Shweta Mulki

"The Indian OTT industry has taken the audience for a ride": Vikram Bhatt

The filmmaker is set to enter the OTT space with the launch of his app 'VB on the Web' later this month. A chat.

The constant buzz in the OTT space keeps pointing to the big potential of digital as the future of entertainment. This month it has a new entrant, someone who wants to start a 'theatre on the web'. With 30-odd films (in 26 years) to his name, filmmaker Vikram Bhatt, known largely for his horror thrillers, plans to launch his own OTT app on January 27, his birthday. The app is going to be called 'VB on the Web', just like his YouTube channel that was launched last year.

"The Indian OTT industry has taken the audience for a ride": Vikram Bhatt

Poster of a show currently showing on 'VB on the Web' on YouTube
Click on the image to enlarge

Bhatt has an interesting plan for the app. He will steer away from the monthly SVOD (subscription video-on-demand) system that's currently prevalent in the OTT market and make his audiences pay per show with 'ticket' prices as low as 10 to 20 rupees. The app will start with three shows - Untouchables (starring Bhatt himself), Twisted 2 and Maya 2. This platform will also be open to external producers to put up their content on a revenue-sharing basis.

"The Indian OTT industry has taken the audience for a ride": Vikram Bhatt

Bhatt in a still from the sets of 'Untouchables'

Overall, is it a well-calculated strategy or a bold risk?

For starters, Bhatt has already had the audience sample his content. Loneranger Productions, a company he started in 2016 for digital, content has put up seven web series on his YouTube channel also called VB on the Web. Titles there have had consistent views, with some crossing the million-view mark; perhaps it is what pushed him to go for his own platform.

We prod him on the move.

Edited Excerpts

Investing in a standalone app is quite a step. What made you take it?

The point was to monetise digital content and there are only two ways you can do that - go AVOD (Advertising based Video-On-Demand) or have an app, I chose the latter. 'VB on the Web' on YouTube was more of an exercise to be known in the digital space over anything else. I didn't do it for revenue because YouTube doesn't really have any.

But there's a cost to this...

There is cost, but it's a precursor to the app, an investment. If I had come out with the app without doing any of these series then expectations would be - 'Vikram Bhatt makes films, what'll be in his app?" Now I can say Twisted 2 and Maya 2 are going to be on it. It helps in creating a web brand first, that was the purpose.

Will you discontinue content on YouTube?

No, I will always have content on YouTube. It's like a freemium model. For instance, we will start with Untouchables, a show that will premiere on the app and YouTube on the same day. It will appear week-on-week on YouTube, but on the app, it is for binge-watching; you can watch all fifteen episodes in one go. On YouTube, the show will take 15 weeks.

Are you confident that this lag will be enough to make people pay for shows on the app?

Well, it's not a subscription app. It's 'theatre on the web', so when you come on the app and you want to see a particular show, you pay only for that show. It's like a multiplex.

Why do you think this will work with Indian audiences?

I feel that Indian audiences can pay any amount of money if they know what they are getting. If I come to you and say, 'Do you want to become a member of PVR for 2000 rupees a month? You can see any film you want,' you won't go for it because you'll want to know what's going to be put up. But if I say, 'Do you want to see Tiger Zinda Hai? It is 400 bucks a ticket,' you'll take it. I think the Indian OTT industry has mostly taken the audience for a ride because one is charging subscriptions, but not delivering.

But subscription fees charged by Indian OTT players are not considered that steep...

Even one rupee is high. When you promise entertainment month-on-month for a subscription fee, you have to deliver. Have they really given the subscription's worth? Are you giving me what Netflix has? Because you'll need to be in the same league with these players; with their massive libraries and frequency. I'm not that hotel with all the facilities you may or may not use - I'm a BnB.

You mentioned that you are looking at very low pricing...

