One year on: What went into Amazon Prime Video making the podium in India

Sunny Sen December 5, 2017 11 min

Filmmaker Vikram Malhotra had been toying with the idea of a script suitable for an online-only movie when he got a call sometime early in 2016. A young director, Mayank Sharma, wanted to show Malhotra a concept note. “It was a five-page concept – just the kind of story that I was looking for, for a digital platform. It was an emotional thriller with a lot of drama,” says Malhotra.

It was around that time the number of internet users in India was growing fast – it was touching 250 million – and tens of thousands of Indians were buying smartphones every day. Netflix had made its entry into India, as part of its 180-countries expansion plan, and has some initial success. Amazon had set up a small Prime Video team in Mumbai. It had been producing original content in the US and had successes in The Grand Tour and The Man In the High Castle.

But, India was different from the US with people yet to get used to streaming content. Sure, Bollywood was (and, is) one of the four biggest attention grabbers in the country – the other three being astrology, cricket and divinity – paying to watch movies and series online had not taken off. Malhotra, CEO and founder of Abundantia Entertainment that had produced movies such as Airlift and Baby, took some time to take the plunge. The Sharma concept note became a script and an episodic Amazon Original, Breathe, set for release first quarter of 2018.

Today, Malhotra says that he has never been surer of a shift that is happening. “Digital content will beat ecommerce in the next two to three years,” he says.

By all measures, Amazon Prime Video, launched in December last year in India, has gotten off to a good start. Prime is Amazon’s subscription service which allows buyers for free and faster delivery of goods bought on Amazon, free content viewing, and free music streaming: all included in an annual subscription of Rs 499 in India, expected to go up to Rs 999.

In its first month, Amazon had 5.82 million active users, according to data from app tracker App Annie. That number almost doubled by May to 9.57 million. Total engagement time tripled from 622 million minutes to 1,815 million minutes in the same period.

To be sure, Hotstar continues to have the largest number of active users: about 69 million in May, according to AppAnnie. That’s almost seven times of what Amazon Prime has. Jio had 42 million in May. While Jio gained momentum in a short while with free data and free content service, Hotstar offers a mix of free and paid content, a whole host of television shows, and cricket. (See a review of the three platforms from December 2016 here.)

Hotstar has an edge with cricket as a part of native content from Star. Add to that, all episodic content (including soaps, serials and reality shows), Hotstar has an instant connect with the large swathe of Indian users. Also, it was one of the first online platforms to take the plunge into online entertainment.

Mukesh Ambani-promoted Reliance Jio, on the other hand, has JioTV, an online version of cable TV that’s free as of now. Jio has partnerships with almost all national and regional channels, and allows users to stream content up to seven days old (in case you have missed a show). It also has JioCinema, which is a movie streaming service like Amazon Prime and is also free.

An expert suggests looking at Amazon Prime Video as part of the ecommerce platform’s customer acquisition efforts. “You need to look at Amazon with a different lens,” says Girish Menon, partner and head of media and entertainment at consultancy firm KPMG. “Unlike Hotsar, which is an entertainment biz, Amazon is an ecommerce company. For Amazon its customer acquisition and retention strategy for its ecommerce business, it’s for people to shop more, and then get a lot of additional service along with it.” (Read FactorDaily’s earlier story ‘How Prime Video is turning the ecommerce wheel at Amazon’.)

Changing viewers

For Amazon, it’s an opportunity to create a new video consumption habit – especially after Reliance Jio has brought down the cost of surfing the internet on a mobile device to a tenth. The internet user base in the country is touching 450 million, second only to China.

A large library of American movies and episodes combined with the Indian content has seen in a quick adoption of Prime Video in Indian cities. “That is having a cascading effect in the second and the third tier towns,” says Vijay Subramaniam, director – content for Prime Video India.

A 25-year veteran of the entertainment industry with stints in publishing, Star TV, MTV and Disney, Subramaniam is learning things are different from conventional entertainment mediums. “The biggest difference is customer centricity. Design, thinking – everything is customers first. In the conventional world, we don’t go on that journey completely. Also, the pace at which you work is different.”

Amazon engages with the Indian viewers at multiple levels: through surveys, reading signs on social media, and, of course, understanding customer profiles based on what they search for and buy on the ecommerce platform.“We do a lot of customer research. Social media conversations. Constant dialogue with creators (they have consumer insight)…,” says Subramaniam.

The insights on the gaps in the market and learnings from its parent are the two buckets of content it has: Amazon Originals, which, typically, run for over 12 episodes each of approximately 50-60 minutes, are produced by Amazon Studios and the intellectual property rests with Amazon. Two, the rights of Exclusives, shorter at around 20-30 minutes, remain with the individual producers.

Originals are cinematic quality content, which are made like movies to be played on 70mm screen, and every episode has a beginning, a middle and an end. All the episodes put together is like an extra-long movie, three times the size of a regular movie – delivered over a digital platform.

Vijay Subramaniam, director – content, Prime Video India: “We believe that we are a local service.”

The India Originals are an edge Amazon Prime Video has over, say, Netflix, which is yet to step into the space. “Unlike Netflix, Amazon knew that to be successful you need India content. Their entire messaging is about Indian content,” says KPMG’s Menon, adding the Amazon Prime has its price point right. It is cheaper at Rs 499 a year versus Netflix’s at least Rs 600 a month.

