Fox's Indian Streamer Hotstar Unveils Ambitious Originals Slate

Star India MD Sanjay Gupta - H 2019
Courtesy of Star India

Battling rivals Netflix and Amazon ahead of its merger with Disney, Fox's Hotstar is making a foray into originals from the likes of Shekhar Kapur, Kabir Khan and Salman Khan, among others.

The battle for India's streaming market is heating up as 21st Century Fox's Hotstar service expands its portfolio with its first originals slate, aggressively taking on rivals Netflix, Amazon and other platforms backed by U.S. entertainment giants, such as Viacom's Voot and Sony's SonyLiv, among others.

When the Walt Disney Co. unveiled its $71.3 billion deal to buy major 20th Century Fox assets, analysts eyeing future growth potential were quick to label Rupert Murdoch’s Star India television network, which controls 60 TV channels and leading streaming platform Hotstar, a "crown jewel" of the acquisition, which is expected to close soon.

Hotstar has largely drawn on Star India's massive content library, which spans everything from soaps to Bollywood movies and, most important, sports, including India's national obsession cricket. Star India has rights to major cricket properties, such as the ICC World Cup and the hugely popular domestic Indian Premier League, which have played a major role in boosting Hotstar's viewership.

While names, details and release dates of the streamer's new shows haven't been revealed, the lineup of Hotstar Specials, as the service calls its originals, sees Hotstar partnering with some of India's leading filmmakers and content creators. These include Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth), superstar Salman Khan, Kabir Khan (Bajrangi Bhaijaan), Neeraj Pandey (A Wednesday), Nikkhil Advani (Batla House), Ram Madhvani (Neerja), Venkat Prabhu (Party), Sudhir Mishra (Daas Dev), Tigmanshu Dhulia (Saheb Biwi aur Gangster 3), Nagesh Kukunoor (Dhanak), Mahesh Manjrekar (Sanju), Vishal Furia (Lapachhapi), Rohan Sippy (Dum Maaro Dum), Debbie Rao (Pushpavalli) and Sharad Devarajan who heads character entertainment company Graphic India.

Star India managing director Sanjay Gupta tells The Hollywood Reporter that Hotstar's first slate of originals "is about telling stories across mass audiences and not a niche segment of 5 million to 10 million people, which is what most of the other [platforms] are doing."

The originals will be offered in seven languages covering mainstream Hindi and regional languages and are expected to roll out in the coming months.

Gupta explains that the "current skew of OTT content [by rival platforms] has mostly catered to a narrow audience in terms of depiction, visuals and language, which I think is under-leveraging the opportunity. For us it is a different play because Hotstar has a great presence as it talks to the masses every month."

Hotstar follows a hybrid model offering both an advertising video on demand (AVOD) and a paid service. Without giving a breakdown, Gupta says that the service is viewed by 150 million people in India every month, second only to YouTube.

According to data from Media Partners Asia, Hotstar commands a 21 percent share in the AVOD market, second behind YouTube's 58 percent share. In the SVOD market, Netflix dominates with a 45 percent share, followed by Hotstar at 27 percent.

Netflix and Hotstar are both estimated to have about 1 million subscribers, but Netflix boasts better revenue thanks to its higher pricing.

Hotstar's paid service is priced at $2.75 per month or $13.80 annually, while also offering a sports-only package for $4 per year. Amazon's annual service is also at $13.80, while Netflix's monthly fee is $6.90 per month.

Hotstar's planned slate comes at a time when rival players have unleashed a slew of original local content in a bid to win over audiences. Netflix's upcoming slate of seven originals includes Bard of Blood from superstar Shah Rukh Khan's banner Red Chillies after the service earned critical acclaim for its debut Indian original Sacred Games. In addition, Netflix has a lineup of eight upcoming films, including the Dev Patel starrer Hotel Mumbai.

Amazon's arsenal includes more than 30 shows in development following its debut originals, cricket drama Inside Edge and Breathe, in addition to various comedy specials. Moreover, the service has made a foray into regional content, recently unveiling its Tamil-language show Vella Raja.

U.S. entertainment giant-backed platforms are also beefing up their service with Viacom's Voot announcing a lineup of 17 originals.

As for the implications of the Fox-Disney deal in the Indian market, Gupta says, "anything I will say is conjecture, but I see a great opportunity because Disney has some great brands that we can leverage in India moving forward. If at all, it adds to the power of Star and helps take it to the next league, but the details of what will happen and how it will happen are still to be worked out."

Recently, Disney unveiled the post-merger leadership team for its international group, with 21st Century Fox Asia president and chairman and CEO of Star India, Uday Shankar, named chairman of Star and Disney India and president of the Asia Pacific region at Disney.