‘Our aim is to make Swastik Productions a strong media company’

Content production company Swastik Productions has come a long way since its inception in 2007. It has produced more than 30 shows across different genres. In a market first, Swastik became the first-ever production company in India to retain 100% IP rights for its show ‘Porus’.

Away from TV production, the company is now looking to make movies and also create digital content. It has set-up One Life Studios which focusses on creating new age content. Syndication and distribution activities are also housed under it.

TelevisionPost.com’s Ashwin Pinto caught up with Swastik Productions founder, creative director Siddharth Kumar Tewary to talk about the company’s journey so far, the opportunities in the market and how it is gearing up for the next phase of growth.

Excerpts:

When you set up Swastik Productions in 2007 what was the gap that you saw in the market?

I used to work with Sony Entertainment Television (SET) in the new content development department. I had an idea for telling a story about co-joined sisters. Somewhere my gut told me that I needed to tell this story myself. When I presented the idea internally and met someone who is close to me and who I really respect Mr. NP Singh (SPNI CEO) told me to go out and pitch it like other companies pitch to Sony. I left my job, took a year to finalise and pitch the story. To tell a story your way you have to become a producer. With no backing, I had to arrange the financial investment and then the show came on Sony. I wanted to tell the same story differently. At that point that was the need.

How did you go about filling the content need gap over the years?

The reason why I am here is to tell stories. We don’t only create content because of money and the business being generated. While I like money it clearly is a byproduct of my actions. I am interested in telling stories like ‘Mahabharat’. There are such big stories that need to be told to a new generation in new ways. It is a tremendous learning for me as well as a huge challenge in creating these shows. We were interested in telling mythological stories and not regular family dramas. Large scale family dramas and premium content is where the need of the business lies.

How has the business dynamics of running a production house changed?

The business dynamics have really evolved. Now there is a sense of ownership in creating content. It is not about just doing line production. Also the shelf life of shows is no more safe, sound and simple. There is a healthy competition in the market. We have evolved in terms of the kinds of shows we bring to the table, our production values, and the kind of content we are making. Learnings come into every series that we create. We need to tell the story much faster than earlier. Audiences now want to get to the point faster. Storytelling is becoming faster. You have to move onto the next thing. You cannot keep on dragging the same story for too long.

Are you looking at fundraising for expansion?

At the moment, we are completely self-funded. In the beginning, we did take support from some people to get things going. Post that after paying back the money we have not raised any funding.

What content trends are we seeing in the entertainment space in terms of what works and what doesn’t work?

I believe that whatever works is due to someone’s conviction behind a subject. It is not about trends. Nobody knows in this industry what will work. You create something and hope that people will love it. But if you are trying to guess it is tough. This industry is about storytelling and having a lot of conviction behind what you want to do and why you want to do it. Second-guessing what the world wants is not the right way to tell a story. The key for me is to create great local content but tell that story in a global way. With ‘Porus’ it was a local story but told in a global way. Everything moved in that direction including the music.

How has the Indian viewer evolved over the past decade in terms of content preferences?

The Indian viewer is very diverse. There is a mass viewership and then there are different patterns. The international exposure to content has ensured that their tastes and preferences and kind of quality that they want have evolved. Today it is not only about telling a story. It is about how you produce it and how good is the production quality. All these things are becoming more and more critical as we move ahead.

You decided to retain the IP for ‘Porus’. What is the risk and opportunity in retaining an IP?

Once you invest in owning the IP it becomes a very interesting space for everybody. For the broadcasters, their cost production comes down because the IP goes to the creator who invests into the property. The content has to work for cost recovery. The entire focus rests on content and this was the best part for me with ‘Porus’. It had to travel across the country and internationally. The entire focus rests on creating great content and viewer benefits.

It is a win-win situation for everybody. If it does not work then you suffer a loss. You win some and you lose some but the intent is most important. The intent has to be to create a product which has to have a shelf life. To do that it has to have a certain quality. We own IP for some content and for some content we do not. A lot of factors decide on whether or not we own IP. It depends on the platform, the deal that is on the table, the subject, and the market scenario.

According to media reports, ‘Porus’ had a budget of Rs. 400 crore. Where are you in terms of profitability on it?

I will not be able to disclose any numbers. When you are in the IP field you do not recover money immediately. You are in the long haul and you recover costs over the years. Breakeven depends on several things like ratings. If they are not good then you have to sell cheaper. If it is higher then you sell higher. On average, it takes two to three years. ‘Porus’ has been a very exciting series for us. We started our own distribution company on the back of ‘Porus’ and have sold the show to around 18 countries. We entered Japan through a deal with Hulu Japan and Nippon TV. With our distribution company, we not only sell our own content but also other company’s content in genres like lifestyle. We have also acquired content for distribution in India.

What impact did the economic slowdown had on the TV production business?

Definitely, there has been an effect on the budgets front. It has affected our industry but it is just a phase. As of now we have not delayed any projects. Our projects are in process.

How many shows do you have on-air this year?

‘Chandragupta Maurya’ has just finished airing on SET. We have ‘RadhaKrishn’ on Star Bharat and ‘Ram Siya Ke Luv Kush’ on Colors.

What kind of opportunity do you see in the regional space?

There is an opportunity down South. We made a couple of shows for Colors Kannada.

What do broadcasters look for when you approach them?

