Amazon Prime Video’s India service, like their streaming rivals Netflix and Disney Plus Hotstar, have enjoyed the benefits of acquiring theatrical titles with cinemas closed. But as the country’s movie theaters prepare to reopen, what’s Amazon’s next play for feature films?
Beginning with “Gulabo Sitabo” (pictured) starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana, and continuing with “Shakuntala Devi,” starring Vidya Balan, and later a slate of films from South India starring the likes of Suriya, Nani and Fahadh Faasil, the streamer has been hitting the high notes for the last seven months. Come Oct. 15, when Indian cinemas reopen, Amazon’s acquisition strategy could change, with producers having the option of returning to theatrical releases.
Variety discussed the rapidly changing streaming scenario with Vijay Subramaniam, director and head of content, and Gaurav Gandhi, director and country general manager for Amazon Prime Video India.
Indian theaters are reopening from Oct. 15. How will this impact Amazon Prime Video India’s plans to acquire high-profile films like “Coolie No 1,” which was announced today?
Vijay Subramaniam: It all depends on how the entire theatrical experience shapes up. As much as the announcement is a welcome relief, everybody is still grappling with what exactly happens and what public sentiment will be. For us, customer focus is what drives our selection. We’re very happy to have deep relationships with producers and studios across the length and breadth of the country. We have a pretty robust lineup of our first window movies beyond the DTS [Direct-To-Service] realm. So, if everything returns to normal, that was a model that we were very deeply engaged in anyway, so we are happy to go back to that.
But I think a couple of things will change: there will be some hybrid model that will emerge, some other windows will shift and so on. It’s a little hard to put a pin on it right away, because it’s so recent. To be fair, this is a question that requires us to answer along with the producers. And, at this point, the jury’s still out on when exactly things will change.
So do you think that theatrical windows are going to shrink?
For us, our goal has always been to try and bring our content as quickly as we can to our customers. And we’re going to continue to push for that. Now, the windows are very, very interesting already in India, and I guess what will change is the the producers’ outlook towards those windows. And in some cases, they may become even shorter, in a good way. And as long as there’s economic value in it, why not?
There are a lot of things we’ve been able to bring over the last couple of years, which, while disruptive, have actually enhanced the overall output to the industry. So if you think about it, on the one hand, the way digital rights are now being parcelled out, on the other hand, the fact that customers can engage with the films within 30 days of its release in our local language markets, except Hindi, these are all steps that the industry’s taken and found beneficial.
Gaurav Gandhi: The other way to look at it is that, given the fact that the number of screens in India are what they are [9,600], and have been that number for a while, most of them are out of theaters within the first couple of weeks and a very small percentage of population actually gets to go to theaters to watch films. The biggest films are watched by 1.5% of the country in theaters.
There is a likely scenario that producers will reassess the kind of films [they want in theaters], and in any case, streaming has done to television exactly what multiplexes did to single screens: you have segmented audiences [there] and you are able to have segmented audiences here. We saw our films watched in over 4,000 cities and towns in the country already, and the fact that 50% of viewing of the local language films came outside the home state, you’re able to get the wide distribution, which sometimes can be challenging with theaters as well.
Subramaniam: The fun part, really, is that within the digital medium, the feedback loop from customers is direct and immediate. So producers and creators are getting first-hand love and affection from customers far and wide. So it’s not just the traditional home market accolades. They’re coming from everywhere.
So, speaking of the reach, what kind of numbers have these films enjoyed during this lockdown period?
Subramaniam: They are watched in over 4,100 cities and towns in the country. And then, for the local language films, the regional films, 50% of the viewership came from outside of the state. And that’s a really interesting insight as well, because it shows you the latent popularity of this content, and the limitation of physical exhibition and reach. That, to me, is a big takeaway for these creators, considering they’re making content that’s unique to a particular community. And often times, the physical distribution limitations prevent the movie from traveling.
Gandhi: The third one, really, is the fact that it’s one thing to say, ‘We’ll release this movie on the service in 200 countries,’ but to actually see customers in 180 countries watch this, to me, is also very unique.
When Amazon buys a film, is the producer recovering his or her cost of production?
Subramaniam: This entire DTS model only works with the collaboration of everyone involved. And economically, it has to be fair and reasonable to everyone. Otherwise, you’re never going to get these kind of mainstream high profile titles. I mean, whether it’s a ‘Gulabo Sitabo’, or a ‘Coolie No 1,’ these are movies that have been primed for a theatrical release. And the producers have big expectations in terms of what they will do. So, I think everyone recognizes that it’s important that it works for all the stakeholders including us. Because, it won’t work if we’re here to replace the theatrical opportunity; that’s not what we’re doing. What we’re doing is taking great content and making it available to millions of customers at a time when one of their distribution pipes is completely shut. So, they need to recognize that, too.
Second is the investment that we put in building out the title, as well as its marketing and promotion. We’ve spared no opportunity, and we have put our resources behind each of these [films], literally celebrating them as they would have if they were a theatrical release. We just made the theater the home.
Gandhi: I think that in the economic spectrum, for a producer, there is the cost of creating the film and the marketing and distribution of it to ultimately get it to audiences. The fact that when we take the responsibility of actually getting this to the customers, we take the ladder to distribution, as well as marketing. We’ve actually created a new benchmark and a new playbook around how these films get marketed, and how far and deep they actually go — not just in the home territory, but outside as well. It has to make commercial sense for everyone, including us, for us to do that.
Amazon India has commissioned successful series that have been received extremely well, like “The Family Man” and “Mirzapur.” Like the Amazon Studios model in the U.S. and elsewhere, are there plans to produce films as well?
Subramaniam: It’s a content format that we constantly keep reviewing. And, again, our decisions have always been customer backwards. The series slate we’ve built out over the last couple of years is a testament to the fact that when we came in, we looked at the need gap — and this was a big need gap! — and we focused all our resources on it. And that’s what we’ve been doing. When it comes to film, we constantly review it. At the moment, we don’t have any decisions to be made. But we’re also very fortunate that we built out a pretty wide spectrum of relationships with leading studios and producers across the various local entertainment industries. We really need to think long and hard in terms of what exact need gaps for customers we’d be solving if we want to get into [film production].
My last question is about the self-regulation code of conduct, which Amazon is one of the signatories of. The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting is not supporting it, they aren’t happy on a number of counts, saying that there is no third party monitoring or well-defined code of ethics; that it hasn’t clearly enunciated prohibited content; and that there’s a conflict of interest because the people from the streamer are sitting on the regulatory board. Do you have any comment?
Gandhi: At Prime video, we are always focused on providing our customers the greatest choice of what they want to watch, and how they want to watch it. We make sure we discover high quality content and we are offering creators an empowering environment to tell their stories. We continue to be customer centric, we have responsibility towards the customer preferences, and we will respect the legal, regulatory and cultural sensitivities.
On the code in particular, that has been drafted in consensus with a large segment of the industry. We were 16 streamers who came together and build it out. We had a lot of healthy debates along the way. Through the process, we were united in our goal that we must balance the customer’s needs and choices, as well as the artistic expression. And we continue to work on that with the group to arrive at the best methods to work towards it. At this point, we have nothing more to say on that.