The new Big Bubble in India’s glitziest showtown, Over-The-Top digital platforms, or OTT -- is living up to its name.
Count among the lead players - Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hotstar, Spuul, Hooq, Eros Now, Sony LIV, Hungama Play, VOOT and ALT. YouTube, of course, is the market leader for online video viewership and advertising revenues.
At least half-a-dozen more digital platforms – involving media names of heft – are en route.
In the dizzyingly-altering scenario, at this very point of time in good ol’ Bollywood, America’s Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, are where the big dollar action is. Welcome, then, to the whopper McEntertainment ‘burger.
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Netflix started streaming in India from January 2016 as part of its global expansion. Amazon Prime has been on since December the same year.
The crème de la crème of B-town -- right down from Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan and Karan Johar to Farhan Akhtar-Ritesh Sidwani and Aditya Chopra – are on track.
The Netflix slate has already streamed comedy shows by Vir Das and Aditi Mittal. Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane are directing episodes of Sacred Games culled from a novel by Vikram Chandra. Selection Day, on the subject of cricket and corruption set in Mumbai, based on a novel by Aravind Adiga, is to be produced in partnership with a UK production company. Against the backdrop of New Delhi, a female detective series written by Marisha Mukherjee (Quantico), has been green-signalled.
Meanwhile, Amazon Prime Video has released stand-up sketches by 14 funny people, Inside Edge on the wicked wicked ways of cricket, Going Viral about a social media agency aiming at attracting gazillion hits, and Laakhon Mein Ek about a coaching institute for wannabe IIT students.
Reliance Jio has inked a deal with Roy Kapur Films to curate (wazzat?), commission, develop and produce content for Jio. Reliance's recent equity acquisition in Balaji re-affirms the behemoth's plan to prevail over the digital and mobile content space.
Estimable filmmakers, once given a rough time by the ex-King Kong film corporates, are in the throes of pitching concepts to the OTT bosses. Thrillers, comedies, period pageants, biopics, action Jacksons, they’re all here. You add the etc.
Incidentally, there has been much ado about the mammoth Amazon Prime series Bodhi Dharma –on the 5th century’s philosopher, healer and martial artiste who became an iconic figure in China -- being piloted by Ram Madhvani, the multi-award-winning Neerja director. To be made at an unheard of budget, it is expected to be India’s retort to Game of Thrones which streams on Hotstar. The development and prep of Bodhi Dharma have been underway for over a year now.
Word has also been out that the Bajrangi Bhaijaan helmer Kabir Khan would fashion an Amazon Prime Video series tentatively titled The Forgotten Army based on Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.
A documentary project by Kabir Khan was in the news way back in 1999 with the same title and subject. That much is known. However the market buzz that the 10-part series which will at long last be filmed at a double digit cost in crores per episode, belongs to the realm to hearsay.
What isn’t hearsay, is that unimaginable globs of money are being pumped into ‘original content’ – read bespoke, freshly-minted mega-series and movies. And it’s no secret that project budgets are way over the top of the cushy spends for the A-plus Bollywood extravaganzas a la Padmaavat.
Filmmakers who have made it to the Netflix and Amazon Prime Video clubs are naturally positive, if not ecstatic. On an optimistic note, may the NetAm gambit work.
On the not-so-yippee side of the story are the reports from August last year that Nitesh Kripalani, country head, in less than nine months of the launch of Amazon Prime Video’s service in India, suddenly moved on for cryptic reasons. The update is that he has been lately replaced by an official from Voot.
Multimedia entrepreneur Ronnie Screwvala exited the digital content platform Arre barely a year after the venture’s start-up, explaining, “I think it’s not always best to come early to a party.” Having said that, he sold Love Per Square Foot, a film produced by his company, for a modest profit for a Netflix premiere.
Therein lies the rub. “OTT platforms are going through a boom phase, similar to the ones for cable television, satellite TV channels and then film corporates,” says a Mumbai film producer, adding, “but none of the predecessors could sustain themselves in the market. It remains to be seen if there is profitability after three to four years once the euphoria has subsided. The size of shows being commissioned by American platforms are so humongous that it’s scary.”
A cross-section of the Mumbai film industry interviewed for The Quint either played safe, stating cautiously that the Bollywood economy “is in a flux” or went to the other extreme of naysaying, “Things are so messy that it’s beyond human comprehension..the bubble is bound to burst as it always does.”
In the process, quite perceptibly muscle has been added to the clout of middle-men, who claim to have access to the content decision makers at the OTT offices.
