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How streaming giants got their Bollywood bet wrong

While Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar are all pivoting towards films and shows beyond Bollywood, a slate of language-specific, smaller OTT players are steadily nipping at their heelsPremium
While Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar are all pivoting towards films and shows beyond Bollywood, a slate of language-specific, smaller OTT players are steadily nipping at their heels

  • Global streaming giants have focused heavily on Bollywood. Now, regional OTT players are challenging the model
  • For the US market, OTT platforms have relied on collaboration with upmarket, high-profile names but the audience in India is the city-centric youth, preferring concepts and ideas over big names

NEW DELHI : In January 2021, a small-budget Malayalam film featuring familiar, albeit new-age faces broke out in ways no one had imagined. The tale of a newly-wed woman who finds herself thrown into the drudgery of domestic duties in a typical patriarchal family, The Great Indian Kitchen touched on a variety of taboo topics—the politics of allowing young women inside the Sabarimala temple; the stigma that surrounds menstruation.

Despite venturing into topics that most mainstream Indian films would never do, interest in the film surged through sheer word of mouth. Over a period of two weeks between 10-23 January, Google search interest for the film shot up from 37 to 100. Search interest is measured on a scale of 0-100, with 100 indicating the highest number of searches in a given period.

Unsurprisingly, within three months, global streaming giant Amazon Prime Video had picked up the film. But, initially, both Amazon and Netflix had rejected the movie. Director Jeo Baby had to take it to Malayalam-only OTT (over-the-top) platform Neestream for the initial release. “Amazon saw the film and rejected it. Netflix rejected it without (even) seeing it," Baby said in subsequent media interviews. The widespread appreciation that the film garnered “showed their (web streaming giants’) lack of instinct for the kind of Malayalam film that tends to get pan-India traction," he said.

What happened with The Great Indian Kitchen is part of a larger pattern. Global streaming giants have focused on Bollywood for most of their five-year-long spell in India. While shows and films from other movie industries began to make an appearance on OTT sites by 2018, a disproportionate amount of the big, risky bets continued to be placed on B-town offerings.

Amazon Prime Video
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Amazon Prime Video

But very few of these bets have succeeded. Netflix’s content deal with Karan Johar’s Dharmatic Entertainment has been called off after the weak showing of originals such as Guilty, Searching for Sheela and Ajeeb Daastaans. Meanwhile, the high rates that Amazon Prime had paid to acquire several movie titles such as Coolie No.1 and Gulabo Sitabo for direct-to-digital release during the pandemic have not resulted in any substantial increase in subscribers.

Thus, despite the pandemic-induced boost to web streaming, the ride is far from smooth for India’s OTT heavyweights. While Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar are all pivoting towards acquiring more films and shows beyond the B-town, a slate of language-specific, smaller OTT players are steadily nipping at their heels. The emerging terrain of creative competition has three axes—traditional theatres, global OTT giants, and regional language streaming services. While the tiff between the first two gets much attention, the third axis could play an important role in determining the kind of movies that Indians get to watch in the months ahead.

“There is a lot of regional language content that has great artistic value but has failed to gain recognition from (the) major platforms," Charles George, head of Malayalam-focused Neestream, told Mint. “We do not necessarily look at the star value. We are interested in the subject and the way it is made," he added.

Neestream is just one of the several upstarts. Other niche streaming sites such as aha Video (Telugu), OHO Gujarati and Planet Marathi also offer content in one language. The question is: Will they be able to create a robust content portfolio that could challenge the global giants as well as the traditional movie industry players?

Why the B-town bet failed

“The typical strategy of foreign OTT platforms has been to collaborate with upmarket, high-profile and seasoned names in India; like they have done in mature markets like the US. They thought a similar strategy would work here as well," said a film producer, who requested anonymity. “What they didn’t realize was that the OTT audience in India is the city-centric youth. They prefer concepts and ideas over big names, whom they’ve already seen headlining feature films," the producer added.

The person added that the Dharma or Red Chillies “brand" does not matter to the target audience of a streaming service. This audience is looking for entertainment options that are different from what’s currently available in cinemas and television. “That is why the platforms have (also) changed gears over the years," the producer said, referring to a rise in the volume of collaborations with regional language filmmakers, production houses, YouTubers, and stand-up comics.

“The Bollywood magic has not worked on the home screen," concurred a senior web streaming platform executive who did not wish to be named. Even web shows featuring big names haven’t always worked. “You don’t have to spend an unnecessary amount (of money) just because it’s a show for a big platform," the person cited above said.

At the same time, on the supply side, Bollywood has also slowed down its direct-to-digital film premieres. In 2020, the Hindi film industry had taken a bunch of films such as Laxmii, Gulabo Sitabo, Coolie No.1, Shakuntala Devi, and others, directly to the web.

While top studios have waited for cinemas to reopen, especially in Maharashtra, many producers and actors admit that they’ve not witnessed the kind of traction that they had expected for their movies on streaming platforms. OTT platforms, on the other hand, have rationalized their budgets after going on an acquisition spree in the middle of the pandemic. Films that are initially released in theatres also come with censor board approvals, which is a plus, given the recent tussle with the information and broadcasting ministry over controversial shows such as Tandav.

