‘Budgets in the OTT space are higher but so is the turnaround time’

Battling slower growth in the TV production space due to ad slowdown and the new tariff order (NTO), the television production companies have set their eyes on digital, which has opened up new opportunities for content creators.

Contiloe Entertainment founder Abhimanyu Singh is excited about the OTT space. His company’s first foray into the space is the web series ‘State of Siege: 26/11’ which is going live on ZEE5 on 20th March. TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto caught up with Singh to talk about the company’s digital foray, the impact of the slowdown and NTO on the production business and much more.

Excerpts:

Production houses expect 2020 to be a tough year. How do you see the year panning out?

I think that 2020 could be a year of opportunity also. There is a tectonic shift happening in technology and consumption in our country. You are looking at this whole space of digital storytelling taking off. There is is a great opportunity. We are a land of stories. There are so many stories that we can now especially make which we did not have the opportunity of making earlier. So I do not think that 2020 and the years after that will be bad or challenging. They will have their set of challenges but there will be new opportunities.

The expectation is that with the NTO broadcasters will tighten their budgets. What is your strategy in terms of managing cost efficiencies?

Cost efficiencies will have to be managed. Such is the nature of the beast now. Advertising is getting impacted and has the percolating effect on the last mile which is the production community. But there are opportunities coming up through digital shows that are going to be made where budgets will only open up because it is a D2C business. More consumers will come on to these platforms and more specialised, premium content will be created. You might lose somewhere but you might gain somewhere else. I do not think that there will be an overall reduction. I think that there will be an overall increase.

How many shows will you have on-air and on digital this year?

Currently, we have two shows on TV. On digital, our first show goes on ZEE5 on 20th March. We are talking with broadcasters regarding more shows and concepts. We are always working towards a new slate of ideas whether it is on television or in the digital space. Having now having made our first show in digital and working on a few others now we can confidently say at least that we will be able to make shows well on the digital space. The opportunity is about the kind of stories that we can now make in the digital space.

Could you talk about your digital show?

This is a ZEE5 Original crime thriller series starring Arjan Bajwa, Arjun Bijlani, Mukul Dev, Vivek Dahiya, and Tara Alisha Berry. It is based on a book by a journalist Sandeep Unnithan who works for the India Today Group. He set out to write out a book that took into account a 360-degree view of what happened in the 60 hours of siege in Mumbai, what happened, why it happened, who the perpetrators were and largely the counterinsurgency that our NSG commandos did to liberate Mumbai. So our show revolves around this. It is an eight-episode series that accounts for a lot of the unanswered questions.

What are the ideas that you are working on in digital?

When we look at digital as a new opportunity the opportunity is about the kind of stories that we can make now. We are trying to tell the 26/11 attacks story holistically and I could never have told it in a film. Also, it is not such a large story that I could have made a 1000 episode television show. This is where digital gives you the platform, that grammar to tell this story.

Does digital allow for more experimentation?

Digital allows us to make shows which consist of just eight, 10, or 15 episodes. These stories find their way in this space. We are not specifically looking at genres in digital. We are looking at the stories that we want to tell. Definitely there is more length and breadth in the genre because your audiences are more varied. Serious and smart experimentation can be done whether in the thriller space or in the historical space. We are working on a mega historical project in the digital space and we are also looking at something in the supernatural space.

What do you look for before giving a show the go-ahead?

It could be various things. Some stories might be told as a maker because you feel that it is your responsibility to tell that story. Then there are some stories that are told because they are inspiring. Other stories might come from an exciting idea and from that an arc is created. From that, you tell the story. One thing that is constant is that you as a maker have to use your imagination in storytelling. It has to come from within you as a maker to be able to tell a story.

What is it that broadcasters and OTT platforms expect from a production house?

I think that broadcasters are more specific about what they want as they clearly know their target audience. Digital platforms experiment more as they are figuring out what that sweet spot is. It depends on the platform to platform.

Have the needs of audiences changed on television?

On television, the supply of content is the result of the kind of demand that is there. TV penetration is growing at the bottom of the pyramid where people who earlier could not afford a TV set now have one. This is resulting in a certain kind of content being the order of the day. There is a lot of soap content that continues to be the focus. Consumers like drama and want it on a regular basis.

Why is there so much churn in TV shows?

On TV, churn has not been so much in the past couple of years. 60-70% of TV shows have been on-air for two to four years old. Some have been on-air for a decade. The churn is not so high. Yes, some shows do not work and it is fair for a network to pull a show off the air if that is the case.

How important is it to explore genres within soap?

If you look at our historicals in the TV space it is soap history. ‘Maharana Pratap’ ran for 560 episodes. ‘Ashoka’ was 500 episodes. ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ was 500 episodes. Automatically they are a soap in the backdrop of history. Now the advantage in the digital space is that one can tackle history in an unadulterated manner and tell the subject matter as it was. One can focus on more cutting edge, more decisive storytelling. On TV when you make a horror show five times a week it is a soap. What is exciting is that the digital space has not yet opened up to genres like historical, mythological.

Are OTT platforms more flexible in terms of content budgets?

