A film on India’s rap music scene that is the year’s official entry to the Oscars (Gully Boy), the north India distribution and presentation of a ₹300 crore budget Telugu epic (Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy), and now the second season of a sports drama web show (Inside Edge 2 for Amazon Prime Video)—that is all a year’s job for Excel Entertainment whose two founders, Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani have evidently decided to straddle film and digital media. In an interview, Sidhwani talks about the opportunities and challenges of the new medium, and why it can never be a threat to cinema. Edited excerpts:
What do digital platforms offer content creators like you that traditional media like film doesn’t?
They are both very different. The most exciting thing that this platform offers you, is the kind of stories you are telling because there is a new format of writing, you are not ending these characters in 90 minutes or two hours. They go on, their arcs are different, they go from season to season so I think it’s interesting to see how different stories are being told. Plus, the audience is very different, it is very individual, it binge-watches, it doesn’t like to wait or travel to watch something, it’s all available on their laptops and TVs and in their homes. The second thing which is happening is you’re seeing so much new talent coming in, in front of and behind the camera--writers, directors, showrunners, actors, they’re investing in creating characters which people are enjoying and some of these faces are becoming popular as characters, and then you put them in a feature because the audience is the same. These are good times, you are growing talent, nurturing them, you’re getting an opportunity to get so much out, both in front and behind (the camera). The third thing is that your content is getting discovered in 200 countries, you’re going into millions of homes—I remember I was in Montenegro and there was someone on a flight with me from Poland who had seen Mirzapur and he thought it was like Narcos (the Netflix show), based in the heartland of India. So I feel there is so much opportunity today and it’s a great time for creative talent to be going global.
Do you see digital as a threat to mainstream theatrical exhibition given how cluttered and tough that market is becoming?
Not at all. Look at what has been happening at the box office, we’ve never had such a great year. Movies are all doing a certain number, people are coming to the cinemas and I think on a certain level, they (digital and film) both coexist. There is no threat to cinema because it will always be there, I think digital is a completely different format and experience. Cinema is more communal viewing and this is more individual viewing. In fact, it has been proven that when movies that have done well theatrically, come after a few months to the OTT platform, are as engaging, because the audience that was earlier having to wait in front of a TV on a particular day and time, because they missed it in the cinemas, can now watch it on any given day and time, while running on the treadmill, on a long drive, in the train, on a flight, so I think they are only going to help each other.
Has OTT meant easier monetization for content creators that are increasingly operating in a cluttered movie market?
Monetization is very different on an OTT platform because you are exclusive to it and have to engage with your partner well in advance. On a film, I don’t have to worry about that because I know it will go to theatres, come on TV and digital. For the web, your partner has to be with you when you write out your bible, because you have only one or two platforms that take on this scale of shows, and you’d have invested all your time and energy in developing a show that they have guidelines on not touching. Though that hasn’t happened to me because all the shows we’re currently doing have already been greenlit.
Also with films, the theatrical window is short because we do not have that many cinemas, movies move out of theatres even though they are doing so well sometimes. So we’re all crunching for those 52 weeks. That is why you see two films clashing on the same day, because there are no screens. We are the most under-screened country in the world even though we have such a large movie-going community.
Is that partly the reason content creators are choosing to tell some stories digitally?
I don’t think I will choose to tell a story that I know doesn’t have long legs for theatrical viewing. But right now, we’re not thinking on the lines of, there is a story but the publicity and advertising budgets for it may be a challenge, so let me put it on the web. Instead, the content may thematically be better suited for the web. Today if you don’t spend on marketing and make a film an event, you’re not going to get people to come out of their homes. Look at what happened with China, where the box office grew because the number of screens just exploded in the last 10 years, and not just in Shanghai and Beijing, but in the tier-two and tier-three cities, where people did not have access. That’s the effort we are putting in for India where we want screens to grow.