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Niche streaming platforms compete with global biggies

OHO Gujarati that has just launched an original titled Vitthal Teedi starring Pratik Gandhi of Scam 1992 fame. (Photo: Twitter @ohogujarati)Premium
OHO Gujarati that has just launched an original titled Vitthal Teedi starring Pratik Gandhi of Scam 1992 fame. (Photo: Twitter @ohogujarati)

  • Niche OTT services are clearly focusing on local stories and faces and formats like plays, skits and poetry recital. And even though some of them claim they’re spending Rs50 crore a year on content and technology, they cannot match the money power that lies with the bigger platforms.

NEW DELHI: Even as foreign and broadcaster-led streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar and SonyLIV ramp up their regional content slate, a bunch of independent video-on-demand services are tapping audience keen on regional language content.

Over-the-top (OTT) video streaming firms such as aha Video, OHO Gujarati, Planet Marathi, Nine Rasa, NeeStream, among others, have been offering content in languages like Gujarati, Marathi, Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada. This helps them not only with a robust content portfolio, but also provides a platform to creators who may not find a voice on mainstream services.

This January, critically acclaimed Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen made its way to a niche Malayalam service Neestream after initially being rejected by top OTT platforms for its controversial theme that touches upon the politics around the entry of women in the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala. It was later picked up by Amazon Prime Video too.

Meanwhile, Marathi film producer Akshay Bardapurkar is launching his OTT service Planet Marathi on 30 June with a small-budget film June that could neither find theatrical release due to the covid-19 pandemic nor any takers among top streaming platforms. Cinemapreneur, a service that launched last year, picked up award-winning documentaries like Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli, Kondan and others that failed to find showcasing anywhere.

“Most OTT platforms realise today that volume will come from regional content. This (entry of new players and initiatives by existing ones) means not just potential to get more users on board but give an opportunity to big, small and medium-budget companies and creators who pay close attention to quality content," said Mehul Gupta, co-founder and CEO at SoCheers, an independent digital agency.

Two people working closely with top platforms said some of them have increasingly begun to prefer more saleable faces and safe subjects that ‘ruins the vibe of experimentation.’ “Even before the government came out with guidelines for OTT, filmmakers have worked under unsaid rules of censorship and there are unwritten criteria for these services," said one of the two people declining to be named. Some of the smaller services may not have the same budgets but are willing to host more diverse content, the person said.

Bardapurkar, a producer himself, said most Marathi films don’t get picked up by OTT platforms for lack of star value.

“The authenticity and reach of regional content is the USP of smaller players. Also, they’re a one-stop solution for a specific language and reinstating that is the core strategy to tackle foreign players," said Abhishek Jain, co-founder of Gujarati streaming platform OHO Gujarati that has just launched an original titled Vitthal Teedi starring Pratik Gandhi of Scam 1992 fame. He said though national, international and bigger players have tried to make inroads into the regional content space, there has been some sort of disconnect.

The niche OTT services are clearly focusing on local stories and faces and formats like plays, skits and poetry recital. And even though some of them claim they’re spending Rs50 crore a year on content and technology, they cannot match the money power that lies with the bigger platforms.

Producer Bardapurkar said bigger players have the financial muscle to pay more for content. “It gives them an advantage and we have to be prepared that filmmakers and actors may ask us for the same," he said. While not looking to compete with the exhaustive libraries of international players, Planet Marathi aims to bring out 24 originals per year, or two per month.

Actor Shreyas Talpade who has launched an OTT service called Nine Rasa focusing on plays and performing arts said he doesn’t see bigger players as competition. “They have huge pockets and we’re not competing with those. But if the content is good, people will eventually discover it," said Talpade who will have plays shot in 4K resolution for audiences who are used to a certain post-production quality.

OHO Gujarati’s Jain admitted that smaller services can put in limited funds into programming and product development unlike global platforms. Even pricing strategy is not easy to fix. “At a time when people are already paying so much for content across services, to pitch a dynamic pricing package has become very challenging," he said.

Challenges notwithstanding, the big advantage for smaller independent platforms is that there is never really going to be a dearth of content given the diversity of Indian audiences and the culture of entertainment in the country, Mehul Gupta said. “They have built a set of loyal audiences even though their numbers have not been jumping exponentially, a lot of which is anyway proportional to investment," he said.

For instance, Telugu service aha Video reached 1 million paid subscribers within a year of launch as of this February while Bengali service Hoichoi, launched in 2017, has notched up 13 million subscribers.

“Everyone has their own expertise and ours is the focus on one language and the fact that our parent company has been around in the entertainment industry for 25 years now so we have an understanding of what the audience wants," said Soumya Mukherjee, vice-president, revenue and strategy at Hoichoi who strongly believes multiple players can co-exist as long as they serve different sets of audiences. The platform intends to release 26-27 originals this year.

“More content only helps the market in terms of habit formation. Plus, India hasn’t seen that many web originals, the game has only started," Mukherjee said.

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