Amazon India Execs on Indian Films Skipping Theatrical (Exclusive)

Courtesy of Amazon India
Amazon India director and head, content, Vijay Subramaniam and Gaurav Gandhi, director and country general manager

With the country's cinemas shuttered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, seven major movies, including Amitabh Bachchan's 'Gulabo Sitabo,' are forgoing a theatrical release to stream globally on Prime Video in a major shake-up of the status quo.

As in many other countries around the world, India's cinema industry faces an uncertain and precarious future as a result of lockdowns caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic. India's estimated 9,500 screens have been shut for over two months now and with the lockdown still in effect, there is no clear picture as to when cinemas will reopen. This has understandably stalled the release of a host of major releases, which were hoping to cash in on the lucrative summer time frame. The ongoing uncertainty has attracted India's producers to the idea of skipping cinemas altogether and releasing their films on streaming platforms.

Enter Amazon. The streaming giant yesterday made its most significant and aggressive move into India's entertainment industry by purchasing the global rights to the highly anticipated Amitabh Bachchan Bollywood dramedy Gulabo Sitabo, releasing the film worldwide on its platform on June 12. 

“This is the dawn of a new era for Indian entertainment,” said Gulabo Sitabo director Shoojit Sircar of Amazon's acquisition in a statement. Bachchan echoed the sentiment as the Bollywood icon tweeted to his 42 million followers on Twitter that he was "honoured to be a part of yet another change."

Today, Amazon upped the ante and unveiled six more Indian titles that were once destined for theaters but will now premiere on its streaming platform and be available worldwide. The lineup includes: Tamil-language title Ponmagal Vandhal, which will bow May 29, starring Jyothika, Parthiban and Bhagyaraj, directed by J. J. Fredrick; Kannada title Law, streaming from June 26, starring Ragini Chandran and Siri Prahlad, directed by Raghu Samarth; Tamil- and Telugu-language title Penguin, streaming from July 17, starring Keerthy Suresh, directed by Eshavar Karthic; Kannada title French Biryani, streaming from July 24, starring Danish Sait and Sal Yusuf, directed by Pannaga Bharana; Hindi-language biopic Shakuntala Devi: Human Computer, for which a release date is yet to be unveiled, starring Vidya Balan, directed by Anu Menon; Malayalam-language title Sufiyum Sujathayum, for which a release date is yet to be unveiled, starring Aditi Rao Hydari and Jayasurya, written and directed by Naranipuzha Shanavas.

In India, rumors of films going straight to streaming have been making the rounds for some time and in a bid to counter these developments, last week the Multiplex Association of India, which represents cinema chains running some 3,000 screens, issued a statement asking studios to support the exhibition sector "by holding and releasing their films in the theaters, once they open again. To this end, we urge all studios, producers, artistes and other content creators, to kindly respect the exclusive theatrical window, which has been a time-tested industry practice, agreed to by all stake-holders, not just in India, but even globally, for several decades."

But now that some films have chosen streaming over theatrical release, the clash between cinemas and producers is out in the open. India's second-largest chain, Inox Cinemas, which runs 626 screens, issued a strongly worded statement late Thursday expressing "extreme displeasure and disappointment on an announcement made by a production house today to release their movie directly on an OTT platform by skipping the theatrical window run. The decision of the production house to deviate from the globally prevalent content windowing practice is alarming and disconcerting."

Inox added that "such acts, though isolated, vitiate the atmosphere of mutual partnership and paint these content producers as fair-weather friends rather than all-weather life-long partners. Needless to say, Inox will be constrained to examine its options, and reserves all rights, including taking retributive measures, in dealing with such fair-weather friends."

Without naming any company, on Friday, the Producers Guild of India fired its salvo with a statement that said, "At a time like this, it is disappointing to see abrasive and unconstructive messaging from some of our colleagues in the exhibition sector. Statements that call for "retributive measures" against producers who decide to take their movies direct to OTT platforms — especially at a time when cinemas are unfortunately closed for the foreseeable future — do not lend themselves to a constructive or collaborative dialogue on the way forward for the industry." PGI also detailed the ongoing challenges faced by both producers and exhibitors and concluded by emphasizing that "the production fraternity would like to work collaboratively with the exhibition sector to ensure that once cinemas do re-open across the country, we do all we can to bring audiences back in large numbers to experience our movies in the way they were always meant to be enjoyed — at the theaters."

