Streaming platforms have assumed a special place in our lives in 2020. From being one more exciting source for movies and web shows, they became the only source of entertainment. Theatres have been shut for most part of the year but we still got to see major star-led movies, gripping web shows and some unexpected gems. A lot of these were on Amazon Prime Video. Apart from hit shows like Paatal Lok and Mirzapur 2, the platform also premiered films like C U Soon, Gulabo Sitabo and Soorarai Pottru, among others. We asked Vijay Subramaniam, Director and Head, Content, Amazon Prime Video India, to break down entertainment in 2020, the choices he made for his platform, and his biggest learnings.
When the year started you didn't know how important streaming is going to become. How chaotic has 2020 been, especially post lockdown?
I think we have been incredibly fortunate because we had finished products and were able to hit the ground running in the beginning of the year and sustain that momentum right from Four More Shots to Paatal Lok. Then we had to make a lot of changes to adapt to the new reality. We had to be pretty adaptive when it can to our film strategy. We had to lean on what we could do best to serve the interests of everyone, starting with our customers and then producers. We have been working with creators and studios for a while on the long-term benefits of having a streaming partner like us. That really helped at times like this because they too were under a lot of duress, trying to understand what to do with some of the finished products that they had. They were most receptive to us. In effect, we became their theatre for the worldwide release of their films. That allowed us access to some big films. This is where our customer centric approach has been key for us.
When theatres shut in March, within days there were murmurs of films going directly to streaming. Did you see an opportunity and immediately reach out to producers? Who made the first move?
Yes, of course. We are always looking for opportunities that benefit customers and the kernel of it came from trying to understand customer sentiment. People were at home, it was a time when so little was known about the pandemic, there was a lot of stress, and we were looking at how best we can help people. Films is an integral part of our entertainment so yes, we did see this as an opportunity. But it was equally important to respect the sentiments of everybody involved. So while we saw it as an opportunity we definitely did not want to do something that did not work for the producers. We needed every body to see it in a positive light.
You could say you bailed them out because they were losing money by not being able to release the film.
But the idea was not just to bail them out but for them to strategically think about the future as well. They should see us in the same breath as any other distribution opportunity. It's important to understand that at a time when producers are struggling to release their films not only locally but there is also so much doubt internationally, this was giving them ready access to 200 territories. We underlined all these benefits. But we were very clear that we need the producers to feel that this is the right decision for their projects because they have lived with these stories for years. We wanted to respect that hard work. While we did make the first move, due credit to producers for responding the way they did.
It's been an incredible year for Amazon Prime. You had a Suriya release, a Fahadh Faasil release, a Bachchan release… There's Coolie No 1 in December. How has this changed the game for you and do you ever think about how you're going to top this next year?
(Laughs) That's an interesting question. But think of it like a sportsperson at their peak. You don't think about which record you want to break next. We really want to just focus on customers and that's what we are doing. I believe that we have been incredibly fortunate in that we had a robust line-up and all these partners responded so quickly. I believe that as long as we remain grounded and focussed on our customers we will be able to create new opportunities. I'm never one who shies away from saying that we didn't know the possibilities till we got to this position. But we did know what's important to customers. As things return to normal, I think some things will permanently change, including how projects are evaluated. But yes, it's been a fun year. Now that you mention it we've really had some big releases.
Next year, even after theatres open do you see new models of distribution emerging? Disney tried something new with Mulan. Wonderwoman is releasing in theatres and HBO Max at the same time.
I definitely believe something will change and it will bring about fair amount of innovation in distribution. But I can't speculate on what it will mean. I think certain innovation will take place that will influence all aspects of content, distribution being one such area. And that's obvious because one avenue of distribution is having a pretty rough time. But I believe there is going to be a change in the way content is produced. I think new opportunities will open up as we have seen over the last 7 months. People were skeptical about how it (films directly on OTT) would work out. Today they are not only happy with the way it has worked out but also confident and willing to get their biggest films to us. So yes, innovation is going to happen. I can't pin down what that will be. But I'm super excited.
You've had major star-led films this year and also exceptions like the Telugu film Gatham which was made by a team of NRIs just starting out. How did that happen? And will we see more such indie films on the platform?
Yes, sure. We have always placed an emphasis on good storytelling so this is not new. We have had Aruvi and Aadai on the service. But what we have is a very interesting publishing model called prime video direct which works differently in that it is a different business model. Through that we are able to bring high quality independent cinema on the platform. It's available to producers and smart producers are double clicking on that and taking advantage of it. Gatham is a great example of that. It's a good story that's refreshingly told and at a time when theatres are closed, whatever option they had to get films to customers pretty much evaporated. They saw PVD as an opportunity. We obviously check for quality because we are curators. We liked what we saw and we went ahead with it. Again it's about providing the industry with enough tools or business models and allow them various opportunities to be a part of the Amazon universe and then of course it's up to them – if it makes business sense do it or not.
Film writers and directors have always spoken about the struggle of balancing art with commerce. You have also said that you start with what the customer wants and then work backwards from there. Does it take a while to find that balance between what the customer wants and what the creator wants?
Well, yes. It does. But I think understanding customers is paramount to being able to serve them well. I believe you need to know your audience and what they care about and why in the business of creation, vision is unique. We had to get producers and creators to understand that. I think producers are pretty smart – they get it. But we are working with them and helping them refine that thinking. Here's the thing, tastes and preferences are constantly evolving. What we enjoyed 5 years ago we may not care about today. So we work relentlessly on understanding that. There is no greater keeper of the truth than the customer herself. In my experience, the star creators and producers are all moving in that direction. They are all trying to get a better read of why the customer will care about a story.
What sort of insights do you share with them? Are they curious to know details of customer feedback?
Oh yes, absolutely. What really matters to us is customer insights. It's important to understand that and have a check on the pulse of those insights. When a story is being put together you do research on the story, so that you get your facts right. Similarly you got to do research on whom you're building that story for.
Do you share this research with them while the writing is happening?
Yes, of course, and after as well. We share the key learnings and the good and the bad and what could have been better so that they are able to constantly improve on the storytelling. I think that's what makes for a strong, robust collaboration.
But this must be fairly new for them, right? To incorporate customer feedback into the writing and creating?
I think what's happened now is that it's become a lot more organised. It's become a part of the overall process and it's recognised now as an important part of the creation. It's accepted by even the most senior of creators. Again, vision is unique. Nobody is asking creators to sacrifice the passion of their vision. This just helps compliment that.
What's been your biggest takeaway from this year about content and those who consume it. What are the learnings that will shape the next years of Amazon?
A couple of them. One, it is important to be able to tell really compelling stories. Customers care about that. Two, it is important to respect the diversity. We are many Indias in India and it is important to serve each of those communities sincerely and consistently. Finally, I think creative risk taking is essential. We want to take a couple of steps alongside creators and producers and make these bets on their behalf. C U Soon is an example. Everything was shot on screens, a craft that's never been used in India. We said it's a great idea, let's do it. This year has reinforced these learnings for me in a very big way.