The Dark Yet Successful World of OTT Business

The Video Content market was already changing before March 2020. The high budget OTT series by top Content provider were diminishing the gaps between artfully made movies and casually made TV series in India.

High budget series started getting made with A-list stars. The gap was narrowing down and a different future for the movies was coming on the forefront. However, everyone felt that the transition will take time, five years to say the least.

But it took a 180-degree jump after March 24th when Prime Minister Modi came on our TV screens and ordered a complete lockdown in entire India due to the Corona Pandemic. Film theatres were closed and all the film releases were halted.

People were forced to sit at home with an ample amount of time in hands. The big question for most of them was how to pass time. OTT platforms came to rescue. With huge banks of films and series, they started promoting their content more. According to a survey, there was nearly 200% surge in watch time at most OTT platforms. People were even watching mediocre content which they won’t watch otherwise.

After nearly two months, OTT platforms were running out of fresh content. There didn’t seem any respite from lockdown either. Corona was increasing in every corner of this world and no one knew how long it would continue.

Then came a surprise. Shoojit Sarkar, an acclaimed ad maker and film director who has made several hit films before tied hands with Amazon Prime to release his next venture, Gulabo Sitabo on Prime. It starred the two hottest properties of Indian cinema — Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushman Khurana, coming first time together on screen.

With huge star cast and a big banner behind, surely huge money was transacted behind this deal. All previous films of Khurana have been blockbusters earning more than 100 crores at Box office. He was touted as the new Prince of the box office. The film was released but proved to be a disappointment.

If released, it would have cost a lot of money to the producers because after two days it would have crashed and see a decline in sales. But it turned out to be a profitable venture for both parties this time. Sarkar got his investments along with profits back and Prime got an ace film on the resume. People didn’t like it but were still watching it from the convenience of their home. They already had a Prime subscription and the film was literally given to them for free.

Unlike Netflix and other OTT services, Prime subscription does not just give you access to a world of movies, it helps you in discounts in several products on its shopping app as well as other features. More people had Prime subscription by default which is the reason for the high subscription rate of Prime, more than any other platform.

However, the ice was broken. Someone has made the first move. An A-list film was sold on OTT platform. Earlier big-budget films were usually commissioned by the OTT platforms but this time a well-made film was sold. There is a huge difference between the two. The two worlds are colliding now. It was like a can of worms waiting to be opened.

Soon, others followed the suit. Within a few days, there was news that twelve films that were destined to release on big screens were sold to several OTT platforms. The fight for the right medium of content that started in Hollywood between veteran film directors like Martin Scorsese, Spielberg, Tarantino and OTT platforms was now moving in favor of the big OTT giants.

Indian filmmakers, however, don’t care much about such wars. They would sell their films to anyone as far it makes some money for them. Ethics is not a strong point of the Indian Film industry. Truth be told, the Indian film industry is not a podium of storytelling but a business of creating mediocre content, run by posh executives with golden MBA degrees, who have no idea about creativity, but are always over confident that they know what works on box office.

Earlier, the film industry was dominated by a few film families and producers but now it is dominated by some MBA executives who rely more on stats from Deep Learning data gathering rather on gut feeling.

OTT platforms were already full of more content than it was necessary. Most content they owned was released previously in theatres. No producer would think of releasing their films on OTT platforms before that. It wasn’t money issue; it was an ego and prestige point and they didn’t want to be the first one to do it and get criticized. Film theatres were the holy grail for the film release.

In normal cases, either the content was custom made for the platform or was brought after three weeks of the film release. Many films with heavy star cast were sold before even weeks before the release.

Recently the trend has changed. After Gulabo Sitabo, everyone wants to release their films on OTT platforms. This is enticing because you recover your complete investment and doesn’t have to care about hit or flop. The success of a series remains in inside information.

