“We green-light projects across three aspects - entertainment, engagement, and empowerment”: Civic Studios’ Anushka Shah

Shah believes audience should get educated through content

Mumbai: 2022 was a good year for Anushka Shah’s Civic Studio as their movie Vakeel Babu got critical acclaim and a positive response from the audience. 

Shah founded the Civic Entertainment project at the MIT Media Lab and Civic Studios in Mumbai. 

Civic Studios develops and funds long-form entertainment that is engaging and empowering. Their formats vary across films, web series, and docuseries. Their vision is to build a global community of like-minded creators and storytellers seeking to create social impact through media.

Shah has a background in applied statistics and digital text analysis. She divides her time between Mumbai, Boston and Chicago.

Edited Excerpt: 

On the inception of Civic Studio.  

Civic Studios was incubated at the MIT Media Lab as a project to explore entertainment for social & civic change. Soon after, it graduated into a production house based out of Mumbai that attempted to not just study or research this intersection but actually produce such entertainment. We now create fiction and nonfiction feature films, web series, and digital content across genres and on various social issues.

On the challenges and highlights of this journey

Understanding and keeping up with the complexity of the entertainment industry at its current pace of change is a challenge. However, some of our biggest highlights have also come from responding to these changes - from attention spans to 15-sec content, to changing algorithms, the rise of OTT, and the pandemic - all of this teaches you as a production house to be nimble and versatile, and to be able to simultaneously create various types of content and formats is a highlight.

On the year 2022 and learnings

The year 2022 was exciting for us - we released our short film Vakeel Babu on Amazon Mini themed on domestic violence, our mini web series Ye Saali Naukri on MX Player on unemployment in India, also two feature films and one web series which went into production. A key learning here was the importance of working with and building towards a community of change-makers within the media industry - combining synergies is what makes the process fun and the outcome fruitful.

On the USP

There’s so much content out there and yet so many more stories to be told. Our USP is that our content goes beyond just the purpose of entertainment - it educates and empowers. If the content goes deep enough to connect with a person’s fears, anxieties, or problems and provides an entertaining and engaging way to address it or think about or differently - our focus on action and constructivism is our USP.

On your recent film Vakil Babu

We’re so grateful for the response the movie has got from audiences - it’s been really appreciated across the storyline, the acting, directing and the message. The last part is most important to us. After it’s release on AmazonMini and featured as the top five short films on the platform, it’s now being taken to law colleges, bar associations and legal reform spaces across the country.

On content being king and the allocation of budgets

We green-light projects across three aspects - entertainment, engagement, and empowerment. First, the content has to be fundamentally entertaining in the form of its storytelling - a unique and exciting story that has a plotline that makes you want to watch it come to life. Second, it needs to be engaging in a way that doesn’t make you forget it as soon as it’s over - does it touch deeper emotional threads in the audience such that it’s shelf life is beyond the exposure time? And lastly, does it empower the audience in some way - a new piece of information, a new way of thinking, or an action to a problem around you?

We allocate budgets based on what the script requires to do justice to the story, the medium or platform it may be being scheduled for release on and the scale there, and the commercial ability of the content to perform in the market.

On incubation at the MIT Media Lab, USA

I worked as a researcher at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab for three years where my focus was the intersection of Indian media and social change. My interest in exploring the role entertainment media can be in further civic education was supported by the Media Lab and I was able to incubate the project there. The lab’s work cuts across various aspects of media and technology for the future and has been sometimes called "the future factory."

On the future of OTT

Like in other media industries, it often starts with a few players with specific libraries, then expands with more fragmentation and diversification. There are many OTT players right now and regional content has been expanding across most as audiences from various parts of the country and linguistic regions access OTT. I see more diverse stories and niche genres developing with time.

On technological disruption

From a production point of view, there’s of course much more that’s being done digitally now instead of on set. There’s also a lot of development in AR and VR and the application of AI to media.

On way forward for civic studio

Over the next five years, we see Civic Studios expanding its studio slate over various film and series titles, both in India and internationally. We have just set up a UK office and look forward to more international collaborations. A key part of what we do is run advocacy and impact campaigns for our content, and we look forward to doing this with global organisations.

On the content slate for 2023 

We have several feature films and web series in development and scheduled for release across the coming year - our content is currently all focused on fiction across drama and comedy genres and covering social movements such as India’s women’s rights movement, the polio campaign, Sec 377, etc. We also have a Marathi film, an animated feature film, and a children’s film in the pipeline. We’re looking forward to these and the international impact campaigns that will accompany these.

There are a lot of opportunities across short and long-form content, taking Indian content internationally, creating a growing market of kids content, and staying ahead of the curve when it comes to creating for AR and VR.

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