Every broadcaster has a different understanding of its own viewers based on data. They know what kind of content works and their audience. Based on their experiences, they will tell us this kind of drama works and this kind does not. They give us a brief on what they expect. When I get an idea we develop it and then I meet broadcasters. It is about finding content that is relevant today. That is the critical aspect that everybody looks for. Since television is a mass medium relevance is important.

What kind of challenges did you face in re-creating ‘Mahabharat’?

For me, it was a great journey and a great story for my own self. When Star called me I met Vivek Bahl and I was initially thinking that it would take me six to nine months to make it. But as I got into it I realised that I could not do a remake of the older version which aired when we were really small. I had to understand and read a lot to present it for a new generation. The brief was to tell a new generation this kind of story in a very new age manner.

Then I met Mr. Uday Shankar (Star India, Disney India chairman) who was the person primarily behind this. It was his vision to make ‘Mahabharat’. He wanted to present the series to an audience who had never seen this kind of premium content on television before. The objective was to appeal to a new generation and create a show that had never been seen before. It took me five years to get the show on-air. Typically, it takes six to nine months to get a show on-air.

How did the idea of ‘Ram Siya Ke Luv Kush’ come about?

I basically felt that we should be telling the story of Luv and Kush who happened to be kids of Ram and Sita. They grew up in a jungle. They had no idea whose kids they were. It is about how they make their parents meet. That really interested me. On the back of it I wanted to tell the Ramayana as they get to know it and we show the Ramayana keeping in mind today’s viewers.

What kind of response has the show garnered?

It has been doing decently well enough though I am never happy. We have really put in a lot of effort in creating this series. I expect to see great ratings traction this month.

What are your expansion plans?

We have been a content company so far. Our aim is to become a strong media company and we are moving in that direction. We are getting into digital content creation. We are getting into films soon. I am a writer, director and for me it is all about telling a great story.

We created One Life Studios, which focusses on created content for new age audiences. It is the new face of content creation that we are doing whether it is digital, cinema, IP ownership, animation. This will happen under the One Life umbrella. The name came from the fact that I believe that we have one life to live and we need to do things that make our lives worth remembering. Our content syndication and distribution business is also housed under it.

We started One Life Studios on the back of ‘Porus’ which we wanted to syndicate abroad. Among other things One Life Studios has licensed ‘Chandragupta Maurya’ in Vietnam. Prior to this, the show was successfully licensed in Cambodia.

We also have our VFX company that works on third party content. We are getting into animation. We also have our own shooting facilities called Swastik Bhoomi in Gujarat. That facility is spread across 25 acres. We are moving into opening it to other parties as well who can use our sets and infrastructure. We have our own post production set up. These are diverse things.

OTT platforms are mushrooming. As a production house, does digital allow you more creative freedom compared to TV?

Of course! In television, we make completely mass content that very clearly targets the whole family. With digital you can be sharper and more focused in terms of who you talk to and who you tell a story to. You can tell stories to new-age viewers in a very different way. ‘Sacred Games’ worked beautifully for Netflix but it would not work on television.

What are the various revenue streams for exploiting IP ownership?

There is huge amount of syndication in various languages across the world. We are getting into an animation series on ‘Porus’.

Would you look at non-fiction at some point?

We have made non-fiction content earlier so why not? There is no reason to say no. We have to think of a concept that we want to make. It is about what we want to do and the kind of belief that we have behind it. Broadcasters look for something massy and unique.

Do you any whitespace in the entertainment genre?

I believe that on television you will have content of a shorter duration. In the crime space, you can have self-contained episodes where the story gets over in 44 minutes. You get to the start and end of a story in that time period. You will see limited series coming up very, very soon. Currently, non-fiction mostly means song and dance shows. There are more genres to be explored in the non-fiction space.

When you talk about different formats like a fewer amount of episodes does it require a change in mindset?

Of course! The whole thought process of writing a digital series has to be very different from writing a regular TV series. You have fewer episodes to tell stories. It is not that you can spend a month just building a character. It cannot happen like that. You are talking to a different audience. Who you talk to is the most important question. On television a story has to be told in a particular way. On digital in 6, 8 or 10 episodes for a season you have to tell it in a certain way.

What kind of interest are you seeing for Indian content abroad and how are you leveraging this?

Our content has tremendous opportunities worldwide. Our content has a very strong emotional line and this really works in many parts of the world. We need to improve the quality of production to match the standard set by the world. On digital, the standard is improving. On television and on premium work needs to be done to take content higher.

But if you compare Indian content with half of Southeast Asia we are better off. A lot of countries look for long-form content. Turkey sells long-form content across the world. We don’t only sell shows. We also sell movies, lifestyle content from third parties. The quality of content determines how much we can push it. We represent FoodFood content. We take a share out of the revenue generated.

We attend various markets like MipTV, Mipcom, and Asian Television Forum (ATF). We started the distribution business two and a half years back. While Southeast Asia and Asia is important, we are now also focussing on Africa and are moving to Latin America. We are also getting content to India and some announcements will be made very soon. Our distribution setup is a two way street.

Would Swastik Productions look at its own OTT platform?

As of now, there are no such plans.

What progress has been made in the VFX area?

We have a great team working. We work on third party movies and shows. We do international outsourced work. It has been a three-year journey. We have our VFX studio with over 100 people working there. We are investing in animation.

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