The process of releasing a film was always a complicated one and that is why the eager Producers, basically rich businessmen from other businesses, who wanted to make good films in Bollywood couldn’t cope with the process and would bid goodbye after doing one or two films in Mumbai. Film certification, Distribution, marketing, advertising etc. were a huge task that one had to fulfil before releasing any film, not to mention the tax cuts on profits. That problem is solved now. Everyone is seeking OTT approval now.

Filmmaking like any other field has always been dominated by a few key players. People outside Mumbai only see fractions of films that get release every Friday. If you live in Mumbai you will witness several posters of obscure films that release and vanish every Friday. Nearly 80% of films die at the production stage, and whatever gets made struggles to see the light of the day. The only fraction of such movies backed by known stars and powerful producers sees a release.

What happened to those few which were made but could not procure a release? Well, they found a savior in the OTT platforms.

OTT platforms are nothing but a very refined version of the cable TV network whose surge we saw in the 90s and beginning of 2000s. You pay for every channel and you get to choose which channels you want to see.

Recently, if you visit any OTT platform, you won’t just see good films there, you will also see badly made films. The reason behind buying bad films is the competition. More the content, the better.

The OTT platforms, like other social media, work on the refresh rate. Every time a user refreshes a Netflix or a Prime Page they get to see new content on it. Where does this idea came from? It came from the user-driven websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube where every time you refresh a page, there is new content updated on your timeline. The temperament of the common person is changed. They want more in less time. No one has patience anymore.

When OTT’s were in their inception, they are buying content like they buy fish in a fish market, in order to fill their websites. More content means more browsing, which means more spending time on the website, which means more content being watched. Since it requires a lot of money and a lot of hard work to create new content, only a few new contents were getting made while a lot of already made content was getting purchased.

A lot of films which were canned earlier got a new chance. They were buying anything that had any watchable value.

They even bought series like classic Byomkesh Bakshi which was aired around mid of the 90s because they found the Bakshi series still has lots of viewers. So anything that has any viewers, they want to buy it. Ironically Bakshi is free to watch on Youtube on Doordarshan’s channel.

They don’t care whether it is freely available on Youtube for people to watch or not. Dice Media’s Mithila Palkar starrer series “Little things” is still freely available on Youtube while you can also watch it on Netflix.

The huge library was and is their target. Initially, original series were not produced in India much. I believe the OTT research team must be working day and night to find what kind of content people would like to watch on OTT platforms. It is all a research game inside.

Game of Thrones is a huge hit but they know that they cannot make a show like Game of Thrones in India. First, because it would cost too much, second, Indian filmmakers cannot meet the international shooting standards and third Indian audience is difficult to understand. They would rather watch a show with foreign actors and praise it while criticizing if something similar was made in India. It is ironical.

Sherlock was a huge hit in India. Sherlock is a British series based on a fictional detective created by a British Chemist and author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887. Series found a lot of appreciation in India along with other countries. But it was not something you could pitch to an Indian producer and get a green flag.

Indian producers have herd mentality and lots of young film directors exploit that mindset. Whatever worked the last time, they would create more of it till something new comes in and breaks that pattern.

I remember after Gangs of Wasseypur was released, every producer in Mumbai was looking for a film like Gangs of Wasseypur –“Waisa koi script hai kya tumhare paas.” And came a flood of movies like that after it but every one of them flopped.

It happens every time a film becomes a hit in Mumbai, everyone wants to make similar films.

Netflix produced Sacred Games. The Production House belonged to highbrows of industry like Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane and boasted of actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali khan. For the first time, we were seeing a Bollywood star making an entry into something which was more like a serial. The move could have backfired for Saif. But it didn’t. It became a hit and then the soon the similar patterns followed. Everyone wanted to make similar series. Came Mirzapur. It became hit too. It increased the guts of other producers. They all wanted something based on North India, with real-life instances, raw characters, thrill in every episode and film stars portraying the lead characters.

The rally broke after much-hyped Sacred Games — 2 which was given nearly thrice the budget to make after the success of ‘Sacred Games’ season 1, flopped.