Media experts estimate that streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar had paid up to 100 crore to acquire films such as Coolie No.1 and Laxmii last year. However, the response from digital audiences was tepid at best. Trade analysts say the target audience for such “mass-market films" remains in small towns, where movies are still mostly viewed on the big screen.

According to Karan Bedi, chief executive officer at MX Player, there are four big categories of content creators on OTT platforms right now—existing mainline Bollywood studios, film producers who were around for a while but weren’t considered mainstream names, fresh new entrants, and television producers. “It is the second and third categories that have been the biggest winner of the OTT boom in India. The distribution system—be it the under-screened theatrical market or the limited hours of programming on television—were the reasons why a lot of these people had no credible ways of getting their content out earlier," Bedi said.

The Grate Indian Kitchen
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The Grate Indian Kitchen

Bedi’s remarks aren’t off the mark, given the success that firms and makers such as Pritish Nandy Communications Ltd (Four More Shots Please!), Hansal Mehta (Scam 1992) or Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. (The Family Man) have seen after years of bowing down to the diktats of the theatrical medium.

“Before streaming platforms came in, the Indian entertainment industry was largely about two industries: films and television," Shailesh Kapoor, founder and chief executive officer of media consulting firm Ormax, said. “Since television content in India does not have the production scale and the storytelling style that a premium SVoD (subscription video-on-demand) service would want to give its users, the film industry became the natural candidate. Over time, platforms have started creating a library that’s a mix of big-ticket shows and films, and those that are more modest in their ambition. Hence, a variety of talent, both in front of and behind the screen, is now being tapped, not just the big names," he added.

While A-listers such as Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn have signed contracts to feature in web originals, most platforms can afford to do just one or two such tentpoles a year. And interestingly, even within the realm of Hindi language content, it is the smaller budget offering with newer faces, such as Paatal Lok and Panchayat, which have managed to pull in new subscribers even during the pandemic.

Window for small players

The biggest reality is that India is a heterogeneous market, said Hiren Gada, chief executive officer, Shemaroo Entertainment, which owns the ShemarooMe streaming app. “There are varying audience segments that may seem like niches today but can definitely scale up," he said, referring to the untapped spaces that are still available for smaller, regional language players to exploit.

According to Gada, cues can be taken from the playbook of TV which began its chapter in history with only one general entertainment channel and later diversified into movies, sports, kids channels and news. The medium is now seeing great traction among regional language-focused content, he added. “The truth is nobody can be everything to everyone. Because, then, you end up being nothing to no one."

The authenticity and reach of regional content is the unique selling proposition or USP of smaller players, say platform executives. Also, they’re a one-stop solution for a specific language and holding on to that niche is the core strategy to tackle foreign players. “Rather than being in competition (with foreign players), regional OTTs focus more on new (regional language-speaking) viewers. Also, there are numerous films with ‘art value’ which don’t always get a space on foreign OTTs," Neestream’s George said.

Besides shoring up content libraries, local OTT platforms are also beginning to invest in a technological upgrade to improve the product experience of their subscribers. Regional language OTT firms are investing in making interfaces more user-friendly, allowing for videos to play even with patchy internet connectivity, and customizing recommendations based on the language and location of their viewers.

Challenges and opportunities

Smaller OTT players are, however, still grappling with several challenges. Many smaller services can put limited funds into programming and product development, unlike global platforms. Even the pricing strategy is not easy to fix. At a time when people are already paying so much for content across multiple services, it has become very challenging to pitch a dynamic pricing package, platform executives say.

Many media experts believe that consolidation is the way forward, with several smaller apps getting acquired by bigger players who will then offer all their content on a unified platform—somewhat akin to Prime Video Channels, a recent initiative by Amazon Prime Video that aims to host content from eight other subscription-driven video-on-demand platforms within its app and website.

Without a doubt, independent players are aware that they do not have the deep pockets and the massive clout that foreign platforms bring to the table. But many would rather see the glass as half full.

“Our con is actually our pro. Our shows are made on budgets of 1.5-2 crore, on average, and there are always better chances of recovering that sum, either through advertising or subscription, than shows that are made for 40 crore," Akshay Bardapurkar, founder of Planet Marathi, said. “In that sense, we’re better suited to a pandemic," Bardapurkar added. It’s also often easier for home-grown platforms to make their own decisions, Bardapurkar said, given that not everything needs to be approved by an international team.

What has become extremely clear is that big shows and big budgets are not sure-shot recipes for success in the realm of streaming, said Ali Hussein, chief executive officer at Eros Now. “There are so many micro-niches (of content genres as well as audiences for them) that can easily be aggregated into buckets," he said.

Moreover, the wide user base of foreign players itself may be a disadvantage of sorts. Shemaroo’s Gada is quick to point out that the biggest hallmark of digital media remains experimentation—in the format as well as in storytelling. That is precisely why web series have emerged in a country that only used to watch feature films and episodic TV soaps.

“Consumers inherently expect unseen content, but as the user base becomes more mass-market and similar sensibilities are brought into the fold, market forces might pull you in other directions," Gada said, explaining why an increasing subscriber base may lead to more formulaic programming on some platforms.

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