How long can OTT platforms continue to release fresh content in India amid the pandemic?

How much left?
How much left?
Image: Reuters/Caren Firouz
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Video streaming apps are having their moment in the sun in India. But how long can this momentum continue given that no new shooting has happened in the country for more than two months now?

With millions of Indians cooped up at home due to the nationwide lockdown between Mach 25 and June 8, OTT consumption went through the roof. Amazon Prime and Netflix witnessed 67% and 65% surge in subscriptions, respectively, during the lockdown period. Zee Network’s ZEE5 registered an 80% rise in subscriptions during the same time, while ALTBalaji witnessed a 60% uptick in its user base.

“Normally consumers complete a series in five to seven sittings, they’re now consuming in two sessions because the time for entertainment has increased,” Ferzad Palia, head of production firm Viacom18’s video streaming platform, Voot Select, said. “A lot more content is getting consumed at a quicker pace.”

While they’re lapping up the content, users are now worried if these platforms will exhaust their content pipelines. “We’ve finished almost every good series on Netflix. I don’t know what we’ll watch after Dark is over,” a 26-year-old Mumbai resident Avantika Ahuja said. While the libraries are vast, much of the content is subpar, Ahuja said.

Two steps ahead

For now, most platforms have new releases lined up. Besides the ready content, several big-ticket films are seeking release on platforms like Amazon Prime since movie theatres are shut and may not get much footfall even if they reopen soon. Others, like Netflix, have been breathing new life into old films by bringing them online.

But even beyond these plans, some players are confident that they have enough to keep users entertained in the long haul.

Netflix, for instance, has a well-stocked inventory. “We work really far out relative to the industry because we launch our shows all episodes at once…So our 2020 slate of series and films are largely shot and are in post-production remotely in locations all over the world,” chief content officer Theodore A Sarandos said during the company’s Q1 earnings call on April 21 (pdf).

Of course, some dates and timelines will be disturbed, and going back to normal won’t be smooth—especially in a country like India, where Covid-19 cases are on the rise. Completing ongoing projects or kickstarting new ones are ridden with uncertainty.

“Everyone’s schedules will go for a toss. Like talent would’ve assumed they’d finish a particular project by June and taken up another starting in July August,” Voot’s Palia said. “The reshuffling of dates will be very tricky for everyone involved from the cast to the creatives. It’s one big area of chaos.”

Jai Mehta, who finished co-directing SonyLIV series Scam 1992 just two weeks before the lockdown, is concerned about where his next project will come from.

“I’m afraid all the scripts and stories I’ve written involve a lot of crowded spaces and a lot of travelling,” Mehta said. “How do we film those? Can we film abroad again? I wonder how we’ll be able to build large sets again. I hope actors agree to work in live locations.”

Not all hope is lost yet though.

Baby steps

In June, Maharashtra, which is home to the Hindi film industry, started allowing film and TV shoots in non-containment zones. However, only 33% of the crew is allowed at a set, social distancing and sanitisation efforts need to be made, and everyone at the site needs to have the Arogya Setu app installed. Additionally, ambulance, doctors, and nurses are compulsory inclusions on the set, and actors aged over 65 years of age are not allowed to work.

Despite the permissions, some players remain cautious. It’s still a waiting game for digital entertainment company Pocket Aces. “In terms of timelines, we will wait for others to go on the floor and see how the situation pans out and then probably take a decision,” founder Ashwin Suresh said. “We do not want to be the first in line to do any of these things since there is no capital constraint or urgency to go on the floor until everything is extremely safe.”

The company is evaluating which shoots need to start first when restrictions ease up. “Even for these shoots, all of the pre-production that can be done remotely will continue the same way, minimising any physical contact on sets and reducing travel as much as we can to uncontrolled locations,” he said.

Experts say the larger outdoor shoots may be riskier, and content creators may need to adapt to different kinds and styles of content.

Create from home

Technology is likely to play a big role in content creation given the need for social distancing. The trend is already visible. Mehta has been completing the post-production of his show using apps such as Frame.io, Zoom, Skype, Instagram Video, WhatsApp, WeTransfer, and GoogleDrive.

Filmmaking collaborations go beyond basic communication tools. For instance, Pocket Aces is testing software like StudioBinder for writing and pre-production as well as a bunch of post-production software such as Pix, MediaSilo, and others.

“We have taken a lot of the communication and collaboration aspects for granted like impromptu meetings, whiteboarding sessions, war rooms to deal with burning issues, and face-to-face meetings to deal with personnel/personal issues,” said Mahesh Shankar, CTO of Chennai-based digital media agency Influx Worldwide. “It’s easier to read someone in-person and now that we will be seeing lesser of each other, that’s going to be a challenge.”

The situation is also ushering in innovation.

American drama Blacklist completed its season finale using animation for parts of it. In India, 44-year-old Sharib Hashmi of Filmistaan- and Family Man-fame said he shot for a micro-series called A Viral Wedding, “which we made in complete lockdown with every actor shooting their portions on their own right from setting the frame to the production design.”

The creator of the series which aired on ErosNow, Shreya Dhanwanthary—an actor who turned writer, director and producer for the project—realises the implications of content creation in today’s world are far more complicated than that, no matter the medium.

“The privileged section of society is looking to escape and devour content. A lot of us not able to provide that with layoffs happening and not knowing where our next paycheck is coming from, and the rent situation. These are existential questions we’ll have to reconcile with,” said Dhanwanthary. “I’m curious as much as the next person to see which way the coin will land.”