Yes! The budgets in the OTT space are higher but so is the turnaround time. For ‘State of Siege’ it took us one year to make eight episodes. On television, I make 260 episodes at the same time. So in terms of the economics and the way you prep for it, produce it and post-produce it there is a world of difference between TV and OTT.

How long does it take to make the show?

It differs depending on the medium. TV has a quicker turnaround largely. On digital, the turnaround is longer. You need to have the whole thing written, prepared and then you go into shoot keeping in mind the last mile which is the post-production. Digital needs a huge amount of preparation.

How has this changed your attitude towards storytelling?

We have learnt a lot, unlearnt some stuff, re-learnt some stuff. Technologies facilitate storytellers to be able to do so much more. One can do digital storyboarding. You can create environments and put characters in there. You can put voices in a scene that is semi-animated and see the scene before shooting it. You have to constantly update yourself on how technology is being updated, how it is evolving to be able to help you as a storyteller tell stories.

From a P&L perspective, what is the big challenge?

From a P&L perspective, one has to look at innovative ways to reduce prices as the pricing of the broadcast is going down. As far as growth is concerned the challenge is to be able to tell stories for various platforms whether it is broadcast, digital or cinema. Your growth as a storyteller will come from there. Our focus will rest on coming up with ideas and telling stories.

For Contiloe, how important is retaining IP? What is the risk and opportunity in this?

This is a larger forum industry discussion. IP is obviously valuable. You can monetise the show, characters. It is our constant endeavour to create IPs that we can own, keep and then monetise over a period of time. We have retained certain IPs of certain works that we have done. They do then give us dividends over the length and breadth of their life. The regional, international broadcast space can be tapped into as also the Southeast Asian market and the regional Indian market. Now the digital space requires content. This is another avenue that is opening up for us.

What has been your most successful property?

We have had various properties that have done well. Most of our historical shows have done very well like ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’, ‘Ashoka’. Mythological shows like ‘Vighnaharta Ganesha’, ‘Tenali Ram’ to name a few have worked. Horror has also worked and we did a show in the early 2000s that ran for 10 years. This genre is difficult as every week we had a new story to tell. But it keeps us excited as content makers.

Does mythology require a lot of research?

Yes! Every God has to be rendered right. People are very sensitive about these things. You cannot say anything wrong about God. You have to be extremely careful. Luckily with ‘Vighnaharta Ganesha’ and ‘Jai Hanuman!’ we did not face any controversy over 1400 episodes.

How has Contiloe evolved as a company since launching back in 1995?

What Contiloe has constantly done is to keep reinventing itself and also diversifying as far as genres are concerned. When we started off as a company we largely did film-based content. Then we got into horror, thriller, drama, historical, mythological. Our body of work has the least amount of soap kind of content and a variety of other genres whether it is kids content, the animation you name it. We have also thrived on using newer technologies.

We used motion capture technology for ‘Ganesha’ which was also used by director James Cameron for the movie ‘Avatar’. We used this technology for 700 episodes on a daily basis. We used this technology very innovatively. We have put a pipeline in place and innovation drives us as a company. In digital, you have constantly update yourself in terms of technology and how it is evolving. This will help storytellers. For ‘State of Siege: 26/11’ we used CGI very effectively and you cannot make out the difference between the CGI helicopter and the real one.”

What are the Contiloe’s plans for the film business?

We have made films in the past. I got a National Award for an animation film on Ramayana. I have also made a horror film. Cinema has always been a high-risk business but now the opportunity has really come with direct to digital cinema. You can make a two-hour or a three-hour film for digital. You have to be versatile enough to adapt to a platform. This is funded upfront very much like broadcast television. At least you are not at the risk of everything being lost.

Could you talk about the investment being made in talent?

For ‘State of Siege: 26/11’ we hired a writer from the US. We also hired a DP from the US. For some of our crew members, editors and key creative talent we got a lot of collaboration from Hollywood to work along with us because this is a new space, structure for us. When you see the show you will see that finesse in our storytelling because we are investing now in those heads of department to be able to help us give the kind of quality that we want. In digital, the content will stick there for years now and so you have to be extremely careful.

Ultimately you sit there with international shows side by side. The audience wants to consume local content but at global standards. You have to ensure that you feed that local appetite with content that is of a global standard.

Would you look at launching your own OTT platform at some point?

No! We are storytellers. We do not want to be a platform. We do not want to get into the distribution game. It is a different skill set altogether. Some people are happy being content aggregators and platforms. Our aim is to become a reliable content producer.

Could you talk about the efforts being made in the animation space through the opening of a VFX Studio in Bhubaneshwar?

We have our own post-production facilities, our own visual effects studio, our own shooting studios. We have our own creative cell. We are a fully integrated set up now and we want to focus on that. That is the core of our business. The visual effects studio in Bhubaneswar does work in several areas like compositing. Animation work will be started out of that facility.

Right now 35-40 people work there and the plan is to scale it up to at least 300 people over the next couple of years. Artistes from Bhubaneswar are very good. Because there is a university there is huge infrastructure support that one gets in that city. It is a good catchment area for talent and this city will go places. We currently do in-house projects and also do international work in the animation and visual effects space.

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