The future of cinema viewing experience in a theatre can presently be described as slightly out of focus. Fact is footfalls were dwindling and it could be due to various factors from the quality of content not being compelling enough to warrant a visit to a multiplex, to the exorbitant rate of entry. Extravaganzas are few and far between and people were warming up to the idea of waiting a couple of weeks for meaningful, well told stories to view in the cool comfort of their living room. It’s no longer about acoustics and ambiance, but convenience. Theatres will thrive in time but it will be content, cost and convenience driven.
When private TV channels first invaded living rooms, the usually unflappable M. Saravanan of AVM looked distraught and told me cinema was doomed. When I mentioned this to Kamal later, he simply said: “Believe me, it will help cinema.” Well, the two have co-existed congenially and AVM made a pile selling their rich portfolio of movies to channels. Now it’s the turn of OTT(Over The Top) platforms to help small to medium budget films that are either shunned or unceremoniously removed from halls sometimes after a couple of days. It’s also helped widen the audience for meaningful cinema irrespective of language. The premiering of some films in these unforeseen circumstances of seclusion and social distancing has kicked up a small storm and Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Content Head, Amazon Prime Video is perceived as hero by many and villain for others.
Direct to digital releases on Amazon Prime: ‘Shakuntala Devi’ and ‘Ponmagal Vandhal’
He’s a shrewd businessman helping producers and also keeping people entertained, while they’re forcibly interned. He is busy as the entire film industry is wooing him. Ironically, with most consumables the customer is seldom consulted, and so it’s refreshing when Vijay constantly mentions they are the guiding force when it comes to curating content where Prime Video is concerned.
Is small the new big?
I don’t think customers determine content on that basis at all. It’s about what they like and what they gravitate towards. Size doesn’t matter. It’s the relative appeal it will have to the segment it’s made for. That’s the path we follow.
Is this all a coincidence? The dynamics of watching movies was changing so did the pandemic just hasten the process?
Firstly, we are living in extremely unusual circumstances. I’ve walked the earth for fifty years and I can’t think of a similar experience. We have to first understand that. We have to understand the consumption of entertainment will and has been evolutionary and technology is an enabler. The customer makes the choice of what to watch where and how.
We’ve always insisted on being able to bring the latest and greatest films to our customers as quickly as possible and this is just another step in that endeavour. We were premiering Hindi cinema pretty early and regional cinema within 40 days. What we’ve done is stepped into these rather unusual circumstances and given our customers entertainment they’re otherwise unable to access. There’s a hunger for good stories and we’ve stepped in to provide them. We just have to embrace change.
Filmmakers think you’re a messiah while exhibitors feel you’re an obstacle. Are you just caught in the crossfire?
I can’t comment on how others perceive this. We will continue to do what we’ve always done. All our choices are with the customer in mind. We try to see how they’re evolving and keep in step with them. Entertainment is evolving too. So we’re working with a wide network of producers and filmmakers. Our focus in the last few years has been to build strategic relationships with creators across languages with a long term perspective, established and upcoming.
We’re giving the film industry an opportunity to unlock value and this particular instance is no different. We believe this will work only if everybody sees value in it, the customer on one side and the producers on the other. There are industry stalwarts who’ve chosen to walk this path with us. We see a lot of value for the customer and as long as that’s happening we’ll remain focused on that.
How did this start? Did you make the first move or was it someone who did not get a theatre approach you?
We evaluate various strategies. You see there’s a thriving film industry and there’re some amazing creators out there and we have access to their work very early. The question always was what story we’re going to tell that they’re not already telling the customers. It’s just that given these circumstances there’s an opportunity to present great content to customers in the absence of their ability to access it elsewhere. We spoke to producers we had a relationship with and they thought it was meaningful and worth exploring and here we are.
I guess the exhibitors concern is you will buy films with big stars too in future.
I have genuinely no idea because I’m not an expert in that field, so anything I say would not make any sense. You should ask them.
Is it easier buying a finished product rather than bankrolling one like some of the other platforms do?
Well, we do a combination of both. It all depends on the nature of the project, the makers and the complexities involved in the project. There are times when we wait for the project to finish to have a better view of what we’re getting into and other times when we’ve read the script and believe it’s a project we can support.
The general assumption is you’re grabbing everything on offer. There’s a clamour for films to be shown on Amazon Prime.
