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Now streaming: Big opportunities on the small screen

Why actors-both from the fringes and the mainstream-are gravitating towards OTT platforms

Sayan Chakraborty
Published: Dec 29, 2017 06:13:39 AM IST
Updated: Dec 28, 2017 05:27:12 PM IST

Now streaming: Big opportunities on the small screen
Sumeet Vyas during a TVF shoot in Manali

Till 2014, Sumeet Vyas, with 14 years of acting behind him, was just another thespian waiting in the wings. He had dabbled in theatre, television and blink-and-you-miss roles in films since he was 17. While Vyas had wangled key roles in some television serials, he says he always wanted to focus on cinema. There were tiny roles in movies like Aarakshan and Aurangzeb but, says Vyas, “The last thing that did decently for me was English Vinglish (in 2012).” He further tells Forbes India over phone: “Film actors and directors didn’t pay much heed to TV actors. It was almost like making a fresh start after spending so many years in acting.”

However, Vyas did not have to deal with this obscurity for long, thanks to a phenomenon that was beginning to unfold in India around that time. It was called the web series, a show that can be viewed only on the internet. In early 2014, Vyas agreed to act in such a show, The Viral Fever’s Permanent Roommates, despite being paid a pittance. “I was like, we are anyway working in theatre for free, so it doesn’t matter if they pay or not,” he jokes.

The shooting proved to be more cumbersome than he had anticipated. “The first season was supposed to be a weeklong shoot. But it took about six days to shoot the first episode itself,” recalls Vyas, who was beginning to get impatient. After all, engagements that paid his bills had to be put on the backburner.

It all changed with the third episode, which was uploaded on YouTube one November midnight, and clocked about 4 lakh views by 7 am. “That is when I realised that it was big and not something that you could take casually. By the time the last episode came out, people had started clicking pictures with me, complimenting me,” says Vyas.

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Today, the 34-year-old seems to have finally found his feet in Bollywood, after two seasons of Permanent Roommates and Tripling, both on The Viral Fever channel, and Stories By Rabindranath Tagore on Netflix. He recently starred in a film, Ribbon, along with Kalki Koechlin. Next up is Veere Di Wedding, where he will share the screen with Kareena Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor and Swara Bhaskar.

Vyas is just one of the many actors on the fringes who has gained mainstream recognition through over-the-top (OTT) platforms—Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Voot, Viu, AltBalaji and TVF, to name a few. At the same time, convinced by the original and exclusive content available as well as the diverse and huge reach of those platforms, mainstream artistes, too, are jumping on the bandwagon.

For instance, Radhika Apte, Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui will star in an adaptation of Vikram Chandra’s novel, Sacred Games, on Netflix; Richa Chadda and Vivek Oberoi headlined Amazon Prime’s Inside Edge; Swara Bhaskar is on Voot with It’s Not That Simple as is Tahir Raj Bhasin with Time Out; and Anil Kapoor, never to be kept out of the game, will be seen on Amazon Prime’s Oasis.

For the actors, it is about being where the audience is. “If you have to be a movie star, you have to reach out to the audience all the time. The digital audience is the youth today and this is the same youth who will go to the theatres to watch your films,” says Bhasin, who earned his stripes in movies like Mardaani and Force 2. “In between big studio films, you have to churn out digital content that connects with the youth,” he adds.

Now streaming: Big opportunities on the small screen
Tahir Raj Bhasin in a still from Time Out

Bollywood has obviously taken a cue from Hollywood, where artistes are, in fact, gravitating towards the OTT platforms to stay relevant in an adapt-or-die kind of an industry. Not just the actors: Years after his show Seinfeld went off air, comedian Jerry Seinfeld reinvented himself for the online platform with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, which was first distributed by digital platform Crackle, and has now moved to Netflix (also the home for his Jerry Before Seinfeld).

According to Richa Chadda of Fukrey and Gangs of Wasseypur fame, who recently acted in Inside Edge for Amazon Prime, OTTs are the way forward, given the shrinking number of single-screen theatres and the high cost of watching movies in multiplexes. Meanwhile, most OTTs operate on a “freemium” model where a large part of the content can be viewed for free while users shell out a monthly subscription between Rs 80 and Rs 500 for exclusive content. “Digital doesn’t have the same pressure as films in terms of box office collections. Also, there is no censorship. We can touch upon topics which are a taboo. For instance, Inside Edge had a caste angle,” says Chadda. “The downside is that everyone now wants to do a web series and all the content is not up to the mark.”

Ashish Pherwani, head, advisory, media & entertainment, at EY shares Chadda’s optimism. “OTTs are alive and kicking. Consumers want more content for personal consumption and OTTs are the best way to do that. While TV and living room will always rule, consumers are individualistic and want to watch something of their choice, not necessarily with the family,” says Pherwani.

According to a July 2017 report by EY and Ficci, the digital medium is projected to clock a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 26 percent between 2016 and 2021, albeit on a lower base, as compared to TV, which is poised to grow at a CAGR of 11 percent. But, to leverage this opportunity, Pherwani believes OTTs need to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack with exclusive content, among others. And the OTTs seem to have taken note. “One thing we noticed that we had to build from ground up is originals, fiction series that are of the highest quality. There was a need for content that customers couldn’t find on everyday TV,” says Vijay Subramaniam, head of Amazon Prime in India.

Netflix, for instance, has announced four shows from India while Amazon Prime, apart from announcing 21 exclusive shows, has bagged broadcast rights to films like Padmavati, starring Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone, and Rajinikanth’s 2.0.

However, monetisation still remains a hurdle. While Netflix and Amazon Prime do not feature free content, a significant part of the content offered by homegrown businesses comes for free. Most OTTs, hence, are exploring multiple revenue streams apart from traditional subscription. “The propensity to not pay is something you cannot outrun. Hence you have to be patient,” says Vishal Maheshwari, country head at Viu India.

All said, proliferation of cheap smartphones and inexpensive internet connections have set the stage for OTTs to flourish. And the actors stand to benefit. As Bhasin puts it, “Digital is the Indian Premier League for entertainment. With its quicker and shorter format, it has done to entertainment what IPL did to cricket 10 years ago.”

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(This story appears in the 05 January, 2018 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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