“Agents and facilitators have always been a part of the Bollywood scene. But let me tell you they are not effective. Big promises, amounting to millions of dollars, were made to me while I was making Omerta (on the slaying by terrorists in 2002 of The Wall Street journalist Daniel Pearl). Nothing happened. Indeed it was Amazon Prime Video which reached out to me directly.”Hansal Mehta, Filmmaker
Could this mean there’s an open-door policy at the platforms which matter? Some suggest yes, others contend, absolutely not. Jayantilal Gada, producer of films like Kahaani, remarks, “See, it’s business. If one has to wait for seven to eight hours at an office, so be it. It’s a buyer’s market, after all.”
Chartered accountant, Ashok Bansal, who took the audacious step of producing an indie film titled Chand Se Pare, asserts, “My film may be trash, but so much trash is shown on the plethora of screening outlets today. I’ve quit knocking at doors simply because outsiders are not welcome, it’s a closed industry. And I’ve learnt a lesson: never give a rupee to middle-men unless you want to kiss it goodbye.”
Pravesh Sippy, scion of the late producer NN Sippy family, is on the cusp of finalising a deal for a couple of series, but demurs, “Frankly, I would like to give the platform executives the benefit of the doubt. Yet there are two riders. One, are the creative people hired qualified to evaluate the content that is being offered? And two, oftentimes why does correspondence – let’s say emails – go unacknowledged?”
Veteran Subhash Ghai’s comments wryly, “When revenues multiply, so do brokers and agencies. Naturally, they are all over the place. God bless them. Digital is where the future is. Competition has increased . But I’m still a man of cinema, the big screen. I will be announcing big movies soon. Wait and watch.”
Right. Allied to the neo-financing of a welter of fresh series and to a minor degree of feature films by OTT platforms, there’s the dilemma of an intensifying monopoly at key levels. It’s no secret that a select circle of filmmakers with a track record of A-list star-powered hits, call the shots. Plus, there has been a sure and steady appropriation of screening outlets.
PVR, Inox, Cinepolis and to an extent, Carnival cinemas, dominate the multiplex domain, pricing tickets at will. Projection facilities are in the grasp of two companies. The once-innumerable film exhibitors and distributors have been reduced to a trickle. A trade stalwart on the condition of anonymity, says, “There is cartelisation in every sphere. As a result, the new entrants with deep pockets, may succeed in making inroads. The point is for how long?”
According to Tanuj Garg, managing partner of Ellipsis Entertainment which produced Neerja and Tumhari Sulu, “Mom-and-pop shops have sprung up in and around Aaram Nagar in the Mumbai suburbs. They are mostly creating series for pennies for the smaller players. A content company like ours, being interested in the bigger play, will deal with platforms with budgets, reach and a vision for tentpole shows as in the west."
Hansal Mehta’s take is, “For indie cinema, the medium is in its incipient stage.Okay, so A Death in the Gunj, Lipstick Under My Burkha or Mukti Bhavan are being streamed, but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Like it or not, the platforms are market-driven. And from the look of things, the bigger the better.”
Vis-à-vis Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, filmmaker Vikram Bhatt, who’s been belting out web-series galore (examples: Hadh for Sony LIV and Gehraaiyan for Viu), states, “I’m happy in my space. They (NetAm) seem to be out for the Richie Rich audience versus the rest of India. At the subscription rates they charge -- even if it’s around Rs 999 a year -- they’re too expensive for the average Indian. Let’s just say there are A-grade multiplexes and there are single screen. They can have the ‘plexes.”
Overtly, the accent is on original series. As for the acquistion of film titles – recent or vintage, that’s another story altogether. Called ‘content aggregators’, a handful of middle-men invest in a sizeable collection of films, which are then sold in bulk to the various digitial platforms.
A reputed producer who wasn’t aware that he was still sitting on his critically lauded and commercially successful film, with an outstanding music score by AR Rahman, was advised to contact three of the most influential ‘aggregators’. Two of them didn’t revert. The one who did, said he could “try” to sell the rights for perpetuity, quoting a price which the producer laughs was “ridiculously low, if not downright insulting.”
Be that as it may, Amazon Prime Video has inked movie output deals with a few producers, notably T-Series, and has been premiering their feature film productions within weeks of their theatrical outing, a domain which once belonged solely to satellite channels.
Netflix has also made several big-ticket movie acquisitions though not as much as Amazon Prime Video. The rapid emergence of these platforms has reduced the clout of the satellite channels, since film producers are flush with options.
In sum then, the marriage of Bollywood and OTT is not a love match but a leap into the unknown. At the end of a thousand days and some, it’ll be the income that will count, and not – what’re those good words? –content per square foot.
(The writer is a film critic, filmmaker, theatre director and a weekend painter.)