Anirban Roy Choudhury

How Amazon Prime Video is rivalling traditional mediums with direct-to-service movies

Amazon Prime Video has now announced the second slate of nine movies that will premiere directly on the streaming service.

In January 2020, an image of Jeff Bezos, the boss of global e-commerce giant Amazon, wearing a blue-coloured Nehru jacket and doing 'Namaste' made it to the front page of many newspapers. He stood next to a sacred lamp (as tall as him) that is traditionally illuminated to mark the beginning of an event. He held the hand of Amazon India head Amit Agarwal and said that the 21st century is going to be India's century. 

Bezos then sat with Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan and director Zoya Akhtar for a fireside chat. The visit was all about Amazon saying 'Apni Dukaan' to Indians once again. 'Apni Dukaan' is a campaign that Amazon rolled out a few years back to say that though it is headquartered in Seattle (in the US), in India, it is for Indians.

The campaign was aimed at wooing masses that crowd shopping hubs like Colaba (Mumbai), Palika Bazaar and Sarojini Nagar (both in Delhi), and Esplanade market (Kolkata). If e-commerce is Amazon's core (business), then the video business is certainly the 'soft power' that promotes it as a force in more than 200 local markets across the globe. When it comes to its video business, Amazon follows a similar approach, i.e., instead of trying to replicate its global success, it invests in local strategies.

As Vijay Subramaniam, director and head, content, Amazon Prime Video India, explains, "Understanding and programming to Indian customers are first and foremost for us, that is what we do, that is where we spend most of our time. We recognise that we programme for many 'Indias', the happy by-product of that is the diaspora."     

 Vijay Subramaniam
Vijay Subramaniam

Soon after Bezos returned, the Coronavirus pandemic hit India and the world. People were locked down in their own homes, with no new episodes of daily soaps airing on TV. Digital video-on-demand (VOD) streaming platforms found a new wave of interested customers. The likes of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney+ Hotstar started dropping direct-to-service films on their respective platforms. 

Amazon Prime Video, apart from acquiring Hindi films' streaming rights, has also invested in regional films and released them before they hit cinema halls. The platform claims it was a successful initiative, and has now announced the second slate of nine movies that will premiere directly on the streaming service.

Spanning five Indian languages, the line-up features titles such as 'Coolie No. 1' starring Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan. 'Chhalaang' starring Rajkummar Rao and Nushrat Bharucha. 'Durgavati' starring Bhumi Pednekar. 'Bheema Sena Nala Maharaja' (Kannada) starring Aravinnd Iyer. 'Middle Class Melodies' (Telugu) starring Anand Devarakonda. 'Maara' (Tamil) starring R Madhavan, and 'Manne Number 13' (Kannada) starring Varsha Bollamma, Chetan Gandharva (Melody), along with previously announced Zakariya Mohammed’s 'Halal Love Story' (Malayalam) and Suriya-starrer 'Soorarai Pottru' (Tamil). 

But what does success mean? "We released seven films and then a few more. I am very happy to say that within the first few weeks, they were watched in about 4000 towns and cities across the country, which is a deep distribution," says Gaurav Gandhi, director and country GM, Amazon Prime Video India. 

Gandhi adds that the endeavour is to ensure that the films get a wider release through Amazon Prime Video. "Even internationally, we have seen viewership coming in from 180 countries," he says, adding that Amazon Prime Video viewers across the world got new content, and the films also found a new set of eyeballs. 

Gaurav Gandhi
Gaurav Gandhi

"Another interesting stat we have for our Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada films is that we had 50 per cent of the viewing (of these films) coming from outside (of) their home states. Which means 50 per cent of the viewing of Tamil movies was outside Tamil Nadu. This also shows how we were able to expand the audience base, which is again something that theatrical releases are unable to do because of limited screens and other limitations," asserts Gandhi. 

He claims that every film that Amazon Prime Video launched ended up becoming the most-watched film in its respective language. "Coupled with all the 'Originals' we had, 'Pataal Lok', 'Bandish Bandits', 'Breathe' and 'Four More Shots', this strong line-up has done very well, not just in (terms of) viewing, but also in expanding the audiences. Overall, it has been a very strong last six months for Prime Video." 

Like theatres, Gandhi says, the opening weekends were very big for Amazon Prime Video as well. "But the continued flow of customers over the next few weeks and the interest in movies was an interesting fact."  

Another aspect that Gandhi found interesting is the increased amount of interest among people to watch the films on larger screens at home with their families. He feels it is a trend that will continue during upcoming festivals like Diwali and Christmas too. At a time when India is considered to be a mobile-first country, when it comes to video viewing, Gandhi sees a clear indication of more families streaming movies on larger screens at home.

Apart from garnering viewership and subscribers, the films help the platform to understand the maturity of markets too. "We start with films because there is an inherent familiarity with the format and content. The film helps in understanding the micro-culture, local taste and preferences," says Subramaniam. 

He adds, "A big example of that would be Tamil and Telugu. After programming films for more than two years, we announced we will be moving into long-form fiction series. The film gives us a good understanding of many things, starting with the customer and going all the way to the industry..."

The lockdown bonanza that the video streaming platform enjoyed, is now coming to an end. Cricket is back on TV and the theatres are allowed to open. As people start visiting multiplexes to enjoy the large screen experience, will the film consumption pattern on Amazon Prime that announced a new slate, change? "Not at all," says Subramaniam. "It starts with the content first and foremost, these are all great films made for theatrical releases, which will now have a worldwide premiere." 

He is of the opinion that even though the theatrical distribution is resuming, there is still a lot of uncertainty among the producers and customers. 

"It is clear that Amazon Prime in India is now targeting the family audience and large smart TV owners. To be honest, the picture quality, if you have a decent Internet connection and a good LED TV, is amazing. With COVID fear still there, the new slate that Amazon has announced will not face multiplexes as an obstacle. In fact, as people get habituated to this direct-to-service phenomenon, players with deep pockets like Amazon Prime, Netflix... can take away a slice of the 100 million movie-goers' pie," concludes an analyst who heads a global consulting firm's media vertical.

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