‘Abundantia has no aspirations of having its own OTT platform’

Abundantia Entertainment is growing its content business rapidly. This is not just through more pieces of content but also through sharper, better segmentation. Earlier this year it announced two segment-focussed verticals – ‘Psych’ and ‘Filters’ for horror and young adult.

It is building on its relationship with Amazon Prime Video not just through a second season of ‘Breathe’ but is also bringing actor Akshay Kumar to the digital realm through a show called ‘The End’.

Abundantia Entertainment founder, CEO Vikram Malhotra said that a strong script that he and his company are thrilled with is at the heart of what his company does. At the same time, his focus is on balancing budgets with economic outcomes.

TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto caught up with Malhotra to find out more on the company plans and the progress that his company has made.

Excerpts:

When you launched Abundantia Entertainment what was the gap that you saw in the content marketplace?

Having been part of telling highly differentiated stories that were considered progressive and high-quality compared to other offerings at that point in time from 2009-2013 I felt that the real opportunity lay in creating a content engine which was built on two things one an understanding of the audience especially the younger audience and two a platform that enabled younger and the more progressive-minded storytellers to join hands and bring these stories to the market.

In my assessment that was a huge need at that point in time and continues to remain a need gap. We were happy to come in and be the prime movers in that piece.

How did you go about creating a niche for yourself and how did your stint in Viacom18 help you?

Like I said while we were creating Abundantia we were trying to be a company that listens to the audience that wants to tell stories that will be taken up by the audience rather than put a filter on what are the kinds of film and shows that we want to create. Having said that our content USP is that all of our work is based on insights, events, individuals, aspiring stories in the world and from the world around us as creators, and as an audience. So really human beings on this side tell stories on their emotions to human beings on the other side who are receiving stories on these emotions.

That is actually the lifeblood of how Abundantia looks at storytelling. At Viacom18, the learnings of working with talented, progressive filmmakers came in handy while building Abundantia. Some deeply embedded relationships were created, there was an understanding of creating genre-breaking content that was created but ours is an ever-evolving industry and trends, preferences and attitudes of the audience change overnight. So while there were key building blocks in terms of learning the first two years of Abundantia were really the building blocks of where we are today.

Film making is a risky business. What gave you the confidence to go ahead?

The risk is inherent in our business probably disproportionately higher than in other businesses, industries that I have been a part of earlier. But the strongest point of confidence for me to start my venture back then was the fact that good quality and consumer focus never goes unrewarded. As long as that is built into the business model of any business risk is disproportionately mitigated. So having done this at sleeves rolled up knee deep in the trenches work gave me reasonable confidence to do this. The challenge of new, unchartered territory was exciting enough for me to take the plunge at that point of time.

The capital requirement is huge in the film business. How do you approach this challenge?

Abundantia Entertainment from day one was set up to be a company driven by intellectual capital and not by financial capital. We have been through multiple rounds of fundraises in the form of private equity from blue-chip financial investors and home offices. It is literally five years to the date that we did our first fundraise.

Capital requirement for us is about more development capital, more seed capital that gets filmmakers, storytellers, and ideas to Abundantia. We then flip out work or create partnerships with larger deeper pocketed capital intensive players like studios and platforms when it comes to the larger requirements of financial capital. That said the model has never been to be a studio and the model has never been to be a platform. The model has always been to be a high quality, premium content creator leveraging more of the intellectual capital.

The film business has a lot of volatility and most studios are backed by corporates which allows them to absorb losses. An independent studio cannot absorb a heavy loss. How helpful are private equity investors in this scenario?

Absolutely correct! If the model of the company is that the risk is contained entirely within the organisation then the appetite to handle that risk is also required. Like you rightly said large corporates and large studios with deeper pockets, balance sheets have the ability to withstand the volatility of our business. But for an independent company like us, it is constantly important to understand our risk profile and contain that and also not take any disproportionate risks that would offer an existential crisis.

We have constantly managed to stay aligned with what our risk-reward ratio is. In fact, at Abundantia, we are very clear that on the financial side we are okay to be limited in our reward provided we are also contained and friendly on the risk side. It is a very fine balance that we strike between the amounts of risk that we like to take on a project at the cost of the reward that the project will give us.

Are the private equity investors just putting in money or do they also help in deciding strategy?

I remain the single largest investor and majority shareholder in Abundantia. In a small minority, there are a chunk of investors. Abundantia is completely management controlled which means that the team and I take all strategic and operating calls on the business. There is counsel and support from our investors but all operating and management calls are taken between the team and me. We have complete leeway since I am the majority shareholder.

