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In an exclusive, one-of-a-kind session on FC Front Row, Vijay Subramaniam (Director and Head of Content, Amazon Prime Video), Vijay Koshy (President, TVF), Ekta Kapoor (Founder, ALTBalaji), and Sameer Nair (CEO, Applause Entertainment) tell us what gets their attention. If you’re a writer, filmmaker, or anyone who has a story to tell the world, then check out the highlights below from the lessons given by these leaders of the content business. FC Front Row is a collective of film and entertainment enthusiasts. We offer online screenings, premieres, masterclasses, meet and greet with critics, and more.

How Many Shows Are Under Production At Once?

Vijay Subramaniam (Amazon Prime Video): We have over 75 of them currently at various stages of pre-prod, production, and post. And I think I expect that to go even further, once things have normalised. The pandemic has kind of slowed things down for us.

Vijay Koshy (TVF): As far as TVF is concerned, we have around 25 to 30 shows at various stages of production. Some are in writing, some are in post, some are actually on the floor at this point in time. And this year is special for us. We’ve also bought into the regional space. So we’ve got two in Telugu as we speak going on the floor, we’ve got one in Marathi, which is in post as of now. And we’ve got two in Tamil, which is in the development stage. I think TVF is the only premium content creator in the country which still does short form and mini series. So there’s plenty of action happening there.

Ekta Kapoor (ALT Balaji): I think we are only talking about streaming. So about 60 of them have been scripted. So, of course in the space of one and a half years, those 60 will be coming on the app.

Sameer Nair (Applause): In the face of all this, I think we’ve got about 15 to 20 primarily series, some documentaries, and most recently we started making a few movies.

The Journey of A Show, From Idea to Streaming

Sameer Nair (Applause): 

Usually there are three, four sources of ideas for us. There’s lots of walk-ins. Obviously, people come up with ideas. Sometimes we buy books, we look for international formats to adapt. The source of these can be from various people. Sometimes we seek , sometimes we find it ourselves. Sometimes people bring it to us. The journey from then is usually about 18 to 24 months. From the time we first hear it and then get into the writing. And then, you know, the entire process from there. I think the bulk of it is in the writing. So maybe 50% of this entire time goes in getting the writing. And if that happens, then other things move along quite quickly. 

I think we’re involved in every possible aspect of this process. So right from the get-go, we’ll take it from idea to screen. We are pretty much there all along. And the way we work is that we also finance this entire process. So there’s a lot of collaboration, lots of bright minds working. We’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of different types of people and we actively look to do that. That’s usually 18 to 24 months from writing development, casting, production and post.

Vijay Koshy (TVF):

I tend to agree with what Samir was saying but really the only difference is most of our stuff is being done in-house, so we have slightly better control over it. Having said that, our marination process can take much longer. In fact, Panchayat, as a show, was conceived by Arunabh (Kumar) sometime in 2016. And he wanted it to be the modern day Malgudi Days kind of a thing. And eventually it turned out for the platform around March 20th. So it can take as long as that also.

Ekta Kapoor (ALT Balaji):

It takes exactly two years, sometimes even four or five years. I picked up the book Married Woman around 2000. I mean, I optioned it first that I gave it up in 2007 because I didn’t think that it was medium-ready, and in 2018 I bought it to make it in 2021. So yes, it takes about two, three years. And I think the scripting process is nothing less than 24 months, at least for us, because we also finance most of the scripting. We are like a hybrid model. We do some productions, some productions we give out, and then we use most of that. All that content is, of course, for our app, till now. And for movies— because Alt does not buy movies per se, you know, we are a cheap platform (smiles). We go out there and we’ve got two that have just gone to Netflix. And those were conceptualised as theatrical releases… We, from day one knew that we were at least looking towards maybe doing a direct to digital. It was almost like we might do a week in the theaters and then come, but we were not planning a long window in theaters. 

Vijay Subramaniam (Amazon Prime):

It’s 24 months for us too, more or less. We pretty much finance everything and we work in two distinct parts. If we like something, then we put it into development. That’s the part where we spend a tremendous amount of time, and development doesn’t guarantee a green light. And I think that’s a great new norm to set because that’s where a lot of the work is done. And you sometimes realize that the idea is way bigger than what it originally was or some of them go the other way. That said, what we do believe in is that the show should be given the amount of time it deserves. Some shows are easier to put together. Some are relatively harder. So if you look at the timeline of Forgotten Army versus Four More Shots, they’re fundamentally different in the way they are produced. And so those things are also factored in. 

But I think overall, as the industry is developing, people are realizing the importance of building some form of discipline around the timelines. 

