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Vidnet’22: Shining a light on the art of OTT filmmaking- What’s different?

Sameer Nair & Rajeev Masand get together for a riveting chat on the diversified OTT content space.

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Mumbai: The OTT sector in India has witnessed a massive surge in viewership during the pandemic era with a host of new players and paid subscribers tuning into the online streaming space. With manifold growth across metrics, the sector continues its bull run even post pandemic, even as the next growth wave is expected to come from tier II, III, and IV cities and regional language content.

To discuss the role of OTT in influencing the content preferences in our country, Applause Entertainment CEO Sameer Nair, and Dharma Cornerstone Agency COO and renowned film critic Rajeev Masand got together for a fireside chat on the ‘Art of Creating Diversified Content and Secret of Mastering Them’ at the Vidnet 2022 summit organised by IndianTelevision.com in Mumbai last month.

Mumbai-based content studio Applause Entertainment led by CEO Sameer Nair has been betting big on the web series format since its inception in 2017. The company struck gold with several of its recent shows such as Hansal Mehta’s “Scam 1992,” Pankaj Tripathi-starrer “Criminal Justice,” “Hostages” to name a few on various OTT platforms. Nair acknowledges that in the last four to five years the single biggest revolution that has happened in the business of content is via the streaming platforms globally. “TV was always fundamentally limited by its nature- a linear medium with geographic and language boundaries and appointment viewing,” he says in response to Masand’s query of whether he sees OTTs replacing linear television in India ever.

Nair goes on to say that these being early days for the OTT medium, every operator will go through its fair share of teething troubles trying to find their own business models. Along the way, there will be challenges on how to make content better, to improve storytelling and take our content to other markets and how budgets can be bettered.

The biggest discovery or learning in the emerging medium has been in the writing. “If you can imagine it, then you can probably shoot it,” declares Nair. “Its not the star cast, it's not a ‘big name’ director, it's not a budget- the key lies in the writing. If it's written well, chances are it may turn out well. After that everything falls into place.”

The other thing about this business, Nair adds, is that it's not 'star-dependent.' “We have done some 36 series so far and it's primarily been a collection of ensemble cast,” Nair asserts.

Referencing the massive hits and popular web shows delivered by the studio, Masand proceeds to ask Nair about “the process of knowing what’s worth pursuing”. While there’s no such “green light” moment, idea sources can be wide-ranging- from an original script or a book, or a foreign series or movie that they wish to adapt, Nair says. The journey from idea to screen, after a particular idea has been greenlighted is a process that takes time and effort, even before one starts filming.

Expounding on the studio’s hit vehicle "Scam 1992," Nair says, “From the moment we bought the book rights from Sucheta (Dalal) to the time the series released, it took three years in the making. And all through this period we were on board, we stayed the course, and that’s what is important- to take it across the line.”

Over time, most platforms have developed their own particular character, when it came to content, noted Nair in response to a query from Masand on making platform-specific content. He added that when they first started out, it was only about making shows for the audiences and not about which streamer it should stream on. “We don’t have as much of a ‘platform-theory’ as trying to understand what genres to go after, where are programming trends headed and what are people watching more of.”

Now, of course, we get lots of inputs from platforms themselves because they have so much data, insights and understanding, Nair continues. “I think a lot of this is connected to essentially, ‘social-signalling’,” noting that it's important to have one’s ears to the ground.

The other significant thing, Nair points out, is the scale at which you want to take an idea- whether it will be a big-budget show. That’s a decision which is full of risk in their business, considering the show is first created, produced and executed before finding a buyer platform for it. “So we have to be very sure and everything has to be planned in detail- the genre, the writing, the casting, the money we are going to be spending over it etc.”

In that sense, we complement the platform’s services and aid in their pain point by taking over the complete production and directorial decisions pertaining to a show. This allows them to focus on other things to worry about like, gaining subscribers, increasing paid user base, marketing etc, he adds. The studio usually has a pipeline of 12 to 15 shows lined up in various stages of production, reveals Nair on the company’s plans to expand its content library of shows.

The kind of content being produced and the price point are the chief issues, according to Nair. And then it depends upon how the entire market dynamics works. Deliberating on the recent Netflix stocks crash, Nair observes, “Using any one player, even if they are the leader, as the bell weather for how the entire industry works may not be the right way to do it. Because different businesses have different models of operation.” Larger players like Netflix and Amazon Prime, he says without naming the giant streamers, have very long investment horizons with long investment cycles and diversified businesses. So that becomes a very different dynamic, as compared to securing only streaming.

On a macro level, the numbers can only increase hereon, as the OTT market continues to grow, Nair observes. Along the way, there is bound to be discovery of various operable models like ad-supported, subscriber-supported models or lower-end content or upper end content catering to every available market.

On adapting books and shows, Nair says it makes business sense to adapt a good story. “The reason why great stories exist is because they have been retold. So what we do is re-visualise a good story and adapt it according to our cultural sensibilities, while staying true to the original plot.”

"Measuring success on streamers is sketchy, one way to go would be to check if the platform is happy with the show’s outcome or performance," says Nair. "We look at the social noise around it and the audiences are happy overall. Another critical way is the data insights provided by the streamer- they have a lot more information, on new subscribers added, drop-off points etc which give a better clue on a show’s performance."

"The way forward for the studio is working with debutantes or first-time filmmakers, we are also finding our way around this evolving landscape of the streaming business. For the industry in India, the language content will become more pan-Indian, and the audience for this content will grow. The onus is on us to make the most of this space," Nair signs off.

To tune in to the entire conversation, click on the below link:

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