It's going to be ridiculous; somewhere between 10 and 20 rupees for a single show. There will be deals like season passes etc. The shows will run for 13, 15 or 26 episodes each. We want to make it affordable. We even have cash payment. We are working on a system where my payment gateway has tied up with general stores all over the country. Via GPS, it will help you locate the stores and you can buy vouchers.

How will you price this for diaspora audiences?

Well, it won't be like 5 cents, but between $1.5 to $2 USD.

Have you braced yourself for the 'uninstall app' habit of audiences here?

40 days is how long they say an app stays on the phone. Candy Crush is an exception... maybe. Content makes apps stay. Facebook too has to constantly innovate; if you don't sell something new every few days, even FB can become a MySpace. The apps that aren't on your phone network anymore are those that aren't creating anything new.

The Netflix show, Stranger Things, is up your alley, genre-wise. Any possibility of creating something like that here?

That's a quantum discussion, firstly we don't have the budgets, but it will happen. Indian television has missed the bus on the youth segment; it's women-centric and mass centred. So the young ones are either watching American content or pirating or watching Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube. There is a huge market for youth here and for diaspora type content too; these are interesting times.

International players do have content that's local...

I would say Netflix and Amazon have still to make inroads into Indian masses. A Delhi or Bombay and other A-plus centres watching them don't mean much. Yes, they have deep pockets and will go more local, but as far as I'm concerned, throughout the years, wherever there have been big studios there have also been independent makers like me, alongside them.

Vikram Bhatt is known for 'horror and erotic thrillers' how do you look at that tag...

People spend a lifetime making a brand for themselves, so why would I push that away. I don't know when the last time was that I made an erotic thriller. I have made many horror films, yes. But on the app, we have varied content.

Web content is not regulated today, but one day it might be. How could that impact content?

There's already a lot of self-censorship on the web. On digital, people come for a 'particular sensation'. They don't want a story mixed with sex. It could be an erotic story, but it has to be a story. Thanks to Jio, most of India has data. If they want to watch porn they can. I'm not going to watch a film or web series with half-clad women when I can see everything online for the same data, on the same phone. Earlier, in films, it was different because you couldn't see it anywhere else; you bought the 'half clad'. Today if somebody comes to my channel, it's not for porn (unless I'm specifically selling that), they come to watch drama, suspense or supernatural thrillers. A real content maker would not fear online censorship.

Will Vikram Bhatt ever make a light-hearted comedy for digital?

There's too much comedy on the web. There are whole channels doing rom-coms, husband-wife situations and there's no point being another one like that. We are all selling different wares. Also, on 'VB on the Web', there's hardly any horror there. There's Twisted Maya, Hadh and Spotlight, these are out-of-the-box. We're going to have drama, supernatural and Sci-fi on the app. Untouchables is an emotional courtroom drama. We'll also have Breaking News which is about corruption in media.

Is it all your own money? Tell us about the digital team.

Right now it's all my own investment. I'm not directing any, but I'm involved in the creative and scripts, a bit on the casting and I, of course, see the final product. We have E-Creed who have developed the app, they are my CTOs too. And I have a creative team of 6 directors, writers, music directors, and editors all dedicated to this.

You produce content for Viu too, won't there be any conflict?

I'm only one of the producers there. Also, I'm not a subscription model, so whether I showcase it in my app and charge or give it to them, it's all the same.

Any marketing plans? Will you promote the app in your movie trailers?

I don't think you can market an app. The content markets the app. Awareness doesn't translate to intrigue. It may not want me to download the app. It needs content specific promos (which will be sampled on digital).

Tech advancements have reduced visual quality differences between mediums like film and TV. Though it's said that audiences don't care, cost-wise, does digital help?

Film and TV can look the same, but they don't. The problem with TV is that most of the series are dailies and that brings down quality. Yes there's tech and digital has made things easy, but faster computers can't make you a writer. Someone famously said - how much can you exploit the software. Software can be stretched to a limit only with skill. The iPhone X shoots at 4K at 24 frames, so it is essentially a film camera, but that doesn't make you a filmmaker, the stories do.