Anirban Roy Choudhury
Media

"India is yet to have its 'Toy Story' moment, tipping point for animation": Anish Mehta, Cosmos Maya

From a team of 30 in 2011 to a workforce of more than two thousand in 2021, how Maya became Cosmos Maya and roped in private equity investment.

In 2010, Maya - an animation academy and entertainment studio sold Maya Academy of Advanced Cinematics to Aptech for around Rs 76 crore. It was left with a 30-member team and the promoters Ketan Mehta and Deepa Sahi both filmmakers, elevated chartered accountant Anish Mehta as the CEO. They sat together in 2011 and the aim was to transform into a global company.

Maya became Cosmos Maya. 10 years later, it employs a workforce of more than 2,000 and owns about 20 IPs. Earlier in July, Cosmos Maya got Hong Kong-headquartered private equity firm, New Quest as an investor. Emerald Media backed by KKR had invested in Cosmos Maya in 2018 and exited with a reported 4x return on its investment.

CEO Anish Mehta calls it a "landmark moment" for the animation industry. "But it wasn't easy" he is quick to add. In 2011, the Indian animation market was dominated by Japanese toons. Ronnie Screwvala's UTV (which was later acquired by Disney) introduced Hungama channel and imported animation content from Japan. 'Shin-Chan' was an instant hit and 'Doraemon' emerged to become a superhit among Indian children. 'Oswald' and 'Noddy' were also popular and Green Gold animation's "Chhota Bheem" was the lone Indian warrior. "We wanted to change it," says Mehta.

Indian 'Laurel and Hardy'

An unorganised mess that is neither IT industry nor television production units, the animation studios failed to attract private equity firms. The investors didn't understand the business and the Indian animation studios were just outsourcing content to the American and European studios. "We would get 40 per cent margin and it was good training for us, but it won't take us to the next level that attracts investment and make animation a serious industry," says Mehta. The breakthrough move for Cosmos Maya was the decision to invest in creating local Intellectual Properties, that the studio fully or partly own.

Anish Mehta and team started research to identify concepts and they decided to create an Indian 'Laurel and Hardy' - the classic Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy superhit British-American TV Show. They bought the rights to animate "Lotpot" comics and 'Motu Patlu' was announced. Mehta recognises this move as "one show" that changed the fate of Indian animation. "We were lucky to have a partner in Viacom18 operated Nickelodeon which decided to go all guns blazing with the show," says Mehta.

The Indian 'Laurel and Hardy' or 'Motu Patlu' aired on Viacom18's kids' channel, Nick which according to TAM was ranked fifth behind UTV's Hungama, Turner's Pogo and other channels in 2011. In the last six years, Nick has never lost the number one position and Viacom18 established itself as the market leader in the Rs 600 crore kids broadcasting space. 'Motu Patlu' contributes to around 50 per cent of Nick's viewership share.

"India is yet to have its 'Toy Story' moment, tipping point for animation": Anish Mehta, Cosmos Maya

"Let's make 124 episodes in the next two years," is what Viacom18 said Anish Mehta and team. "We went on to build a studio just to supply the demand created by Viacom18. We were only doing this to start with and it worked. The Indian IP creation revolution began. We managed to replace the Japanese characters with our own. Broadcasters started backing Indian content and characters," says Anish Mehta.

Today, the licensing fee that Viacom18 pays to Cosmos Maya for 'Motu Patlu' is at least five times more than what it was ten years back. "The popularity has grown manifold and we have improved the quality three times. It delivers and so the licensing fee increases," adds Mehta.

Not just a one-show wonder

After Cosmos Maya attained success with 'Motu Patlu' Anish Mehta and team started planning for their next stride - "global expansion". The large video-on-demand platforms were yet to enter India as streaming was expensive and difficult in the pre-Jio era. YouTube was the only way out for Indian content creators to showcase to a global audience. Cosmos Maya launched the YouTube channel 'Wow Kidz'. It attained popularity but not as much as Vinoth Chandar's 'Chu Chu TV'.

Also Read: ChuChu TV: Like a diamond in the Sky

"We understood that we need to create culture agnostic content that will appeal to a much larger audience," and so came 'Eena Meena Deeka'. Another milestone for Cosmos Maya as the show fetched takers in over 100 countries.

"When the US makes Avengers, it is sold in 200 countries. We need to realise this potential and start creating IPs with the globe in mind," opines Mehta. But the immediate lower-hanging fruit outside India is Indonesia. Indian content is popular in Indonesia, but it is craving for its own local toon characters.

'Putra'
'Putra'

Indonesia does not have local studios and Maya associated with Spectrum Films and announced 'Putra' a toon show with Indonesian characters. "Five years from now, we will have at least five shows running in Indonesia and it will be a big contributor to our revenue," assesses Mehta.

