As the world’s fastest-growing streaming market, India has become a key battleground for the major online players as they try to carve out loyal subscriber bases.
The U.S. giants compete with local broadcasters and VOD upstarts in a territory that has a way to go before it reaches saturation – a PWC report published in October claimed the overall market value would grow from $708 million in 2019 to $2.7 billion in 2024.
Disney+ Hotstar is an established local leader with 400m+ downloads for its app across its varying tiers, as well as 26 million+ paying subscribers. Fellow America-based giant Netflix has north of four million subs, while Amazon doesn’t reveal sub numbers but analysts have pegged it at between 10 and 15 million for the wider Prime offering, which grants access to the video service.
India is one of the most exciting streaming markets in the world right now and there are many kinds of models,” explains Gaurav Gandhi, Director & Country General Manager, Amazon Prime Video, India, in an exclusive chat with Deadline.
“Broadcasters have streaming services, there are freemium models, plus players that have links to telecom which have aggregation models,” he continues. “On one level they are all competing, but the headroom for growth is huge, in three to four years we believe there will be as many people steaming video on their devices as there are watching TV today, the opportunity is very large.”
The deep-pocketed Amazon has recognized that opportunity. 2020 may have generally been a year of consolidation and commiseration for the entertainment business, but the lockdown represented a chance for streamers to make an aggressive play for audiences, and in India Amazon opted to pursue marque films that were poised to become big theatrical box office titles but had their release plans scuppered by the pandemic.
“The pandemic accelerated digital growth in India. We are fortunate to have a robust number of originals, and we also doubled down our investment on films in this period,” says Gandhi.
The streamer hit the headlines a couple of months into lockdown when it picked up the Hindi comedy Gulabo Sitabo starring Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana as part of a package of seven features it unveiled in one swoop of eye-catching content. That deal was followed later in the year by a further slate of theatrical titles, including Coolie No. 1 starring Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan, which released on Christmas Day. In total, it debuted 19 films directly onto the service during the pandemic.
“All these titles did strong numbers,” adds Gandhi. “Gulabo Sitabo and Shakuntala Devi [the biography of the titular math wiz starring Vidya Balan] quickly became the most-watched movies on the service in India and our most-watched Hindi movies around the world.”
Aparna Purohit, Head of India Originals, reveals that the company currently has 31 films and series in various stages of production and post-production, with a further 50 in development.
In 2020, it debuted eight series produced in-house, including Kabir Khan’s The Forgotten Army, the Abhishek Bachchan-starring Breathe – Into The Shadows from producers Abundantia Entertainment, and Sons Of The Soil: Jaipur Pink Panthers produced by BBC Studios India.
Of course, the pandemic caused delay and disruption to the entire slate. “Pretty much everything that was on floors went into hiatus,” says Purohit. “Slowly and steadily we are putting things back into production while following all government protocols. It’s a different world and there are a lot more nuanced and specifications now, it’s taking time.”
The original strategy is big-picture, encompassing seasoned directors, and launching new talents across a variety of genres. “Our strategy is always customer backward – what hasn’t been addressed? Which gaps exist? How can we give customers what they want to watch?” Adds Purohit.
“We want to tell authentic stories that are truly entrenched in our soil,” the exec continues. “We wanted to tell hyper-local stories, we believe the more local you are the more global you are.”
Content on the slate ranges from comedy specials to sports documentaries, young adult shows, and LGBTQ programming. The key to everything is the creatives and performers involved. “We like to believe we are a home for talent. Anybody we work with comes and works with us over and over again. We really are enablers for creators and actors.”
The execs won’t be drawn on if Amazon is striking any exclusive talent deals, such as the ones streamers have been inking with key creatives in other countries, but the hope is that talent will return to the service after being convinced by recent successes.
On the series slate for 2021 is The Last Hour, starring Sanjay Kapoor and Raima Sen and produced by Asif Kapadia, medical drama Mumbai Diaries, starring Mohit Raina, Konkana Sen, and Tina Desai, which arrives in March, and political drama Tandav, starring Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Sunil Grover and created by Ali Abbas Zafar, arriving January 15.
Pandemic closures aside, India remains a theatrical-first market. Until recently, the majority of drama series were half-hour daily soaps that often ran into hundreds or thousands of episodes. The steaming boom has prompted a new wave of high-end series content, but cinema remains king in the country that produces more feature films annually than any other.
Amazon’s acquisitions in 2020 were a welcome salve to the wounds caused by the shutdowns, giving a home to big-ticket releases that were delayed indefinitely and allowing audiences to consume fresh starry content, but what happens when theaters re-open?
Gandhi and Purohit assert that, while the streamer will continue pursuing expansion, the two mediums can co-exist effectively in India. Once venues do re-open, the acquisitions strategy will be to look for deals where films can receive a theatrical window of four to eight weeks prior to debuting online. At present, Amazon has managed to strike such deals with the likes of Salman Khan Ventures, Yash Raj Films, and Dharma.
“In India, we have a lot of ‘and’ rather than ‘or’, customers will go to cinemas but will also watch many films in different ways,” comments Gandhi. “It’s hard to say how it will pan out as we can’t predict the future, but as we look forward there are lots of opportunities.”
The exec says that, while India is a cinema-hungry nation, its 9,500 cinema screens struggle to cater to its vast population, meaning many people don’t get to watch the latest releases in theaters. He is bullish about the growing appeal of a steaming launch for Indian filmmakers.
“We offer wider access to these films,” Gandhi asserts. “Customer habits are continuing to change rapidly. They are watching more and more content online. Producers and creators are getting more confident about the reach and scale we can give them.”
The Amazon execs are not expecting the streaming boom to slow down considerably in 2021, despite hopes that lockdowns will lift.
“India has cheap affordable data, a very young demographic whose habits are changing, and we have very diverse content – we make programming in nine languages,” comments Gandhi.
India is a country of 1.4 billion people and 22 languages, and while the Hindi-language Bollywood cinema is often the most recognized globally, Gandhi reveals that the streamer has seen wide consumption for its content in other languages such as Tamil and Telugu.
“Prime Video has been going for four years and we’ve seen phenomenal growth in both our subscriber numbers and our penetration into the country – we are now watched in over 4,300 towns and cities in India,” says Gandhi. “That’s remarkable because many people thought SVODs was just in big cities but that’s not true – our strategy of programming in many languages, plus our distribution across every device, has made us watched in all parts of India.”
There was a spread of five languages across the 19 films the service debuted in 2020, and Gandhi adds 50% of the consumption of those local titles came from outside of their home states.
The appetite for Indian content, however, does not only come from India. The execs reveal that one in five viewers for Indian content on the service come from outside of the country, with a large Indian diaspora around the world and a growing appetite globally for foreign-language content. In total, the service’s Indian content is now watched in 180 countries.
“I truly believe the shows we are creating are transcending language and geography,” concludes Purohit.