set to shoot.
Pressman went back to his Rolodex and looked into other financiers in Australia, Singapore, and India. Young, who was in Los Angeles, had to arrange Skype calls between these financiers, Pressman in New York, and their lawyer who was in the UK. “You never knew what was going to happen on a daily basis,” says Young.
By this point, it had been nearly 10 years since Brown wrote that first draft of the script. Despite all the ups and downs with potential investors, they had managed to attach Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) to play the lead, but had to keep pushing production due to his acting schedule. Jeremy Irons was one of the first actors they considered for the role of G.H. Hardy, Ramanujan’s Cambridge tutor and mentor. Pressman and Young had both worked with Irons in the past and felt that he embodied the character perfectly. “It was a no-brainer,” says Young.
Finally, they thought their financing woes were behind them. Their lawyer was working with a financier who was originally from India and went to school in the UK. Again, they negotiated a deal, signed contracts, and he started sending them wire transfer confirmation notices—which turned out to be fraudulent and completely fabricated. To this day, the filmmakers have no idea what happened, and again, they went back to the drawing board.
Fortunately, within two weeks, Pressman revisited his contacts and miraculously put the budget back together with two different groups of international investors. On the low end, one group contributed $250K, and on the high end, one group contributed $2 million. It was a standard equity deal, with the financiers receiving their investment back, plus a percentage (although the group that invested $2 million received a higher ROI). Also, in 2015, the filmmakers applied for and received a $25K grant through the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Filmmaker Fund.
At last, Brown and Young hopped on a plane and started prepping the movie in London. “It was one of the most insane months of my life,” says Young. “It was like tightrope walking where at any given moment, the thing could implode.”
Because the previously attached financiers weren’t concerned about presales, the filmmakers hadn’t pursued any. For the final piece of financing, they took out a bank loan—essentially a gap loan, that would be repaid with the film’s first sales monies. Joe Cohen, an old friend of Pressman’s who was coincidentally enamored with Ramanujan’s story, was eager to get involved and helped coordinated the bank deal. That Pressman would know a banker familiar —and enamored—with the story of Ramanujan, was yet another testament to the veteran producer’s value on the project.
Due to their challenges with financing, and the strength of the British pound at the time, the producers did consider shooting more of the film in India and less in the UK in order to save money. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t practical. Over the years they had several different versions of the budget and met with several production service companies out of India. They ended up settling on a company called Firecracker, which had worked with a number of U.S. productions, and most importantly, they had a “can-do spirit.” They helped them budget the film and were un-phased by any of the filmmakers’ requests.
For the university scenes, they shot in London, at Oxford University, and even at Trinity College in Cambridge, which traditionally had never allowed filming on its grounds. After much negotiation, Trinity had agreed to let the production shoot in the college grounds for three days; in exchange, the production funded an existing scholarship for a student out of India to study at the college.
The filmmakers only did one scout in India and one in England, and production commenced in the summer of 2014. They prepped for 5-6 weeks in England and then shot there for 5½ weeks. Immediately thereafter, they prepped in India for 1½ weeks and shot there for 2 weeks.
“We had a lot of days compared to a lot of the movies that I’ve done, but it was still kind of run and gun,” says Young. He says the shooting schedule was particularly hectic in India where they shot in three different cities over the course of 10 days. “It was kind of nuts. You need people who have a steady hand who don’t freak out if crazy stuff comes up.” The filmmakers had to condense the script, the locations, and the coverage to make it work, but they were pleased with the film’s high production value thanks to the experience of their department heads.
Brown, the film’s director, was fairly green, having only one other writing and directing credit to his name, nearly 15 years prior. Therefore, Young says that it was essential to have extremely experienced and talented crew supporting him and his vision. Luciana Arrighi, the film’s production designer, had over 20 years of experience, and Larry Smith, the cinematographer, had nearly 20 years of experience, including years working as a gaffer for Stanley Kubrick.
The Man Who Knew Infinity was edited in Los Angeles; an Indian post-production company with facilities in the UK, funded post-production and the filmmakers did all of their finishing there.
Festival Preparation and Strategy
From the beginning, the filmmakers felt that Toronto, with its international appeal, would be a great place to premiere the film. Fortunately, the timing worked out; the film was completed in time to make the submission deadline, and The Man Who Knew Infinity was accepted into the 2015 festival.
CAA agreed to sell the film at Toronto as several of the filmmakers were also repped by the agency. 42West handled publicity, and prior to their premiere, they distributed the film to a select group of critics. They received some favorable response which helped them going into the festival. Patel and Irons attended the festival as well and gave several great interviews, which helped with the film’s overall exposure.
Sale and Release
The Man Who Knew Infinity received a number of offers, but Young says their choice was clear.
“What we loved about IFC was their passion for the movie. They loved it, and they were very up-front about loving it,” he says. “They weren’t trying to play hard to get, and financially they were really strong. It just made sense… they sold us.” IFC purchased all North American rights for seven figures.
IFC wanted to capitalize on the critical fervor for the film. Along with 42West who handled publicity for the theatrical release, they positioned it as the next big genius bio-pic, on the heels of The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Both films were released the year prior and were also recipients of the Sloan grant. Young says it was helpful to point to these successful films during their release because it added credibility to their project and made it more palatable for audiences.
42West reached out to several math and science groups and Indian expat communities to drum up interest. They also coordinated tastemaker screenings with several tech influencers in Silicon Valley, hosting some of the biggest names from the biggest companies.
In late April 2016, IFC opened the film in two theaters, with strong per-screen averages the first and second weeks. From there, they kept expanding. In the end, the film was on 300 screens and grossed approximately $4 million domestically at the box office. Not surprisingly, they saw some of the highest per screen averages in San Francisco and New York. They also saw a spike in areas with large Indian populations.
While the filmmakers and IFC would have liked to release the film later in 2014, they agreed to April because one of the investors insisted that they release it quickly so he could recoup his investment sooner. Young says there wasn’t a huge P&A commitment on IFC’s part beyond the minimum guarantee, and they are close to being in the black already.
David Garrett of UK-based Mister Smith, handled foreign sales and has sold out the rest of the world (most were sold even before the Toronto premiere). The movie has seen money.
The Man Who Knew Infinity was released on VOD in August of 2016 and they are currently waiting on those numbers.
Advice from the Filmmaker
“You need to have a lot of passion to get any movie made, particularly one about an obscure subject, like an Indian mathematician attending a university in England during the First World War,” says Young, laughing.
One of the best things you can do, he thinks, especially if you’re just starting out in the industry, is to surround yourself with people who have been through a lot. Because they had a difficult shoot, he was grateful to have Pressman and an experienced crew on board with him.
“It takes a lot of passion and a lot of determination to really push these boulders up the hill,” says Young. “But when you finally get there and see the thing up on the screen at Toronto, or in theaters, or on VOD… that’s definitely a rewarding thing. But you have to do everything you can to at least get paid something on a movie. You should always make sure you can eat.”