On Using Data In Decision-Making

Vijay Subramaniam (Amazon Prime):

Entertainment has always been a business of creativity and essentially driven by art. I think the way we see it is art having a collaborative influence from science. It’s not science meeting art, to be clear. More than data, I’d like to believe that we look at insights, one hell of a lot. Data is what it is. I mean, it’s a whole bunch of information that tells you things, that either validate what you’re doing or help you tweak things around. I think going beyond the data is, what we do and it’s a part of our company philosophy, right? Customer obsession. Everything we do, we ask ourselves, who are we making this for? And why will she care about it and why now, and so on and so forth. I think the insights play an incredible part in it. The classic good to great journey has been driven by how well the creators have actually used the insights. It plays a great part, it is going to continue to play a great part. And I think that’s where the trick lies, balancing creativity with the insights.

Ekta Kapoor (ALT Balaji):

I’m not lying, but till a month ago I realised that data was almost everything we were working with. So, as an app, we’re clearly male youth driven and we’ve made about some 75 originals till now, moving on to a 100 in the next two – three months. And, you know, it used to shock me because every time I thought, ‘okay, this show is being talked about, it would not get numbers…’ Leaving Bombay and South Bombay, there’s a whole India out there, which wants totally different content. And while I was doing this, I recently did Married Women, just because I was like I’m going to have a different thing, and it worked. I realised that we have to marry the two. I didn’t imagine it to work, but it worked. And so now I’m sitting with a little bit of data and a little bit of relief that whilst 75% of the programming is led by the knowledge we get from data, 25%, at least, will be left to gut, to experimentation, to ideas that probably are not constantly pressured with numbers, but pressured with maybe they’ll open a new audience. 

Vijay Subramaniam (Amazon Prime):

Ekta makes a great point. One of the reasons why I chose insights is because this is not to reaffirm more of the same. That’s the other trap of just being led by data, right. It’s going to say, ‘Oh, okay, this is the genre that you should put all your money’, but the beauty about insights is it also helps you pick up weak signals from customers. The point she made about there’s a whole India out there… this will come through if you actually pay close attention to why they’re watching, which parts, which characters stood out, which episodes stood out… Those weak signals allow you to look at refreshing opportunities that probably surprise conventional wisdom, but not the creators.

Vijay Koshy (TVF):

For us also, it’s largely insights-driven. Data is this four-letter letter bad word. So we try and stay away from it. For us, it’s more qualitative. Because we were born and brought up in the online world, for us, the feedback was immediate. So you put out a piece of content, you can immediately figure out what are the comments, how is the audience reacting, what are they liking, what are they not liking. And then you can keep working on that and improving as we move along. And with platforms, now that we’re functioning as a studio, we look at the brief that the platform gives us as far as the show is concerned. I don’t think too many platforms are very open to sharing data. And rightfully so. So we just take their brief, marry it with our insights and go back with whatever we think fits in. 

What Do They Look For In A Script?

Ekta Kapoor (ALT Balaji):

I believe art is many things to many people. For some it’s escapism and if I’m looking for a Nagin script, I want it to be absolutely entertaining. And since the digital medium is an intrusive or should I say, it’s an individualistic viewing medium, I would look for something that in some way, derives some emotion out of you. Once I heard in an interview that you fight sleep. So, now when I sit for scripts on apps, I have to want to know what’s going to happen next. Then that script becomes far more interesting for me. You look at different things in different scripts, escapism, relatability, sometimes suspension of reality also. 

Vijay Koshy (TVF):

None of our content is a thing that will keep anyone awake at 2:30 AM, and want to lose sleep and watch the next episode. So we look at honesty and authenticity in the script. That for us is very, very important. And how involved is the team behind it? Are they 100 percent willing to back it and have they done their homework? How patient are they? Because for us, the process of making a show – and I’ll come back to the Panchayat example again and again – the idea was conceived in 2016 and it finally saw the light of day thanks to this one gentlemen, on this particular panel also, who had the belief that you could make a show about a village where nothing happens and audiences would love to sit and watch something like that. 

Sameer Nair (Applause):

Lots of ideas come, lots of people come. We’re always looking for things that are unique and different in that sense, from what we’ve done. We always can sort-of put it into the context of what is happening in the market. Does this feel like this is more of the same? Have you seen a lot of this before? Are we doing stuff like this already? Oftentimes ideas start off by being really brilliant, but as we go down the path of development, we realise that maybe this is not so good. If you talk about a 100 great ideas that we sort of like, and push for development, maybe 10 make it. So there’s a lot of failure rate in this, which is quite exhausting. 

