In January, Bhatt will launch an app featuring content from his brand new production house Lone Ranger, set up to support his foray into the video-streaming space in early 2017. Working through a YouTube channel called VB On The Web until now, Lone Ranger has produced four web series and three shows in the span of one year.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan director Kabir Khan has committed to an Amazon Prime Video original series on Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, tentatively titled The Forgotten Army.
Director Shirish Kunder, who made short film Kriti last year, has confirmed a venture in the video-streaming space. Kahaani filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh is also currently working on a web series called Suspect X for Amazon Prime Video.
These directors are attracted by the sheer reach of video-streaming platforms.
“Everything has moved online. First the music shops went, then the bookshops and now so much retail is happening online. So it was only natural that theatres would move there too," Bhatt said, adding that while the big-screen experience remains solid, the mobile screen has become the first choice for consumers.
“For an entertainer," said Bhatt, “the rule of the game is to be where the audience is."
Besides, the digital world allows tremendous creative freedom to filmmakers with no censor board breathing down their necks.
“The digital medium gives filmmakers the freedom to create and execute stories that may invite constraints on traditional formats like film or television," said Manav Sethi, chief marketing officer at ALTBalaji, the video-streaming app owned by Ekta Kapoor’s Balaji Telefilms.
Film and television formats could be restrictive as stories may need to be tailor-made for family viewing, unlike the mobile which is suited for individual viewing.
“Plus, any upcoming or even established filmmaker may want to make stories that may not necessarily be three-hour content pieces; they could be narratives of 10 episodes of 20 minutes each where there’s enough stickiness at the end of each episode for you to be motivated to watch the next," said Sethi.
According to Karan Anshuman, director of Hindi film Bangistan and Amazon original series Inside Edge, the digital format allows a bigger creative play.
Sameer Nair, chief executive officer (CEO) at content studio Applause Entertainment Pvt. Ltd, added that with 10-15 episodes in a web series, maybe of half or one hour each, over multiple seasons, you get the chance to tell some great stories.
There are also logistical issues.
“The reason it’s (the move to digital) happening now is that until last year, people were working on very low budgets (for web series)," Kunder pointed out. Industry experts say that for the financial year 2017-2018, web series will see an investment of about $100 million. A good series can be made for anything between Rs10 lakh and Rs2 crore per episode.
Apart from the pull of digital, there also seems to be inherent dissatisfaction with the feature film format lately. Rajiv Vaidya, CEO at video-streaming service Spuul, points to falling box-office collections in Hollywood.
The economics also makes sense, says Anshuman. There aren’t enough theatres and you have to fork out a lot to watch a film, especially with family. The same amount paid over a month or year gives much higher returns on a subscription-based service watched at your convenience in your own house, he added.
While India has its big-ticket Bollywood blockbusters featuring its biggest heroes, “how many films can the big stars do in a year? How do we go back to storytelling and engaging an audience?" asks Anshuman.
Clearly, the answer lies in going digital.