As the Bengali OTT platform enters its seventh year, co-founder Vishnu Mohta speaks about the launch of its studios, focus on Middle East market, syndication business and more.
As the Bengali video streaming platform hoichoi enters its seventh year, it will be launching its own studio to produce exclusive films for theatrical release under 'hoichoi studios'. These films will then make it to the OTT platform.
Vishnu Mohta, co-founder of hoichoi, says it will be doubling down on the theatrical business, countering the prevailing perception of a digital-only future.
"In certain audience segments, there's a perception of declining theatrical business and a digital-only future. We believe in a more balanced perspective, recognising that both formats have their place. We're bucking the trend a little bit and we're going a little reverse from digital to analogue," he says.
Mohta acknowledges the higher cost and risk associated with in-house film production and says, "We are taking the complete risk of that content working or not working as opposed to simply taking the decision of acquiring it or not."
However, he clarifies that this is not a pivot from acquiring content. "Based on our insights from creating numerous original shows and the data we've gathered, we decided to venture into movie production. It’s our attempt at making theatrical films," he says.
The first film, Shri Swapankumarer Badami Heynar Kobole, starring Bengal cinema icon Abir Chatterjee and veteran actor Paran Bandopadhyay, and directed by Debaloy Bhattacharya, is slated for release in November. It plans to make more films early next year.
The platform aims to achieve cash flow break-even this year while continuing to invest in content and technology.
"We reached P&L break-even last year. We believe in running a sustainable business with minimal cash burn, and we're on track to achieve that by year-end," he shares.
It also reported a 40% year-on-year uptick in direct subscriptions. The platform has witnessed a significant surge, more than doubling its Monthly Active Users (MAUs) compared to the previous year, accompanied by a 60% surge in individual watch-time per subscriber. It boasts an average user engagement time of 59 minutes.
In the first six months of 2023, it has witnessed around 55% growth in its direct revenue and expects to maintain the growth rate at 40-45% by the end of the year.
Around 70-80% of payments are now made through UPI. It plans to introduce UPI Autopay in October or November. "As most of our plans are annual, we expect to have the auto-recurring structure fully in place by November or December this year," he shares.
The platform recently reported a nearly 40% increase in international subscriber revenue. Moreover, 40% of its direct subscription revenue comes from outside India.
"There are lots of high ARPU markets. Our pricing in the US and the UK is about $10 a month as opposed to Rs 1000 a year in India. Our ARPUs are very different depending on the market we operate in," he said.
Outside India, hoichoi's biggest markets are the US, the UK and the Middle East. This year, the platform will be strategically focussing on the Middle East, its largest market after the UK and the US, and it aims to expand its reach among that customer cohort.
"We've been present in the Middle East, but now we're ramping up our efforts in marketing and penetration. We're considering introducing lower sachet plans or budget-friendly plans for durations shorter than even a month, as many Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants have low incomes. We may explore carrier partnerships as well. It's in the early stages, but we'll adapt to meet the needs of this specific market," he says.
hoichoi has a diversified revenue base, including India (both within and outside West Bengal), Bangladesh, and the diaspora of both countries.
"This diversity allows us to create tailored content for different audiences, and we've been making significant strides in Bangladesh. We're approaching it as a learning process, acknowledging the cultural nuances, language differences, and unique histories. The Bangladeshi diaspora is larger than the Indian Bengali-speaking population outside of India, making it a promising, albeit nascent, digital market. Like any new market, it's evolving, and we're excited about its potential, just as we are with other markets," Mohta adds.
To broaden its reach, the platform has been strategically syndicating content in multiple languages on partner platforms for regional distribution, with plans for further expansion.
A recent partnership with Jio Cinema has bolstered hoichoi's Hindi-dubbed content. Looking ahead, a key strategic focus for the upcoming year will involve exploring opportunities to offer content in languages like Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam through selected partners.
Approximately 80-90% of its content is subtitled in English, making it more accessible to non-native speakers.
"Language is no longer a significant barrier to experiencing content personally. Even non-native Bengali speakers enjoy our content. We're dedicated to breaking this language barrier with key partnerships, offering dubbed versions in various languages on Hoichoi and other platforms," he says.
hoichoi aims to be accessible and available everywhere for both existing and potential customers. Recognising the importance of television as a major medium for content consumption, hoichoi has made its platform available on a variety of devices, including Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Apple TV, Mi LED TV, LG SMART TV, Samsung TV, and Roku.
Furthermore, hoichoi has expanded its reach to include Google TV users and aims to be available on iOS in the next one or two months.
Subscription Price Hike
The platform raises its subscription prices every two to three years. Last year, it increased its annual subscription price in India from Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 rupees. In Bangladesh, the annual subscription is priced at 1000 Bangladeshi Taka. Internationally, it has raised its prices from $9 to $10 this year.
"To continue bringing bigger shows and movies to the platform, we needed to make the economics work. Our approach has always been to maintain a cash-neutral or positive business, not just by cutting costs but also by increasing revenue and investments. In the OTT business, it's essential to be aggressively rational," Mohta says.
Within West Bengal, tier 2 and 3 cities are vital for the platform and it targets them through a two-pronged approach. "We directly market subscriptions through digital channels and collaborate with Telco partners like Vodafone Idea and Airtel as they have an entrenched reach in those pockets," he shares.
hoichoi has announced a content slate featuring 24 new shows for the next year. Its content production efforts have intensified, resulting in a monthly output of 6-7 titles. This approach encompasses not only Hindi dubbed releases but also includes a minimum of 2-3 original shows and the world premiere of a Bengali movie.