But we’re always trying to stay focused on- is there some sort of a new story that we are being able to tell? Why do we want to tell it? If you are making a dumb comedy, then make sure you make a really dumb comedy and don’t get intellectual about it halfway. Whatever you’re setting out to do, if you’re setting out to make a psychological thriller, that’s what you should do.

Vijay Subramanium (Amazon Prime):

For us, it starts with the— I like to keep it as the three Cs that I follow. The first is the customers— who is this being created for? And to Ekta’s point, what emotions are you expecting to bring out with that audience. Are they going to feel bad? Poignant?… That’s very important. The second is the creators themselves. The vision, the passion, and the way they’re able to actually defend themselves and why they want to tell the story. And then the third one for us has always been collaboration. This is not a one-way street, and what has stood out in success has been the ability for everyone in this mix to add all the feeds that’s coming in, it’s not about people’s different opinions or positions or egos or anything, anything of that sort. It’s really towards making the best version of the story available to customers. And being willing to collaborate is not the same as compromise. Let’s be very clear about that— being able to receive the feedback, work on it, and these things are important. And oftentimes I find that people don’t realise how important this is. 

Do They Prefer Multi-Season Ideas?

Vijay  Subramanium (Amazon Prime):

So far we’ve been biased towards multi-season I think, and I know much as this is the seems like we’ve done a lot and customers have been given a lot of shows, the truth is that we’ve barely scratched the surface of cinematic, high-quality fiction, finite fiction and so on and so forth. So I think it’s really important for us to be biased towards multi-seasons because in success, what you’re doing is you’re building a property that has inherent demand that you can then tap into and build even beyond the first season itself. Whether it’s Mirzapur or Four More Shots, we almost always lean towards shows that have the legs to go beyond just the first season.

Vijay Koshy (TVF):

I think both are welcome. It’s depending on the canvas and the story. Like a Scam 1992, you can have probably one season. You don’t want to drag that over, or the Looming Tower, Amazon Prime Video and Chernobyl. If we sign on a multi-season deal, then we try and execute, after the first season, the parallel next two seasons back to back, then the popularity of the show and the top of mind awareness that is there, is retained. So, that’s the only thing that we follow.

Ekta Kapoor (ALT Balaji):

I think I got this thought process from television. I don’t believe in anything that does not continue for long. I think I’ve been criticised for that too, but a multi season format is probably the best way to go. I can’t always commission it initially because I have a very stringent budget. And I try to see that only the shows that manage a certain number, that we have planned according to data, will go into a second season. It does a second season only if it’s done well. And for me, that is really important. But I always pick up stories that have the ability to be a multi season story… But the fact is that when you have a Mirzapur, you can go on for four or five seasons, but not every story allows that. That doesn’t mean they can’t be made, but you can have the brand continue and the stories keep changing too, you know? And yeah, but a preference toward multi season stories.

Advice For New Writers, Directors, and Showrunners  

Vijay Koshy (TVF):

It’s always better to have a pilot written. You have to have a pilot written because just an idea is not good enough. Every second person wants to be a writer and director, and they come up with a great idea, but that’s not enough. They need to put in the initial work and come up with a pilot. And nowadays, equipment is also not such a big deal. You’ve got such high-end cameras in phones and editing is also so simple. There’s absolutely no excuse for that. Anyone who’s aspiring to do this should have a basic pilot ready and a short film… I know a 10 year old who runs a YouTube channel of her own. So I don’t see any reason why any of these people can’t do that.

Ekta Kapoor (ALT Balaji):

I’ve been doing this for 27 years now – meeting writers, new writers… I do not believe only in the body of work. I’ve seen some people having a great body of work. And then the material they bring to you is so shocking that you realize that, ‘Oh, it’s just, it could have been just like a shot in the dark’. So I always react to material and I don’t react to people. So if I have someone who’s come with a great story, it doesn’t matter if they’ve written five shit stories before, or if they’ve written five classics. It doesn’t matter. I react to material.

Sameer Nair (Applause):

What we do is that we get ideas from everywhere and lots of people have ideas and everyone now wants to do this. And there are so many creative people out there. I think the one little difference we do is that we are not so strict about what’s the level of material written as much as how exciting or interesting the idea is to start with, because we know that if we like it, we are going to get involved and we are going to help this process. What we look from there on is how passionate and committed the person is towards what we are now going to set out to do. As Vijay said, it’s actually going to be a pretty long journey. It’s going to be 18 to 24 months. 

Oftentimes, we get great ideas from people who are doing six different things, you know? So they come and pitch to you and they’ve got another meeting and another meeting and another meeting. We mostly give a miss to that… If you’re terribly busy, then you’re probably not for us. We want a bit of an exclusive relationship, let’s not be too complicated, not very polyamorous.

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