Amazon Prime Video India Boss on Peak TV, Competing With Netflix

Amazon Prime Video India
Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty with Amazon Prime Video India director and head, content, Vijay Subramaniam at the launch of the dating show 'Hear Me. Love Me'

Led by Vijay Subramaniam, the service has been aggressively ramping up its slate with a mix of fiction and unscripted shows to capture a larger share of one of the world's fastest-growing TV markets.

As the battle between video giants Amazon, Netflix and local competitors like Fox's Star India network-owned Hotstar heats up, the Indian market is seeing robust growth in content production.

According to a recent study by consultants Media Partners Asia, video content budgets across India, Korea and Southeast Asia passed $10 billion in 2017. The biggest increase came from India, where video content budgets soared by 14 percent to top $4.2 billion last year. India also has a fast-growing internet user base, second only to China, at 480 million, which is expected to reach 730 million by 2020. According to an industry report by consultants KPMG, India is expected to become the second-largest video-viewing audience globally by 2020, reaching 500 million (from 250 million in 2017). The rapid growth will be driven by increasing mobile penetration, faster internet speeds, the advent of 4G mobile connectivity and cheaper data charges.

Compared to Netflix, which has so far unveiled 10 Indian originals starting with Sacred Games, which bowed in July, Amazon Prime Video adopted an aggressive content strategy announcing 18 originals when the service launched in 2016. Amazon debuted its first Indian series, the cricket drama Inside Edge, in July 2017 and since then, the company has expanded its portfolio with more originals like Breathe and other formats, such as the comedy talent hunt Comicstaan and the newly launched dating show Hear Me. Love Me.

Amazon has also stitched up a slew of film output deals with some of India's biggest studios, offering subscribers a range of new and catalog titles, including Hindi-language Bollywood and other regional-language fare.

Vijay Subramaniam, Amazon Prime Video India director and head, content, sat down with The Hollywood Reporter and shared the company's content strategy while drawing parallels with the U.S., saying that amid growing demand for original content, India is also headed towards "Peak TV."

What has been Amazon Prime Video's experience in Indian content production since your debut series Inside Edge?

It is still very early days in so far as cinematic TV is concerned. We really started by focusing on what the customer expected from us — high-quality, compelling stories which they don't get otherwise since traditional television is mostly dominated by soaps. Some of the lessons we have learned so far is that authenticity is really important to tell a story to make a deep connection with the audience. For instance, our second original Breathe was about a desperate father (played by well-known actor R. Madhavan) going to any lengths to save his son who needs an organ transplant. Inside Edge lifted the veil off India's most popular sport. Going forward, our upcoming show Mirzapur is set in the Hindi heartland, but if it is authentic, it will cut across audience segments. The other thing we have learned is that people are hungry for a variety of content and genres. The possibilities are endless.

Since the likes of Amazon and Netflix are global services, what are the chances of Indian content crossing over to international audiences?

To each story its merit — there will be some that can travel faster and some that will be slower. Breathe is a great example, because it garnered one third of its audience outside India and a large chunk of those viewers were beyond the Indian overseas diaspora. If you get on social media, you will even see non-Indian people talking about the show, which is anecdotal evidence. If the content is authentic to its roots, then people want to know more about it. Customers are very discerning and if a show is put together shoddily, they are going to give you feedback. Our customer is spoiled for choice, starting with what we are offering on Prime Video itself, so we have to keep pushing the bar so that they keep coming back.

Speaking of how shows fuel social media chatter, Netflix stirred the cultural zeitgeist with its first Indian show, Sacred Games, which revolved around the nexus between Mumbai's underworld and politics. What is your take on that?

Inside Edge was a huge conversation starter, and that's because everybody knew about what happens in cricket, but we put the lens on it in a fun way. I am pretty sure Mirzapur is going to spark lots and lots of conversations about the layered nuances and dynamics between power, politics and business in the Indian heartland and how that plays out. These shows are actually reflecting the zeitgeist and conversations are definitely happening. It's going to become imperative as creators to constantly seek that zeitgeist.

As the battle between OTT platforms heats up in India, do you draw any parallels with what has happened in the U.S. in how Netflix and Amazon have impacted the content landscape, as seen with the recent wins at the Emmy Awards?

I think it has begun in India. We have been very fortunate with the kind of enthusiasm Indian filmmakers have come to us with ideas to create content that is cinematic TV. Creative minds now have an opportunity to tell stories in long form beyond just two and half hour films. Now they can take it to ten hours, spanning many seasons. What you see with Peak TV in the U.S. is that it has fueled such a vast variety of genres. We also see India heading for Peak TV. It has inspired Indian storytellers to explore more variety. By contrast, television follows a certain framework and that can be restrictive, which can also be the case with films.

The other impact that has happened is in how new processes are being adopted for storytelling. At Amazon, we are committed to building an ecosystem for cinematic storytelling in India. So we happily bring in all the best practices from the U.S. and support our creative partners here with anything that they need, right from script consultants to setting up writers rooms and any other technical expertise which they believe can enhance the story. You have to realize that it is still a fledgling ecosystem. The writers room concept is just taking shape, so the industry is experiencing how it is to collaborate rather than working on your own. Similarly, on the technical front, new technologies like 4K video are also being gradually adopted.

Amazon has also pushed a slew of unscripted reality shows. What's your strategy in this genre?

Reality shows have a very deep connection with the audience as they enjoy being a fly on the wall. We are aware of certain themes that work well in this genre and some that are still underserved, such as comedy — which is why we launched the talent hunt Comicstaan, which got a huge response. Similarly, we are exploring dating and relationships in our latest show, Hear Me. Love Me (hosted by Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty).

Do you have plans to get into film production, as has been the case in the U.S.?

Not immediately, since we have great output partnerships with top banners like Dharma and T-Series. These studios are already doing a great job in the kinds of films they produce and there is no additional value that we can bring in by getting into film production. For now, we are really focusing on series production as there is a dearth of content. But for our series, we are already working with established Bollywood players such as Excel Entertainment, who produced Inside Edge and the upcoming Mirzapur. Similarly, well-known Bollywood director Kabir Khan is working on an upcoming World War II drama. Next year, hopefully, we are aiming to release 10 originals. And we are already developing second seasons for Inside Edge and Breathe.