(chuckles) Prime Video is an entirely curative environment. We take a portfolio approach to this. We’re not in the business of volume. It’s important to have a deep catalogue because customers like choice and it’s important for customers to find what they’re looking for, which in the business of content is hard to do. We maintain a pretty high bar where a selection criterion is concerned. This will apply differently in different markets. In the Telugu and Tamil industry they produce upwards of 200 films a year, whereas in Punjab it’s around 30. So what we can and what we like to access is very different in these markets. It may seem like we’re picking up a lot of films, but that’s because we’re programming in nine Indian languages.
Now the way you have paced the premieres in various languages it looks like it’s going to be one film a month in each language.
That’s the general idea. It’s also about how much of quality content is out there that we can access. We all know there’re plenty of films pending completion so it’s important to enjoy the films while giving a space of two to four weeks. There will be some amount of crossover in our selection. I know a film like ‘Gulabo Sitabo’ will have a broad appeal, at least in the urban areas of South India because of Amitabh’s fan following. Again ‘Shakuntal Devi’ starring Vidya Balan is about a South Indian icon, a biopic. We’re being very cautious in our selection for people to get entertainment in their own flavour, but there’s opportunity for crossover as well.
TV channels too grabbed films at astronomical rates but soon realized that the returns were marginal, mostly.
For us customer’s responses are the one and only guide. We have a long term view in the way we look at our business and we commit our resources accordingly. What we’re building is a new entertainment consumption habit and India is a very large and exciting market. Not all content will last forever but we hope most of ours does.
TV channels depend on ad revenue while you bank on broadening your subscription base. Is there another module you’re looking at?
Not at the moment and I can’t speculate on what we may or may not do in the future. It’s important to emphasise the value of the Prime membership programme. If you think of all that you’re getting for Rs. 999 in a year or 129 a month, you get free shipping, great shopping deals, video and music. The idea is to enhance all these inputs to make it more compelling for the customer. That’s what we’re focused on.
The enthusiasm to showcase films with you seems to have been dampened a bit with your introducing a share per view payment module.
We have a Prime Video Direct that exists worldwide and here as well. This is in addition to everything that we curate, but it works differently for those who have a catalogue of content with quality. It’s an effective way for producers to unlock more value. That’s the focus of PVD. If this doesn’t create value for one of the stakeholders it’s a waste. It allows them to maximize the opportunity to create value. Quality producers with films that are around five years old are taking advantage of the opportunity.
So who takes the call? Is this an option?
We have a tight framework that a team has defined and they decide what goes where and accordingly this is conveyed to the producer. There are producers engaged in both sides.
Do people prefer movies more than shows?
Not at all. We Indians love our films but shows have a special place in our heart and are increasing in popularity. In fact, our shows are the most popular on the service. What we did was unprecedented, high quality with limited episodes, extremely cinematic in vision and compelling stories. Both will be important in meeting the expectations of customers. We are very careful about the preferences our customers will have, so we’ve started off with originals in Hindi. Last year we announced our expansion into Telugu and Tamil. Films and shows will co-exist.
COVID-19 is keeping people at home and lifestyles are changing…
Well these are unfortunate times. I don’t think I feel any better about the upheaval that this has caused. I agree people are more at home and are spending more time on entertainment. People are more willing to discover content without being specific in their choices. They’re clicking on interesting suggestions. For example, I have friends in Delhi messaging about a Tamil film they watched and vice versa too. I find that very encouraging, having been in entertainment all my life. This will encourage experiments and crossing over of content by filmmakers.
In this spat between producers and exhibitors, is it safe to say you’re one of the reasons but not the cause. You’re not holding a gun to anybody.
Absolutely right. Look at the work we’ve been doing and will continue to do with the industry as we move along. We have a solid roster of relationships with big studios and independent producers across the country. For us customer is first and that’ll remain our focus. As far as the rest is concerned it’s for the people involved to answer. We’re not working with fly by night producers. I want to highlight the fact that the ones we are working with are veterans and doyens. We’ve built this roster collaboratively. This is not something that happened in the last six weeks. We’ve built this content portfolio meticulously from the time we launched.
So how do you see this panning out after the pandemic? Will you still be eager to buy and premiere films or is this just a business opportunity?
It’s really hard to speculate on this at this point. There are so many variables which will need deeper understanding. I’m sure there’ll be some interesting business modules that’ll emerge. I can’t say what they are because as I said there’ll be variables. Everybody is going to be in on it, I think.