This time it didn’t work and was heavily criticized on Twitter, Youtube and by critics alike.

At this point of time, a question will arise in your mind — how do we know a series is a hit or a flop?

Truth be told, we can never know whether a series worked or didn’t work. The only measure of it is public opinion and buzz created on social media platforms.

I once met an executive who was working on an OTT platform which was touted to be investing 500 Crores in OTT shows in the coming years and would become a market leader. It’s been three years and that didn’t happen. That platform had to later tie-up with another leading platform to survive.

So that OTT executive told me how one show on their platform was getting hit and doing wonders for their platform. Curious as I am, I asked her how does she know that series is a hit. Does she have any stats on likes and dislikes or the number of views or some other relative data to corroborate those facts?

I was surprised when she told me that she read it on ScoopWhoop, an online portal popular for gossip and clickbait news.

She told me that not many people inside have any access to the data that the company has about the stats of views of a particular show.

It was then it struck me that unlike youtube, you cannot see how many people have seen a particular show on the OTT platforms. There is no comment section, no views section, and there is no like-dislike button. They don’t want you to know whether a show has flopped or not.

When Prime’s “Made in Heaven” came, everyone seems to be talking about it on Facebook, about how the show was such a big hit. I asked a few people around me whether they have seen it and none said they had. So how was its success measured?

The answer came to me later when I met a Film Magazine owner who wanted to meet me to offer me a writer’s job in his magazine. He told me that he often gets offers where he is asked to write articles about shows that haven’t been aired or seen. He said he has a friend working in an online portal who works day and night to promote the series without even watching them.

Within a day of the release of the show, they will start telling you that the show has become a hit and everyone is crazy about it. They will take screenshots from the show or the trailer of the show and make memes and circulate it on Twitter and Facebook. Insta celebs will be paid tons to promote it on their channels. Tiktok(now defunct) users were given money to make videos on the dialogues of the show. At least 30 to 50 online portals will come up with listicles like “Ten reasons why you should watch this show”. People are bombarded right, left and center with fabricated information and they have no option but to digest.

Do you remember when film posters would be pasted all over the city citing “Running successfully all over” within three days of film’s release? This is just an advance version of that. They declare results before the results even start to come out.

Truth is that most OTT platforms have only a niche market in their hands. They have been trying very hard to target tier 2 and tier 3 cities but every strategy they have tried has failed. The upper class in North India who has more interest in American History than Indian history are satisfied with the dosages of American and European web series and films.

The major population of UP and Bihar are engrossed more on the dosages of Bhojpuri stars like Kalua, Khesari and Pawan Singh and are completely fine watching their films and songs whole day on their long battery serving cheap mobile handsets.

South India has its industry and they are more dedicated to the cinema in their region. They love their language and like to see more content in their language.

Truth be told, the audience who subscribes to the OTT platforms is quite less. Top players like Netflix and Prime have captured urban audience but still, struggle to expand.

Netflix promotes its brand heavily and has a great encoding software which makes its content run smoothly even on low internet. While Amazon is thrusting their Prime membership on you from different sides. I was angry when a few months back I got an extra amount of 999 rupees in my postpaid Vodafone bill. They renewed the prime membership. I was angry and I immediately shifted to prepaid Jio after that. I don’t buy from Amazon much and neither do I watch too many webs series so I didn’t need it. But what about others.

These big platforms have got huge budgets. Netflix might be earning less from India but has a huge base in the US and European markets. The smaller platforms who does not have that privilege have resorted to soft sexual content. There are many apps like Ullu or Kooku or HotShots which are producing unapologetic sexual content and with the amount of content they are uploading on their channels every week, you know that that strategy is working. Even Ekta Kapoor’s Alt Balaji resorted to sexual content to survive in the market.

No matter what, the prospects of OTT platforms is great and it won’t be an overstatement to say that within ten years, there will be a dearth of theatres everywhere. Film theatres will be taught in film history classes. The future is OTT.