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Business News/ News / India/  Media and entertainment firms rely on tech to beat covid blues

Actor Pratik Gandhi says 2020 was a scandalous year, a play on his crime drama title, Scam 1992-The Harshad Mehta Story, on SonyLIV. The series was one of the few over-the-top (OTT) offerings that broke through the clutter in a year of digital disruption.

Gandhi said 2020 has changed his life. “This digital revolution is the best thing that could have happened. But it was always in the offing. What may have been designed to take place in the next five years, has been advanced," said the Scam star, who has worked in Gujarati cinema and theatre for more than 15 years, but found a real audience only in these unfortunate times.

Like Gandhi, hundreds of writers, filmmakers and actors, many of whom made up the traditional movie industry machinery for decades, found themselves on the cusp of disruption as the pandemic hit the world. On the one hand, digital content creators like YouTubers and social media influencers remained relevant and expanded their area of work. On the other, with cinemas shut for nearly seven months and little new content available even afterwards, much of the onus to entertain fell on the shoulders of on-demand video streaming platforms. They rose to the challenge with the fairly unprecedented strategy of getting films meant for theatrical release to premiere online.

“The challenge and the biggest opportunity in 2020 was to continue launching fresh, engaging content. The release of the first set of direct-to-service movie titles (originally meant for theatres) was a disruptor and game-changer in the Indian entertainment space," said Gaurav Gandhi, director and country general manager, Amazon Prime Video India, which was not only the first to snap up movie titles but also made the maximum acquisitions (19) in India.

When production of web shows was stalled during the lockdown, streaming services did not have a choice but to turn to the digital release of films, many of which were ready, to increase their library of content, said Ajit Thakur, chief executive of Telugu service aha Video, which, like others such as Netflix, Amazon and Disney+ Hotstar, began aggressively acquiring feature films, offering plum rates to forego the charm of theatrical releases. Rates for some of the bigger titles, such as Laxmii (Hotstar) and Coolie No. 1 (Amazon), were upwards of 100 crore. Trade experts said the rates did not match their box office potential but were enough for the makers to recoup their investments.

Shariq Patel, chief business officer, Zee Studios, said the company adapted to the changing times and launched ZeePlex, a pay-per-view platform that allows audiences to watch new films for a one-time fee, mirroring the theatrical experience. “We also did drive-in shows in metro cities. So, we are trying innovative hybrid ways to reach out to audiences," Patel added.

The moves did not go down well with theatre owners, who incurred huge losses due to the protracted shutdown and see digital release of films as a continued challenge.

Amazon’s Gandhi said high-quality movies made available to customers from within the comforts and safety of their homes has led them to expect this to happen on a continued basis. Plus, producers have discovered an alternative in a country which has only 9,500 screens and where movies stay in theatres for a couple of weeks.

However, others said the entertainment ecosystem will continue to encompass both big and small-screen experiences. “Each channel of distribution has a different value proposition and will coexist. Content has traditionally been created to serve the lowest common denominator on TV or for big theatrical productions, but the web is free of both constraints and has definitely given a fillip to storytelling," said Ajit Andhare, chief operating officer, Viacom18 Studios. “At the same time, the one thing we’ve all realized during the pandemic is how much we miss the theatrical experience and that we’re all keen to head out because we’re fatigued of our tiny screens."

The New Year will chart new business alliances and revenue models for streaming platforms to acquire and retain direct subscriptions, said Nachiket Pantvaidya, chief executive, ALTBalaji, and group chief operating officer, Balaji Telefilms. Brands will also work towards strengthening their user interface for a seamless experience by focusing on aspects like language interface, voice search, retention strategies, tailored recommendations, quick on-boarding and easy payment gateways.

Industry experts said the other big innovation this year has been the amount of time spent on developing content. “While we obviously could not shoot, we were constantly ideating with writers," said Gaurav Verma, chief operating officer, Red Chillies Entertainment. This will lead to better discipline and efficiency in the entertainment industry, as people have learnt to turn up for Zoom meetings on time and nobody would want to commute for hours for a meeting that can take place virtually, Verma added.

Media outlets have also tried to stay on their toes in a challenging year. “The pandemic has opened a sea of opportunities for broadcasters and content creators. A lot of people who were earlier not bothered with news are seeking it out," said Avinash Pandey, CEO, ABP Network. While you can’t replace the human need for interactivity, he said reporters have learnt to navigate stories with less elaborate setups, fewer commutes and use technology better.

“Basic things like the teleprompter are available on the phone from which you can read and shoot, which was unthinkable earlier leading us to realize that less is more," he added.

Anant Goenka, executive director, The Indian Express Group, said it separated all its desks into distinct teams, working from different locations so that if one person got infected, others would be able to continue. Express also worked with educational, financial and industry bodies to distribute scanned copies of its newspaper to its customers.

It is time for media organisations to seriously look at the subscription model, said Jayant Mammen Mathew, executive editor and director of Malayala Manorama Company, because people are getting used to paying for content with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime and the coming years will see more strides from legacy companies.

“This disruption has put a bump in the commoditization of news, and made consumers more discerning. Readers are asking where the news is from; they are averse to trusting forwards and are making an effort to recognize credible news brands. This trend is the most encouraging emergence from what has been a bizarre and unprecedented year," he added.

Lata Jha
Lata Jha covers media and entertainment for Mint. She focuses on the film, television, video and audio streaming businesses. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism. She can be found at the movies, when not writing about them.
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Updated: 29 Dec 2020, 05:48 AM IST
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