Is Abundantia Entertainment looking at further capital infusion?

As we grow and as our mission increases and the new business of digital content expands, our aspiration and our portfolio increases, at the right point in time to fuel our growth and expansion we will look at the second level of fundraising.

Could you talk about the model of creating ‘talent-studio partnerships’?

The way we operate is that we sit in a very enviable middle position of having talent creators on one side of Abundantia and platforms and studios on the other side of Abundantia. For us, the ideal mix is to nurture the right creative talent- the creators the storytellers and bring it to a point where the product becomes compelling enough for a studio or a platform and then create this sort of seamless marriage between the entire value chain. That is a model that has held in very good steam whether it is on the film side with work like ‘Baby’, ‘Airlift’, ‘Toilet: Ek Prem Katha’, ‘Chef’, ‘Missing’ or on the streaming side with shows like two seasons of ‘Breathe’, ‘The End’ with Amazon Prime Video. We become a content engine to enable this value chain to work in this most efficient and effective manner.

Is IP ownership important for you?

It is important only to the extent that it allows us to do what we want to do with those stories. If we feel that we are aligned with partners where there is mutual trust and understanding from an immediate term to a long term IP becomes something that is useless unless it is applicable and efficiently deployable. So for us, that is more important. I am not someone who likes to hold IP just for the sake of vanity or a feel-good purpose. I am somebody who likes to share IP if I can leverage it in an effective manner.

So you function in a different manner from an Applause Entertainment which creates and owns the IP?

I would not compare ourselves to any other company to us but our model with shows like ‘Breathe’ is having a multi-season understanding with Amazon Prime Video. We have tremendous mutual trust and camaraderie. Now if without holding IP we are able to create multiple seasons of the same show that to me is a very efficient deployment of whoever controls that IP. Back to your point of if by retaining IP my business model necessitates me to take a disproportionate financial risk that is a balance that I would like to watch very carefully.

How have you scaled up your team since launching Abundantia Entertainment?

I believe in keeping the core team extremely tight. What that ensures is consistency and synergies of vision. We have expanded our team where we feel that core functions need support. We continue to do so. In 2019 we will expand our core team to bring more people on the creative and production side.

But the nature of our business is such that at an execution level we do a plug and play of the resources that are best available to us in the market. At the backend, we work at arms-length bench strength of writers and creators. It is about a mix of having a core team and a very strong support system on both sides.

You have said in the past that one size fits all content is a thing of the past. What opportunity exists for segmentation?

There was a time when we made one movie for the entire movie-going population. That got over several years ago. This is the time driven by the youth where you are seeing content being consumed by specific segments. I personally foresee this to become even more skewed in the future where you will get genres being consumed by specific segments. In fact, Abundantia has started building its vertical strategy where we focus on creating content for specific segments and genres catered towards a very sharply defined audience segment.

Could you talk about Psych and Filters the two verticals that Abundantia has launched?

When we looked at the audience opportunity and like I mentioned at the start that we listen to the audience and keep up with trends of what audiences of today and tomorrow are consuming and are likely to consume we realised that there are two big verticals that could hit a large size in the immediate future. One is horror and paranormal and the other is young adults.

These are both unique to each other and yet they mirror each other in many ways. There are die-hard fanatics of the horror and paranormal genre and our attempt to be a democratised content creator there where lovers of the genre create content for fans of that genre. The aim is to make it extremely pure play and create content that appeals to fans of that genre. We want to create and grow franchises within that genre. In terms of our focus on young adults, the largest of content across screens is the below 28 year age group. We are further sharpening our focus on that and getting it down to the below 25 year age group. The aim is to create content under filters. It could be three minutes to three seasons but again we create only for that younger audience with the perspective of storytelling that relates to that audience rather than we trying force feed some sort of our unknowing gaze onto those segments. The content will be created across platforms, screens, time durations, and budgets.

Could you talk about your upcoming content slate?

We are going to announce a slate under Psych very soon. There is work under development on long form which is series and feature film. On the Filters side, we have already greenlit two feature film projects which we shall be putting out in the public domain very soon.

‘Pullela Gopichand’ is slated to go on the floors this year. The remake of ‘Begin Again’ is slated to go this year. There is another movie that we are developing which should start towards the end of the year. The second season of ‘Breathe’ is already being shot for Amazon Prime Video with Abhishek Bachchan and Nithya Menen in the lead. We should have another original show in production towards the last quarter of this year.

Movies without a big star but which are rich in content are doing well. How has the multiplex boom helped in this regard?