The theatrical doom and OTT boom

Cosmos Maya and Viacom18 took 'Motu Patlu' to the theatres. A feature film was made but hardly anyone bought the tickets. It was a disappointment for 'Motu Patlu'. It was also the first time Cosmos Maya encountered failure with the iconic characters highly popular among Indian kids. "We weren't ready, we aren't ready for it even now," says Mehta.

Months on the workstations, as animation content is at least an 18-month process and crores of investment but the Box Office collection was abysmal, less than Rs 2 crore. "It is just not worth it," says Mehta. He believes, India is yet to reach there. "We are not the US. Once the millennials who grew up watching animation on TV, reading comics, become parents, they will take their kids to the theatres and we will have our Central Park (Animated Sitcom) and Simpsons. Till then, it will remain an industry catering to the kids or targeting both on television and OTT," says Mehta.

Anish Mehta
Anish Mehta

The theatrical failure had more reasons. People are used to watching 'The Junge Book', 'Lion King', 'Boss Baby', 'Finding Nemo'... "Why would they pay the same amount to watch Motu Patlu? Rather, they will watch it on television. We make a film spending Rs 15 crore while more than Rs 1500 crore is spent making those movies, it is simply no match," adds Mehta.

If theatrical setback was a bane then OTT came in as a boon. The entry of Netflix and Amazon Prime happened to be a "game-changer". They came in with deep pockets and spent on fiction shows to acquire customers. But, for retention and enhancing the time-spent, the video on demand platforms went to animation content.

Workstations at Cosmos Maya's office
Workstations at Cosmos Maya's office

"The demand has grown so much that even if we hire 2,000 more people in the team, we won't be able to meet it. That is what happened after the OTT boom in India," says Mehta. Disney+ Hotstar, ZEE5, VOOT Kids, all are spending on kids' content. Sony Pictures Networks India entered the kids' space by launching SonyYAY, Anand Mahindra backed IN10 network launched childrens' channel 'Gubbare', ETV also entered the space and that too added to the demand. The broadcasters are adding more languages to their telecast taking the content to the last 150 million kids who are yet to sample.

The 'Toy Story' moment is yet to come

"We often compare India with the US but we forget that the kids animation channels only came to India in 2000. It is just a 20-year-old phenomenon. The game changed in the US in 1995 with 'Toy Story'. India is yet to have its Toy Story moment - the tipping point for animation," says Mehta.

"If you want to teach your kids Namaste or Atithi Devo Bhava, there is no better teacher than Motu Patlu and the ed-tech players have started to realise that,"
Anish Mehta

The 'Toy Story' moment, according to Mehta means 360-degree utilisation of an IP. The characters should drive sales of merchandise and not remain limited to popularity on television. The content must be sought after in multiple countries and not just one. It should not only appeal to the kids but also to the grownups. "We don't have the talent to write or produce such content. Nor do we have the market to support it. But we are getting there. I feel the Toy Story moment is still five years away from us, but I won't be surprised if we get there early," he adds.

Education - The Next Big Thing

Japan, US and Korea are still far ahead than India in terms of anime and those countries will remain ahead. But the next big drive in India for animation, Mehta feels will come from the ed-tech. "If you want to teach your kids Namaste or Atithi Devo Bhava, there is no better teacher than Motu Patlu and the ed-tech players have started to realise that," says Mehta.

American content still dominates the 'Pre School' segment. 'Mighty Little Bheem' streaming on Netflix is the only Indian show in the segment. This will take off soon believes Mehta and the launchpad may not be the traditional television channels. "We sensed this opportunity and that is why 'Motu Patlu' never had 'Tu Tadaak' in the show. It has been written in Suddh Hindi. In fact, many NRIs write to us stating their kids learn Hindi watching Motu Patlu. Shin-Chan rates well, but we won't dare to make something similar as it propagates bad habit," asserts Anish Mehta.

Cosmos Maya too gets criticised for propagating mythology. "Yes, people come and say that to us. But we have never propagated mythology. If we have made Ganesha, we called it Gadget Guru Ganesha. Through this show, the kids got to know more about gadgets. Similarly, Selfie With Bajrangi (Hanuman) is a buddy comedy and not religious propaganda. Why should our kids think it is only the Doraemon that comes to rescue, even a Bajrangi can. That has been our motive," Mehta responds to critics.

Economic Times reported the deal between New Quest and Emerald Media to be around $90 million. Mehta smiles at the quoted figure revealing a sense of accomplishment. "It is a long and difficult battle that we are in. But the Toy Story moment will come and we already have 60 per cent market share in the long-format content industry. We will continue to grow," he concludes.