“The goal is to explore the length and breadth of what this country has to offer. We are focussed on delivering stories that cover the aspects of cinematic experience,” says Subramaniam.

For example, Inside Edge was based on cricket and explored what goes behind India’s favourite game – ranging from sex, politics, relationships, and, of course, the game.

Already 60% of the content viewing is of Indian languages – in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, among others – on Amazon India. “US movies and US TV is very popular… That’s also because we have just started with our Originals. We believe that we are a local service,” says Subramaniam.

There is another change. Most Indian homes are single-television households. But smartphones are becoming ubiquitous. For anyone below the age of 25, the first screen is the smartphone or the computer. While for parents and slightly older people, the television and the 8-10pm prime time slot still are the hours of entertainment, for the younger lot, it’s about watching movies and shows at their desired time.

Eye to detail

Breathe is an emotional thriller, which explores human dilemmas. Then there in The Ministry, a political satire with Irrfan Khan as the lead actor. “We serve everyone, much like the brands. Our goal is to serve them with compelling content, in areas which are not explored or are under explored in India. The goal of our Originals is to win in India first,” said Subramaniam.

Comedy is a big market in India, so Amazon went after the segment in a big way. It started with 14 stand-up comedy exclusives in the first year. But it not just stopping at The Ministry and the stand-up exclusives, there are six exclusives and a reality comedy show coming up.

Amazon provides a proposition rare among other platforms, says a producer. “People don’t watch 60-70 minute content on YouTube. Amazon allows us to create high-quality content. They also provide with a lot of marketing muscle… Discovery of content on YouTube and Facebook is difficult,” says Ajay Nair, chief operating officer of Only Much Louder (OML), makers of the All India Bakchod (AIB).

OML is creating comedy content for Amazon Prime Video. The company started its association with streaming platform Hotstar (owned by Star Network) three years ago and continues its partnership with the AIB show.

Nair says that Amazon makes him and OML stretch more whether it is the screenplay, shooting, location, scripting, or actors. “We are on the 15th draft on each screenplay. Every screenplay goes through a process. There were workshops with international writers, and there has been on pressure on time and budget,” he says.

Amazon has commissioned 21 originals (only Inside Edge is out), and each of them is at various stages of development and production. There are six of them in production in the scripted original which will come out by December 2018. There are five more in the unscripted original space (basically, reality shows). One is called Remix in the music space, which will be released in the first quarter of 2018.

Even before launching in India, Amazon realised that kids content will play an important role. Apart from getting popular television shows like Chota Bheem on board, Amazon commissioned an animated version of mega-blockbuster Baahubali. A series of 13 episodes is already out, and Baahubali – The Lost Legend is on its way to having a second season.

The idea of coming out with a series depends on “who’s favourite show can it become,” says Subramaniam. “Inside Edge is for a broad gender-neutral community. Breathe is also the same, but is about the mystery and thrill of why and what a killer. That was an underserved segment.”

There are shows aimed at women audiences. The plot of one, that has not been named yet, revolves around four women each of a distinct character and coming from different parts of the country. The meet at a bar and each interaction opens up a new avenue for that episode.

“We are looking at a lot of lenses – is this a show for the young Indian, or is it for the millennial, or is it male or female viewers,” says Subramaniam.

He is clear that he has no plans for a saas-bahu series. “What doesn’t exist and what we are hoping to deliver to our customer is finite fiction. Soaps and dramas are dailies and are potentially infinite and go on for years,” he says.

But up Nair’s sleeves is a period drama and a series on crime. The period drama is on the Indian National Army (which was revived by Subhash Chandra Bose in 1943). It’s a fictionalised version based on true events, which cuts back into all the accomplishments of the Army: it’s identity struggle being a part of the British Army and then fighting for India.

The Bollywood genre is something that no one can ignore and Amazon Prime Video is taking bets there, too. It has signed a deal for five movies of Bollywood actor Salman Khan on to Prime before it goes on to television. Tubelight was the first and Salman’s next four movies, including Tiger Zinda Hai, will come to Prime first, television next. This, by the way, doesn’t come cheap because the digital rights of Salman’s movies go for $10 million.

Burkha Under My Lipstick, a black comedy film produced by Prakash Jha, was on Prime before it left theatres. Amazon Prime Video has also bagged streaming rights for the controversial movie Padmavati. If released on time, it will be available on Prime by February.

Amazon has also bagged streaming rights for the controversial movie Padmavati. If released on time, it will be available on Prime by February.

Then there is a crime series. Subramaniam wants to keep it under wraps, but says that the work is on with Excel Entertainment, makers of Inside Edge. It’s called Mirzapur. Inside Amazon, the team calls it “India’s Western”. In Subramaniam’s words: “Think of Omkara meets Gangs of Wasseypur meets Magnificent Seven.

Amazon isn’t stopping at national content in Hindi. “We are working with a couple of leading production companies in Chennai and Hyderabad as a part of our next content experiment for those markets basis our traction with our Tamil and Telugu content. In the next 8 to 12 weeks, we will make an announcement,” he says.

Nair says that the future of good-quality content is on digital platforms. After Amazon’s entry, he says that the dynamics of paid content has changed. It has become affordable. “Nobody is watching MTV and Channel V… I don’t understand why an advertiser will spend money on an English general entertainment channel. Their reach is so small,” he says. Channel V has already shut shop.

Amazon Prime Video may have to dig deeper into its pockets – beyond the $300 million originally budgeted – soon.


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