Suraj Ramnath and Sunit Roy

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

Five content heads on how they see the world of OTT, maintaining creativity and grabbing opportunities.

Though Netflix hates the word, #BingeWatch is the term that millennials like to use when they like any type of original online content.

But what hooks them to an original so much that they binge watch? The right type of casting or direction, name of the director, the production house, the creative script or all of it?

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

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In 2017, Amazon Prime Video's Inside Edge - written and produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani's Excel Entertainment - took the Indian millennial audience by storm.

Facebook posts, recommendations on WhatsApp, word of mouth, and ads from Amazon Prime Video made sure that it was all over the place. But what actually worked in its favour? Was it a combination of a good script (showing a dark side of league cricket), fantastic direction, high production value or some wonderful acting by Vivek Oberoi, Richa Chadha and others?

Amazon probably nailed it with the subject that is a national craze. The show was directed by Karan Anshuman. Puneet Krishna, Ameya Sarda, Saurav Dey and Sumit Purohit wrote two episodes each along with Anshuman who was involved in writing all 10 episodes.

In 2018, Netflix walked into the party with Sacred Games, an Indian crime thriller original directed by Bollywood's big guns, Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane.

The script was written by stand-up comedian Varun Grover, director Vasant Nath and television actor Smita Singh. The show had a powerful cast with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Saif Ali Khan and Radhika Apte playing pivotal roles.

Netflix launched another original film, Love Per Square Foot, featuring Bollywood actor Vicky Kaushal. It was produced by Ronnie Screwvala and directed by yet another Bollywood and ad actor (Tata Tea's original Jaago Re guy) Anand Tiwari.

ZEE5, the OTT platform from Zee Entertainment Enterprises, launched Karenjit Kaur: The Untold Story of Sunny Leone, which did extremely well - the second season has just launched. Season 1 was directed by Aditya Datt and written by Karan Sharma (20 episodes) and Niranjan Kaushik (10 episodes).

Recently, Eros Now launched its first ever web-series, Side Hero, created and directed by Bollywood director Rohan Sippy. The show has been written by Kunaal Roy Kapoor (the main protagonist) along with Gopal Datt, Kautuk Srivastava, Nipun Dharmadhikari and Anuvab Pal.

Apart from the obvious Bollywood and Hindi connection in the above examples, there is Hoichoi, a regional OTT platform that has started off well.

Hoichoi, a medium that only focuses on Bengali originals, has been making its presence felt in a big way. The platform is launching 30 original shows and 12 original movies on the platform in the coming year.

However, online originals come with their own creative challenges before they become hits - or not.

We asked content heads of five OTT platforms on the kind of creative challenges they faced when making an original. Edited excerpts of their responses:

Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video, India

On the challenges

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

Vijay Subramaniam

First, it's important for us to recognise what our customers want and cater to that want. Therefore, it's really important to have a diverse portfolio. Within that, how to balance various stories, genres and make the right selection of stories is a very interesting creative challenge for us. With every show and every piece of content that we create, we are learning - both from our customers as well as creative experiences. Given that it's unchartered territory, what is the right balance? How do you tweak it? What kind of genres do you present first? What kind of genres should you focus on least?

Second, what we are doing is new to this country and its storytelling fraternity. To some extent, we are also creating an ecosystem within the marketplace. So, that is a challenge because people understand the medium and are very excited about it but it also requires a certain shift in the way you think about stories, post production and so on.

Third, the current infrastructure needs to quickly adapt to fast-paced global standards. We launched the show 'Breathe' in 200 territories, thus setting the bar high for the post-production team and technical specs. People are quickly realising and doing everything required to adapt to this new standard.

Lastly, this form of storytelling is clearly a writer's paradise. We believe that battles are won and lost in the writers' room. There is a lot of time and effort that goes into the writing and development process. This a new muscle that a lot of creators are learning to exert.

On finding the right writer

We don't really make any distinction between TV writers and film writers. For us every story, concept and script is taken on merit. It's really up to the creators to determine what kind of writers, they believe, will be able to execute the concept. So, the writers' room can have a mix of people. Scripting is a rigorous development process and that can take months, or even years. And to that end it is very different from TV.

On attracting viewers

Everything we do as Amazon Prime is customer-centric. Understanding the existing taste and preference of our customers (when it comes to entertainment) and trying our best to cater to it whilst constantly understanding emerging trends through dialogue and conversation is most important.

On generating engaging content

Our first port of call was filmmakers because we wanted cinematic quality, finite fiction content. We approached established producers like Excel Media & Entertainment and Kabir Khan Productions. The opportunity for us now is to be able to nurture talent and storytellers, and bring their stories to life.

Monika Shergill, content head, Viacom18 Digital Ventures (Voot)

On the challenges

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

Monika Shergill

Finding good scriptwriters is one the biggest challenges for anyone making content in the OTT space. So far, it has been a very TV-style of writing. In cinema, though, we are more experimental.

