This year India saw two of the most expensive Indian original web series – Bose: Dead/Alive by ALTBalaji and Inside Edge by Amazon Prime. But, are these investments paying off?
While 2016 marked the entry of big guns such as Amazon Prime, Netflix, and Jio (for it plays a very crucial role) in India, 2017 finally saw it all coming together. Quality content, cheap data plans, and a highly competitive marketing – original Indian entertainment content is now a thing and officially thriving.
Up until the previous year, original content was mainly reserved for content creators such as TVF, Pocket Aces, and Blush Channel that gave us gems like Permanent Roommates, Pitchers, and Aam Aadmi Family. The para modern content, intended at the Gen Y intellectuals has a cult following and mainly thrived on sponsorships and brand placement.
2017, however, witnessed OTT players entering the original content game and taking it to an all new level in terms of budget and marketing.
According to Reuters, Star India, backed by Twenty-First Century Fox, added an investment of Rs 1,233 crore to its digital content arm—Novi Digital Entertainment Pvt. Ltd that runs Hotstar and Starsports.com. The former boasts original series such as Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai 2 and On Air With AIB.
While Voot tried hands on Originals with Shaadi Boys, Untag, and It’s Not That Simple, the competition in the industry only shaped up this year.
Enter – ALTBalaji
Balaji announced its second screen entry with digital arm, ALTBalaji in April 2017. The video on demand app was committed to offering quality original Indian content for the younger demographic that loves binge watching.
“It was also largely with the fact that we will create stories that have not been told before and create stories that will resonate with individuals rather than families and households. That was the starting point and with that point and the leadership of Ekta Kapoor we went back to create stories and architect the entire pipeline for this particular year,” Manav Sethi, CMO, ALTBalaji told Social Samosa in May, 2017, a month after the launch of the app.
Over the year, ALTBalaji created ground breaking content including shows such as Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, Romil & Jugal, and Dev DD. However, it was only with the announcement of Bose: Dead/Alive that the VoD service took a leap.
Touted as the most expensive show of the year, Bose: Dead/Alive, a period drama, boasted of the ultimate dream team. The show features big wigs such as Rajkumar Rao, and TVF Pitchers fame, Naveen Kasturia. The 9 episodes’ series is directed by eminent film director, Pulkit, with Hansal Mehta roped in as the creative producer.
The show features the pre-independence atmosphere and has been shot at a couple of national and international locations.
“The story of Subhash Chandra Bose’s death has been told very rarely. We spent near a year and a half in research and writing and then put together the right team for it,” Sethi explained.
While Sethi didn’t reveal is any costing of the show, it is projected to have broken the records of Inside Edge, an Amazon Prime Original.
The Originals’ Battle
With international Netflix Originals such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, the expectations from original Indian content was extremely high and only a part of it was fulfilled by Pitchers and likes. 2017 though, managed to change that.
As ALTBalaji was basking in the glory of their successful launch, Amazon Prime India was focussed on the marketing of their first Indian original series, Inside Edge. The 10 episodes’ series was an entertainment thriller and featured big names such as Vivek Oberoi, Richa Chada, and Tanuj Virwani.
According to media reports, the production cost per episode was INR 2 crore, (INR 20 crore for the entire series) with a marketing budget of INR 20 crore bringing it to a total of whopping INR 40 Crore.
In the later part of the year, Amazon Prime India looped in veteran comedian Biswa Kalyan Rath, to create yet another original series, Laakhon Mein Ek, the story of a youth who is forced to prepare for IIT. Another Amazon Prime India original for the year was Going Viral Pvt. Ltd featuring Bollywood star, Kunal Roy Kapur.
On the other end of the originals’ battle was Voot, with shows such as Yo Ke Hua Bro featuring Bollywood starlet, Shamita Shetty, Stupid Man Smart Phone, a Sumeet Vyas starrer reality show, created in association with Vodafone, and Time Out. As compared to other players, Voot has been more of a silent competitor.
One of the best contenders this year was Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai Take 2, a much anticipated and loved show that managed to receive mixed reviews. While the production quality was good, the script was called out for trying too hard.
Adding fuel to the fire were content creators that kept releasing warriors in the heated battle. TVF released four original series in 2017 – Bisht Please, Bachelors, Inmates, and F.A.T.H.E.R.S. Dice Media too released a few titles including 2by3 in association with Kurkure and What the Folks.
Is it paying off?
While the original content industry has begun shaping up in India, it is yet to become premium. Are investments as heavy as an Inside Edge or Bose: Dead/Alive, paying off ensuring peaceful sustenance if not profitability?
“Our objective is not breaking eve,” explains Sethi. “Our objective is to create 500 to 1000 hours quality content.”
To give a background, ALTBalaji is backed by Balaji Entertainment which is partly owned by Reliance Industries (25 per cent).
According to highly placed industry sources, these players function on the KPI of driving subscriptions against every investment. For instance, Amazon Prime India’s media plan included briefs of getting 5 lakh views on Going Viral Pvt. Ltd’s trailer, which would eventually boil down to a conversion rate of 1 per cent.
This however, doesn’t apply to content creators who play a rather safer bet with product placements and funding.
“We have been profitable on all our web series,” shares Aditi Shrivastava, co-founder Pocket Aces.. Web series are our tentpole properties, so in addition to releasing the episodes, we do extensive 360 marketing around them including cinema premiers, radio, offline events, etc. Our budgets to advertisers stay true to the content and to the distribution and media value we are bringing to the table.”
Shrivastava further explains that the cost per episodes (or cost per minute, which is the better metric to look at) really depends on the kind of content and the star cast.
“Since we have all our execution team (including production) in house, we maintain tight budgets with as little leakage as possible,” Shrivastava added.
In terms of product placements, creators carve out characters that can embrace certain genre of products without disturbing the script sanity.
Highly placed sources confirm that, Nerolac purchased 30 per cent screen space in The Timeliner’s Aam Aadmi Family, Season 2 at INR 50 lakhs.
Gazing in the Crystal Ball
Going forward, the industry digs deeper in investments and the battle intensifies further. Amazon Prime and AIB are said to be working on a political satire featuring Irrfan Khan. Netflix announced their first Indian original based on Vikram Chandra’s book ‘Sacred Games’ featuring Saif Ali Khan. Sethi shared that ALTBalaji will be creating 40 more shows.
Either the content will be good enough to drive paid subscriptions or we’re looking at more start-ups burning holes in their pockets. What’s your take?