While Amazon has made the first move in acquiring a clutch of coveted titles, there is speculation that rivals such as Disney+ Hotstar and Netflix will follow and pick up films that could forego a box office run. Some of the big titles include Akshay Kumar's Laxmmi Bomb, which was scheduled to release in cinemas on May 22.

To better understand how Amazon is leading the charge to disrupt India's established distribution models in these uncertain times, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the company's senior India executives, director and head of content Vijay Subramaniam and director and country general manager Gaurav Gandhi. 

Amazon's acquisition of these seven titles is sparking debate in the industry about traditional cinema distribution versus digital distribution. What is your view on this?

Subramaniam: Everything we have done so far in building Amazon Prime comes from the understanding of what our customers value the most. I think it's important to keep in mind that in the last couple of years, we have also established relationships across the local industry and we work with a multitude of studios and producers. These films in particular are coming from well-established producers. Clearly, we wouldn't be able to do this if they weren't enthusiastic about it. We have always worked to bring the best value to our customers and to all stakeholders in the industry and that includes, primarily, the producers who are putting in everything they have in creating the content. Secondly, this has to be seen through the lens of the changed circumstances [caused by the lockdown]. Today, we have an opportunity to help producers to take the great stories that they have made, to their customers at a time when they are constrained for fresh content and don't have means to access it. I see this as an opportunity to serve our customers better. For sure, if you think what it's doing currently to traditional distribution norms, there will be debates about that, but the important thing is that the producer is a very big stakeholder in all of it. And they see value in what we are doing and hopefully, everyone else will also see that this is an option that customers will then decide whether it is the right one for them.

Gandhi: Besides the fact that customers want this content in the comfort of their houses, what this is also doing for the producers in terms of distribution reach is that Prime Video is taking this across the world in 200 countries ... We firmly believe that India, like other markets, continues to be an 'and' market and not an 'or' market. Cinemas will continue to have a role to play but streaming brings different advantages of enhanced reach and convenience. Just like the industry has evolved for multiple mediums to coexist, I believe over the long term that that is also going to happen for streaming.

Subramaniam: Content has evolved and so has storytelling and ways of consuming ... For all stakeholders, from producers to streamers, this is the choice we are offering customers in how they want to consume the content.

The Multiplex Association of India recently issued a statement urging studios and producers to "kindly respect the exclusive theatrical window." Do you think the exclusive theatrical window is under threat now that some producers have opted to pact with Amazon for digital release?

Subramaniam: I can't comment on what the Multiplex Association thinks about the theatrical window because they are not the experts in designing that. What's important is how producers are going to continue to see value in what we are doing and how we are enabling great content to get to customers. All other things being equal, there will be the evolution of the business model as well. What that is I don't know because right now there are too many variables in the mix, but it's important to keep in mind that this is about value all around [for customers and producers] ... About three years ago when we started the early window digital release, which was pretty much eight weeks after theatrical release for a Hindi film and 30 days for a regional language film, there was a constant refrain of how people are not going to go to the theaters and [would rather] wait for the film to stream on Amazon Prime Video. But we also know that the last three years have been very strong at the box office and that is hard data right there — producers were seeing greater value coming off the theatrical release. Right now, we believe that there are too many variables to form a long-term view of what the business model will be, but there will be an evolution.

Can you expand on whether a direct streaming release can be viable for producers who are bypassing theatrical? At what prices has Amazon acquired these films for?

Subramaniam: I won't be able to answer the latter question but on the evolution of the business model, holistically, while there is a path that is being currently followed that has certain revenues attached to it, we also believe along with that, there are also costs. [By going straight to digital] producers are, on balance, getting the benefit of saving costs as well, whether it is distribution or global marketing costs. In sum, it makes a lot of sense for the producers, otherwise, these are veteran producers and if they did not see value in this, we would not be getting the kind of support we are getting for this initiative. We are talking about seven films across five languages [which will stream] over the next 90 days, so its not a one-off statement that we are making. Sure, there will be a redistribution of value. Will there be a new business model? There could be. But ultimately, the producers are in it because they see appropriate value coming their way. To our credit, we were the ones who allowed producers to extract full value of the digital window when earlier the practice was to sell all rights for perpetuity. We are actually enabling the industry to make better-quality decisions.