Television broadcasters are gunning for the same bunch of writers who have delivered successful shows. The pool is much larger in TV, but on OTT it is still early days. The kind of writers we are looking at are a mix of film writers and those doing a very different kind of writing.

On finding the right writer

There is no blanket rule that TV scriptwriters cannot write for OTT or that only a particular kind of person can write for OTT. It is actually about people who want to tell different stories differently. OTT allows you to take ideas which can go into multi-season format. A film doesn't allow you that. The dynamics of TV is different. In OTT, every episode in an 8- to 10-part series has to be a standalone part and yet keep you rolling from one episode to the next for binge watching and then from season to season you have to surprise people. So, every subject finds its own writers.

On attracting viewers

Hooking viewers has been critical from the beginning. But we are already seeing a huge glut because, as Indians, we follow international content too. In other countries, international content is second priority. Indians like to catch up with TV content on our platforms, but when it comes to streaming originals, everyone wants to consume international content, though there is a desire to watch quality originals. There is a huge market as, with deeper penetration, more and more people are converting to digital.

Content comes in many forms. It could be cinema, TV, streaming, ads, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat or YouTube. Every medium has short- or long-form content. Therefore, the fight for eyeballs is that much greater.

According to a study by Netflix (a year-and-a-half ago), it takes consumers (globally) between three and five episodes to get hooked. However, getting consumers hooked on to Indian originals is far lesser. The real challenge for us comes from the fact that they patiently spend more time on platforms such as Netflix - even watching boring episodes - thinking something good will come.

On generating engaging content

In the Indian context, at Voot, we are mindful of everything that we create. It is important to give consumers value as soon as possible - in the form of storytelling.

You have to make sure that the consumer gets what he/she is looking for in the first episode itself rather than having to wait for the third or fourth episode to get hooked onto a series. Television is not at all faster than OTT when it comes to hooking the audience. There are many TV shows that flop for three months, six months, but then see a turnaround. But that's because, in television, there is an opportunity to iterate. You see the ratings week-on-week and are able to iterate and change the nature of the show by making, for instance, a generation leap when the story isn't working.

In streaming, you can't do that because you are scripting and believing in whatever you are doing and making it for a binge watch. And because of that, you have a lot of skin in the game upfront. There is no option to iterate, even in subsequent seasons.

Vishnu Mohta, co-founder, Hoichoi TV and executive director, SVF Entertainment

On the challenges

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

Vishnu Mohta

Hoichoi is promoted by SVF Entertainment, a 22-year-old film and content production company. We have made 120 films and have created 10,000 hours of TV content until now. We have worked with content creators - both in-house and freelancers. It was less of a challenge for us as far as the content creation pipeline was concerned. We have a big in-house content team, who work very closely with the best content creators, be it a film or television scriptwriter or newcomers fresh out of college.

On finding the right writer

I don't think the ideas are coming entirely from the TV scriptwriters. It's a combination of all the people. When you make a movie, you always try to put good names behind it. The liberating thing about online content is that after tossing an idea, you always look for the best people available instead of which artiste is free. It's a cross-generalisation. Creative people work very differently; they are always looking for inspiration. Finally, it all depends on how versatile the writer is and how well he or she can adapt. It's not that a film scriptwriter or TV scriptwriter is more suited. Ability depends upon the individual, and how well one understands the medium and adapts to it.

On attracting viewers

The broadcast industry and the OTT industry are addressing very different customers. Broadcast is largely focusing on the household community/family watching the show, while OTT is about the individual watching experience - more about 'me time' and 'my convenience' because of the time constraints. As a result of that, it is a very different set of customers. However, on a very broad level, there are distinctions between the kind of consumers that are coming to OTT compared to linear television. And both have their own strong plays. If you look at the segmentation of the customers - television would be largely female while OTT will be male. Also, OTT is largely urban, but for TV the audience largely come from rural areas along with tier 2 and 3 cities. So, while there is segmented audience, there is significant amount of overlap as well.

Bimal Unnikrishnan, vice-president, content head, Vuclip (Viu)

On the challenges

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

Bimal Unnikrishnan

OTT comes with its own creative possibilities and challenges. I think there is a certain maturity we need to achieve and work on to create really high quality content that the film industry can boast of.

In India, we are in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. Each market has its own potential and challenges. So, evolve as fast as you can. Our basic attempt is to understand the viewers from each of these markets. Unlike TV serials, people expect a lot more from OTT in terms of quality, freshness and the narrative. Other challenges include getting the right writers or actors.

On finding the right writer

We never say no to experienced or good writers, whether they come from TV or films. One of the biggest challenges we face while working with an established writer is that he/she simply wouldn't have that kind of time to devote to an original series. A good TV writer is already busy writing round the clock.