I am of the opinion that this entire debate of big stars or not big stars, good content selling itself is really one side of the coin. If you look at it is always that good films have done well. If good films have recognisable, loved large fan franchise holding movie stars then they tend to do better. But today the era of saying that you can make a bad film and cast in any manner is over.

What multiplexes have rightly done is that they have given a wider choice to the audience to exercise it as and when they want. Earlier you would have some fantastic content made but because of lack of access, they would not be able to come to cinemas and watch it. Content would play far and wide and multiple constraints were there that would hold the audience back. Now with the increasing footprint of multiplexes that has become far more accessible. So I think that both the demand and supply side are leading to this push of accepting better quality stories only.

Is this boom time for content creators and would Abundantia looking at having its own OTT platform?

We have no aspirations of having our own OTT platform. This is not just for financial reasons. We believe that our skillsets, competencies are best leveraged as content creators and therefore on the software side and not necessarily on the platform, hardware side.

As far as your question on it being a boom time it is more than a boom time. I think that we are right now sitting in a market that is going to be the centre of the universe for content creators and content platforms. I think that this is the opportunity of a lifetime for content creators certainly over the next few years where storytelling is truly at the fore. So I am more excited than ever before.

What are the filters that you look at before greenlighting a project?

The story that is being told and in what manner will it resonate with the largest cross-section of its audience is what is important. It is more important than commercial greenlighting. Everything else follows. If the story does not leave my mind, as an audience if I am excited to go watch a movie or a show based on that story that minute if my team can’t stop talking about it that is the first sign that it is a film or a show that we would like to greenlight.

Is that why you chose to make an Indian version of the Hollywood movie ‘Chef’?

Absolutely! We just loved the original. It is one of the most evocative father-son stories that have been made in a really long time. Raja who did ‘Airlift’ for us had a wonderful take on the film. We felt that a few things could have been treated better but as a whole, the film was a huge success when it went to its television, digital debut. Possibly the reason why people come to the theatres to watch slice of life more mellow treatment of films is a little behind us. But ‘Chef’ is a film that when I met Jon Favreau the creator, star and producer of the film I told him that this is a Hindi film. It is about food, fathers and emotions, friendships. It is as Hindi a film as you can get.

What is the opportunity for innovating with formats when it comes to OTT?

Everything from the vision of a storyteller being expanded to the ability to bring technical prowess. Actually, one of the things that Abundantia is focussing on going ahead is how do we use technology and production and post-production skill of a global nature into the work that we are now doing with the streaming platforms. What it does is the ability to tell stories over a longer format opens your minds to all sorts of possibilities.

That is something that we are looking to leverage on these platforms going ahead. One of the things that we would like to look at closely is work like motion capture and deployment of CGI not just at a VFX level but also see how we can create worlds and stories using this type of technology.

Could you talk about your working relationship with Akshay Kumar?

Akshay and I have done a wide variety of work together. By God’s grace, we have enjoyed success with all the films that we have collaborated on in the past. It stems from a tremendous amount of mutual trust, a common sensibility. There is discipline. The man’s work ethic is unparalleled as is his speed of delivery. This partnership has stood the test of time and we have extended it by taking it and bringing Akshay to the world of digital content with our latest show ‘The End’.

If you see one of the things that is common with all the films that we have done in the past is that they are all different. They are very different forms of storytelling; they are genre breakers in their own right from a caper to a slick action film to a social satire to a patriotic drama. All of these have been films that have stood apart in terms of the core story itself.

For how long have you been working on ‘The End’, when is it expected to go on-air and could you talk about its USP in a crowded environment?

The discussion with Akshay at multiple levels between Amazon, Abundantia, and Akshay has been on for multiple years. ‘The End’ has been in the works for much lesser than that. We have been working on the concept for ‘The End’ for under a year. As you can imagine it aspires to be a global show. It will be multi-season. The genre is action adventure and at the heart of that is a very core, emotional human story.

Shows like this require a significant amount of writing time. We have been at it and I anticipate that we will spend this year in that process. We will shoot it next year and depending on how things go we will work with Amazon on what the airing date should be.

Generally what budgets do you work within?

We are driven by two things. One is that we never hold back or overload any of our projects when comes to budgets. This means that we give a story the financial support that it requires. Secondly, this has to be filtered with what the economic viability is for that financial support. We would never tell a story that requires a certain budget but which we feel as per our internal evaluation and analysis that the monetising side would not support that effort. It is a balance between giving a story and a storyteller what is best to do the best of that job and then making sure that that is monetisable enough and optimisable enough in terms of the revenue side of that equation.