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Building a Billion Dollar Indian Content Studio Requires Alchemy, Says Applause Entertainment’s Sameer Nair

Sameer Nair
Applause Entertainment

In the space of five years, TV veteran Sameer Nair has built Applause Entertainment into a powerhouse supplier of Indian content that is being hungrily consumed by the sub-continent’s streaming platforms. Built with the backing of the Aditya Birla conglomerate, Applause shows no interest in becoming a streamer or venturing into India’s still large broadcast TV market. Rather it is positioning itself as a gun for hire, and a creative studio that will work with everyone.

Speaking Tuesday at the APOS India conference, Nair described the strategy as a akin to being an alchemist.

“If you’re going to make a billion-dollar company, there are two or three moving parts. One is you’ve got to create all types of content, because any one type is not going to take you there. And, two, you’ve got to be able to work with all kinds of partners. I think that’s our speciality. At Applause we are like alchemists. We have to work with many different people in a collaborative manner: creative people, business people and be able to put these parts together,” said Nair. “The approach is that we are a content studio. We do films, series, factual entertainment and documentaries and animation.”

“In India, I think we were a bit like the first of our kind, somebody who’s going out there, creating series and then coming and showing you the finished tape, ready to license it to you. In the beginning (buyers at streaming companies) were a little unsure as to who we are and what exactly we are doing,” said Nair, distancing Applause from producers that need production finance or await a commission. “And they realized that they have a need gap. We are producing content. They’ve just got to make a buying decision.”

Nair reckons that by working with multiple, rival platforms Applause gets to learn about both local market conditions and international best-practices. And all platforms, he reckons, are hungry for good content.

“The key differentiator from one platform to the other becomes the content. It is what makes or breaks [a business]. It was the same on TV. It’s the same in streaming. Eventually it is going to be the quality of your content and the scale of it.”

Many of Applause’s early shows were adaptations of international formats, series and literary adaptations, a strategy that it shaped with the U.K.’s BBC Studios and which continues today.

“The thought was to gain some speed to market. We should do some, very carefully selected international adaptations. Stories that travel, have universal appeal, which can find resonance in India,” said Nair.

These have included a “Guilt” adaptation, Indian versions of “The Office” and “Criminal Justice,” as well as “Luther” adaptation “Rudra – The Edge of Darkness starring Ajay Devgan in the works.

The Applause slate also currently includes nearly a dozen movies intended to go straight to streaming. “We are doing quite a few where we are making more higher concept, more ensemble cast films where the bigger focus on story, not the big, swashbuckling kind of thing,” said Nair.

It enjoyed recent success with one of the first, Aparna Sen’s “The Rapist,” which shared the Kim Ji-seok prize at the Busan Film Festival where it debuted last month.

Nair says he hopes and expects that the theatrical film business will revive after the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I hope to God that theaters don’t all close. I don’t think it will happen. Because human beings are essentially social animals. It is absurd to think that humanity is going to now sit in the house and order movies and food and education, and work, and never stir out from their home,” said Nair. “The other more important thing is that the theatrical revenue window is really important [to the economics of film]. In India, theatrical revenues account for 50% of the revenues. Also, theatrical is an elastic revenue stream [where hits become phenomena and can vastly outperform the mean].”

Applause is also trying to build up a stream of animated shows from India, but without adding to the country’s already substantial capacity in the sector.

Its flagship title is “Amar Chitra Katha,” based on a widely-revered comic book delving into Indian history and mythology. “We’re looking to produce it at an international standard, really, in the league of how the Japanese and the Koreans and the Americans are doing,” said Nair. “There’s an opportunity for India to revisit its own classics and see it and feel better about it. But there’s also an opportunity to take these stories and export them to the world. We watch ‘Troy’ or ‘Achilles’, Greek and Roman mythology, Egyptian stories. It’s got nothing to do with us, but we still consume it because they’re great stories. Indian mythology too has wild characters and crazy story and amazing unbelievable situations too.”