Many writers we have worked with have had their upbringing in TV. They can write for digital series or films only if they take a break. Also, in TV it is more of formulae writing, so, whether it is round the clock or bound by time, delivery becomes more important than quality. Those parameters of TV might discourage some people to work with TV writers. But we still believe a good writer is a good writer no matter which medium he belongs to.

On attracting viewers

I think it takes probably 10 minutes or, at the worst, a whole episode to get a viewer hooked on OTT. The first episode, more or less, decides whether one is going get hooked or not. In TV, though the first week decides the fate of the daily soap, you still have the luxury of making creative changes while you are on the run and have a turnaround. Digital series don't enjoy such luxuries. The only weapon OTT platforms have to hook a viewer, is in the initial five to ten minutes of the first episode.

On generating engaging content

At Viu, we maximise the in-depth understanding of the viewer we are talking to. A millennial viewer is a dynamic one and keeps changing every day and with every year. Our challenge is to take what they understand and what they aspire to.

Secondly, we invest time in selecting the kind of talent we want to work with when it comes to writing, producing and directing because these choices will eventually reflect in the quality of the originals we make.

Thirdly, we look for subjects that help us maximise the potential of the digital medium by pushing the envelope, introducing new narratives, perspectives or subjects that have not been touched upon.

Ridhima Lulla, chief content officer, Eros Group (Eros Now)

On the challenges

What creative challenges do OTT content heads face? We asked them...

Ridhima Lulla

The advent of streaming platforms has led to more writers coming out with their stories which in turn, has led to one of the strongest content rollouts the industry has ever witnessed. The only challenge is to recognise and choose the most creative concept by understanding the trend and audience demand.

On finding the right writer

We believe in bringing stories that stay with our viewers for a long time. Our recently announced joint-venture with veteran writer V. Vijayendra Prasad is a step forward in collaborating with writers who are known for their stories and characters. We will jointly develop scripts, greenlight projects, produce and distribute films and web-series across Hindi, Telugu and Tamil.

We believe in paying attention to the content rather than where it is coming from. The idea is to excite the audience with never-seen-before, innovative, relatable and entertaining content.

On attracting viewers

Eros Now already enjoys a loyal fan base and trust of the audience across markets. We understand the pulse of the audience and bring forth content that is exciting. The content and the consumer cannot operate in silo. It's a complementary process and it is difficult to say what is changing faster. When you bring a fresh perspective to content, the audience appreciates and acknowledges it, adapting to the changing content delivered to them. If the content is great, the audience does not mind how they view it and if the consumption patterns are changing, our creators need to understand that demand. Overall, content and consumers echo each other's sentiments.

On generating engaging content

We have had a writers' room for a few years now and we use that as our idea incubator. We analyse market trends to gauge who is watching what, whether it's current social/political/economic trends. We look at a lot of IPs, old or new to see how we can create some good content from that.

We ideate on a weekly basis. Once we have a set of good ideas, we lock down on a few, attach the director or any other talent to the project there and then send it forward as we see best fit. We also take new pitches and work with the best creators from our talent pool. We start developing ideas for the marketing of the show right from when the script is written. This is important to plan ahead and ensure we pick a good time for the show to release as well.

A Note From the Editor

A month ago we put Ormax's Shailesh Kapoor on the cover; his company is in the business of testing all kinds of video content for commercial viability. The newest and arguably most exciting kind of content in their proverbial lab is OTT content. Our understanding of the OTT genre, from a content and creation point of view, grew a notch through our chat with Shailesh. He offered theories on the reason most of these shows tend to be visually and thematically dark, for instance.

This time, we decided to up our knowledge of the OTT space some more by asking content heads of various OTT platforms about the challenges they face while making their shows. And we don't mean business challenges; we spoke to them about the creative hurdles they face while putting their content together - right from ideation to execution.

One of the biggest challenges is - the dearth of good script writers. Not surprisingly, this is something the feature film fraternity laments about as well. OTT, as a segment of content, needs its own sensibility. And that will happen when writers pen stories for this medium specifically, without letting the 'TV style' or 'movie style' of writing dilute their craft. Storytelling works best when not shackled by formulae and numbers, after all.

Presently, OTT platforms appear to be playing the volume game. But there is some such thing as too much content. Going forward, the name of the game will change, as it should, and excellent quality will become a hygiene factor. Moreover, in such a scenario, cracking the variety code is a challenge content heads foresee; OTT desperately needs more genres.

Though it goes against the inherent goals of OTT platforms, I wonder whether the content teams that run them, will, inadvertently or otherwise, develop their individual platform brands basis the content. Say, will there ever be an 'Amazon type' show? A distinct 'Netflix style', perhaps?""


(This article was first published in our fortnightly print magazine afaqs!Reporter on October 16, 2018).

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