Amazon India Bought the Biggest Films When Cinemas Were Closed. As They Reopen, How Will the Streamer Adapt?

Amazon Prime Video's Indian service, like streaming competitors Netflix and Disney Plus Hotstar, has enjoyed the benefits of buying cinema titles from closed cinemas. But what's the next piece from Amazon for feature films as the country's cinemas prepare to reopen?
Starting with “Gulabo Sitabo” (pictured) with Amitabh Bachchan and Ayushmann Khurrana and continuing with “Shakuntala Devi” with Vidya Balan and later a list of films from South India with Suriya, Nani and Fahadh Faasil, the streamer has in the last seven months reached the high notes. On October 15, when Indian theaters reopen, Amazon's acquisition strategy could change as producers have an opportunity to return to theatrical releases.
Variety discussed the rapidly changing streaming scenario with Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head of Content, and Gaurav Gandhi, Director and Country General Manager of Amazon Prime Video India.
Indian theaters will reopen from October 15th. How will this affect Amazon Prime Video India's plans to acquire high profile films like "Coolie No 1" announced today?
Vijay Subramaniam: It all depends on how the whole theater experience turns out. As much as the announcement is a welcome relief, everyone is still grappling with what exactly is happening and what public opinion will be like. For us, customer orientation is the engine of our selection. We are very happy to have close relationships with producers and studios throughout the length and breadth of the country. We have a pretty robust lineup of our first window films outside of the DTS (Direct-To-Service) range. So if everything goes back to normal, this has been a model that we have been really looking into anyway and we look forward to coming back to it.
But I think a couple of things will change: there will be a hybrid model, some other windows will shift, and so on. It's a little difficult to put a pen on it right away because it's so new. To be fair, this is a question that we have to answer together with the producers. And at this point in time, the jury isn't sure when exactly things will change.
So do you think theater windows will shrink?
For us, it has always been our goal to get our content to our customers as quickly as possible. And we will keep pushing for it. Now the windows are already very, very interesting in India and I think what will change is the attitude of the manufacturers towards these windows. And in some cases, they can be made even shorter in a good way. And as long as it has economic value, why not?
There are a lot of things that we have been able to bring about in the past few years that are disruptive but have actually increased overall performance for the industry. So if you think on the one hand about how digital rights are distributed now, on the other hand that customers can interact with the films within 30 days of their being released in our local language markets other than Hindi, these are all steps the industry has taken and is beneficial has found.
Gaurav Gandhi: The other view is that given that the number of screens in India is what it is [9,600] and that number has been for some time, most of them are no longer in theaters within the first one few weeks and a very small percentage of the population can actually go to the theater to see movies. The greatest films are seen in cinemas by 1.5% of the country.
There's a likely scenario where producers are re-evaluating the types of movies [they want in theaters], and in any case, streaming has done to television exactly what multiplexes have done to individual screens: They have the audience [ there] segmented and can have segmented the audience here. We have seen our films have been seen in over 4,000 cities across the country, and the fact that 50% of the films in the local language have been viewed outside of the home state allows for wide distribution, which can sometimes be difficult with theaters too.
Subramaniam: The fun part is really that within the digital medium, the customer feedback loop is direct and immediate. This is how producers and creators far and wide get love and affection from customers firsthand. So it's not just the traditional awards for the home market. They come from everywhere.
Speaking of reach, what numbers did these films enjoy during this lockdown period?
Subramaniam: They are observed in over 4,100 cities across the country. And then, for the films in the national language, the regional films, 50% of the viewers came from outside the state. And that's a really interesting finding too, as it shows you the latent popularity of this content and the limitation on physical display and reach. To me, this is a huge benefit for these developers considering they are creating content that is unique to a particular community. And often the physical distribution constraints prevent the film from showing.
Gandhi: The third is really the fact that it is one thing to say, "We are going to release this movie through the service in 200 countries," but actually seeing clients in 180 countries is also very unique to me.
If Amazon buys a film, will the producer reimburse their production costs?
Subramaniam: This entire DTS model only works if everyone involved works together. And economically it has to be fair and sensible for everyone. Otherwise, you will never get such high profile mainstream titles. I mean, whether it's a "Gulabo Sitabo" or a "Coolie No 1", these are films that have been prepared for a theatrical release. And producers have great expectations of what they're going to do. I think everyone realizes that it's important that it works for all stakeholders, including us. Because it doesn't work when we're here to replace the theater opportunity. That's not what we do. We take great content and make it available to millions of customers at a time when one of their distribution lines is completely closed. So you have to realize that too.
Second, the investment we made in building the title, as well as its marketing and advertising. We haven't spared an opportunity, and we've put our resources behind each of these [films] and literally celebrated them as they would if they were released in theaters. We just made the theater home.
Gandhi: I think that on the economic spectrum, a producer incurs the costs of making the film and of marketing and distributing it in order to ultimately make it accessible to the audience. The fact that when we take the responsibility for actually getting this to the customers, we are leading the heads of sales and marketing. We actually created a new benchmark and playbook about how these films are marketed and how far and deep they actually go - not just in the home country but outside of it as well. It must make economic sense for everyone, including us, to do this.
Amazon India has commissioned successful series that have been very well received, such as "The Family Man" and "Mirzapur". As with the Amazon Studios model in the US and elsewhere, are there any plans to produce films as well?
Subramaniam: It is a content format that we are constantly reviewing. And again, our decisions were always backwards from the customer. The series we've created over the past few years is proof that we looked at the Needs Gap when we arrived - and this was a big needs gap! - and we have concentrated all of our resources on it. And that's exactly what we did. When it comes to movies, we keep checking them. We don't have to make any decisions right now. We are also very fortunate to have built quite a broad spectrum of relationships with leading studios and producers in the various local entertainment industries. We really have to think long and hard about the exact gaps in customer needs we would solve if we wanted to get into [film production].
My final question concerns the self-regulatory code of conduct that Amazon is a signatory. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting does not support this, they are dissatisfied in many ways and they say that there is no third party surveillance or a well-defined code of ethics. that prohibited content was not clearly stated; and that there is a conflict of interest because the streamer people are on the regulatory committee. Do you have a comment?
Gandhi: At Prime Video, we always focus on giving our customers the widest choice of what to watch and how they want to watch it. We make sure we discover quality content and provide an environment for developers to tell their stories in. We continue to be customer-oriented, bear responsibility for customer preferences and respect legal, official and cultural peculiarities.
With regard to the Code in particular, this has been worked out in consensus with a large part of the industry. We were 16 streamers who got together and expanded it. We had a lot of healthy debates along the way. During the process, we agreed on our goal of balancing the needs and choices of the client and the artistic expression. And we continue to work with the group to find the best ways to work towards it. We have nothing to say on this point.
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