Gandhi: The value has to be seen with various contexts [starting with] the economic context. If you create a movie that should be seen by a massive audience ... with streaming around the world, we are giving a large audience base. The next point is how we bring that content to customers. Partners have seen how we have brought our own original shows to customers such as Four More Shots Please! and Mirzapur. And that is value for partners in how we will also put their films front and center.

With digital consumption increasing in the age of lockdowns, do you think that streaming players like Amazon are driving a buyer's market when it comes to negotiating prices for new content?

Subramaniam: Content creation is democratic and its a universal truth that the best content is always more sought after and its not easy to create the best content. If it was, everybody would be doing it. It's important to see how the value is getting distributed across the ecosystem. Anything that becomes economically unviable either for the customer or creator, is not going to be sustainable. I don't think there is any one way to manage this except reasonably. I think economics will remain healthy for everyone but what I do see happening is that customers are going to be more discerning, which will force creators and storytellers to raise the bar. I am already seeing filmmakers responding to that in a very positive manner.

Do you think that the ongoing uncertainty over when cinemas will reopen will lead to an increase in more films opting for digital distribution?

Subramaniam: That's a two-way street. Customers need to make that ultimate choice if they want to see a piece of content really early. The other side is the value attached overall as it's also about the business of creating. For producers, unless there is the right value, I don't think they will do it just for the sake of doing it. From our standpoint, we are custodians of customers' tastes and preferences, and we work hard to maintain a high bar for the quality of content, if you look at the portfolio we have built. Even in these circumstances, that has been our guiding principle in our selections and the films we have chosen is testimony to that. So even if there is an increase in availability of content, we will maintain a high bar on what we choose.

Some of the films you have acquired feature major stars such as Amitabh Bachchan in Gulabo Sitabo. What kind of promotion and marketing strategies do you have for these films in these times of lockdown, which can limit typical full-blown marketing campaigns?

Gandhi: Over the last three years we have learned and got a good handle on how to make new content tentpoles and originals for which we have used a plethora of marketing tools, primarily digital but also offline. We have made household brands with our shows. When producers are coming on board as partners, we will bring our marketing but we also have the support of the talent. We also bring in the fact that we are doing a worldwide release across the Amazon ecosystem in 200 countries. A lot of digital marketing is about understanding customers' preferences and then recommending them content. ... Marketing today is about [giving] context to the customer and that is the critical piece in how digital marketing is done. Add to that the social following of the talent and the global reach of Amazon and it makes for a very potent combination.

Subramaniam: We are also excited to learn from this because this flies in the face of traditional marketing. We are very eager to collaborate with the teams.

Unlike Netflix, Amazon Prime Video India hasn't yet ventured into film production. Do you think your acquisition of these mainstream films going straight to digital will trigger your plans to also produce films?

Subramaniam: I can't comment on something that we may or may not do in the future. Like all good studios, we are constantly reviewing our plans and approaches. I think what we have been very fortunate with is that we have a vast network of long-term strategic relationships with key studios and producers across the industry and we have been blessed to have their output. Frankly, our entire focus has been on longform fiction. We don't see the real need to get into feature length because through these relationships, we have had access to the best content and talent coming in early and I think these films are again testimony [to that].

Gandhi: As we approach programming for many Indias [given the diversity of languages and culture], we are very focused on the fact that our customers are satisfied with the offerings that we have. We have been successful in bringing in big movies very early after their theatrical window so that remains a key point for us alongside the selection of originals and international shows and movies. We see at it as a whole portfolio of content and look at what gaps we can fill.

What can you share about how Indian viewers are consuming content on Amazon in these times of lockdown? Is there also an increase in consumption of Hollywood and international content?

Subramaniam: The fact that people have more disposable time means they are definitely consuming a lot of content. The biggest insight for me is that people are now willfully discovering content. Earlier, they would come with set preferences but now they are open to discovering interesting stories and why that is important for us is that it allows us to cross-pollinate content from one community to another. Anecdotally, I have people living in Delhi telling me how they enjoyed a Tamil film and people living in Chennai telling me how they enjoyed a Marathi film. So people are making deeper choices because they have the mental and physical bandwidth to do that. And the same thing is also true for international content. That's why Parasite came on to the service and it is really encouraging to see how people are loving it and are willing to experiment more and broaden their horizons.

Gandhi: We had a successful series with The Test [which follows the Australian cricket team] and now we have Upload [from Emmy-winning creator Greg Daniels], so we are fortunate to have a mix of international and rich Indian content. We feel good that in times like this, when customers want more content, we are here to serve them with a wide variety.