Prime Video wants to break new ground with local language content

Sunny Sen November 13, 2018 7 min

As Amazon searches for new users, it is increasingly looking at India as a market, and entertainment continues to be its bait to get more customers to its platform, albeit through the Prime membership.

At Rs 999 of yearly subscription, Amazon offers ad-free movies and episodic content, music, exclusive deals on e-commerce and free faster delivery of goods at your doorstep.

Now the American e-commerce and entertainment giant is looking at regional or local content to attract new users, and get its existing users to keep coming back. “(Local content) is incredibly important,” said Vijay Subramaniam, head and director – content at Amazon Prime Video India. “India is diverse with multiple cultures. No customer is best served without taking into account.”

As India’s internet infrastructure matured, thanks to Reliance Jio, a large number of people started streaming content online, opening up a big opportunity for content-streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. India already has 475 million smartphone users, but penetration is non-metro cities is still just 40-45%, leaving a lot of room for content creators and distributors to play. In metros, the penetration is a much higher 80-85%.

Both Netflix and Prime promise to offer movie-like experience in terms of stories and quality of the video, which will compel people to pay for their subscription services. The content business, however, for American streaming platforms India has been a tough nut to be cracked. Amazon has just been able to corner 5% marketshare by March 2018, according to Jana Mobile Majority Report. Netflix had 1.4%. Indian rivals like Hotstar reigned with 69.4% share, and SonyLIV (despite its patchy streaming service) had 13%.

Why not? According to Media Partners Asia, India’s digital video market is $700 million, which is to more than triple to $2.4 billion by 2023. As per the latest FICCI Frames Study, there are around two million paid digital subscribers across application providers including video platforms, and 1-1.5 million customers who have moved entirely to digital media. The number of people using only digital platforms is expected to burgeon to four million by 2020, and subscription revenue is expected to cross Rs 200 crore.

Regional, if film industry numbers are to be considered, will play a big role. According to consultancy firm Deloitte, the Indian film industry is dominated by Hindi movies, contributing 43% of the overall industry revenue, which is in excess of $2.1 billion. Half of the revenue comes from regional cinema, and the remaining 7% comes from international cinema.

Already local content is 70% of Prime Video’s mix in India, rest being English. “In that 70% our mix is evolving,” said Subramaniam. “On November 1, we added Kannada… The blend is changing fast. Prime is the fastest growing membership in the country… and video plays an important part of it.”

Originals, dubs

In a bid to attract new customers, Netflix has put its weight on Indian original content. It released Lust Stories (which centres around women’s sexuality), its first episodic series Sacred Games starring Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a horror-thriller Ghoul, among others, all originally in Hindi, and later dubbed in other languages.

Amazon is taking localisation a step further. Apart from making Hindi originals, Prime is looking at making originals in regional languages. It’s first – GangStars is a Telugu original, later dubbed in Hindi. Subramaniam does not want to disclose the exact number, but Amazon has more regional originals in the pipeline, especially in Telugu and Tamil. “Right now, our focus is Tamil and Telugu… We like to test and learn from our customers. A lot of work is already on the way,” he said.

One thing that Amazon wants to focus on is high-quality video even with regional content. “The experience of working with Amazon is like making a movie in 10 parts,” said Sanjay Reddy, managing director of Silly Monks Entertainment, producers of GangStars.

Reddy is not a newcomer to the digital world. Silly Monks runs 800 channels on YouTube, which also has a huge focus on regional videos and local talent. Reddy has also done two web series for Zee5 (Zee Network’s OTT platform), and is releasing his first digital-only movie 24Kisses. With all the experience it still wasn’t easy to get a break in Prime Video.

Of the half dozen stories he submitted, just one got accepted. It is important to stay true to the story and stay authentic, explained Subramaniam. “At the heart of any decision lies what our customers say and want. It is important for us to connect a Tamil story with our Tamil customers. That said, what we have learned that the more authentic our stories are, the more successful it becomes outside the community,” he added.

Meanwhile, Prime Video has also started offering regionals dubs of popular Hollywood movies such as Mission Impossible, Inferno, Transformers, The Dark Knight, among other hits. It has also dubbed its Hindi originals Inside Edge and Breathe in other regional languages.

There are other content platforms with a high degree of local language consumption. According to Vidooly, a digital entertainment tracker, Telugu videos are the most viewed in the entertainment category on YouTube. For example, Telugu movie Sarrainodu’s digital premiere on YouTube had over 183 million views.

India’s largest OTT platform, Hotstar, too has a big bouquet of regional content, but mostly from its parent Star’s regional television shows. It started focusing on regional content way back in 2016. At present, it has more than nine languages offering over a lakh hours of sports, TV shows and movies.

What if other OTT platforms catch up? “I don’t think we will run out of story ideas anytime soon,” Subramaniam said, without any hesitation. Prime already offers content in six local languages: Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali and Kannada (Kannada was added on November 1). While Prime will continue to add more regional languages, it will also commission more originals in other languages.

Follow the population

Amazon has an easy metric to launch languages for Prime Videos. “…Tamil is the second largest population, followed by Telugu, Kannada, followed by Marathi,” said Subramaniam. “We are moving in that direction, which communities consume content and wish to be entertained in these languages. It is a sizeable market.” (Editor’s note: India’s population census, 2011, lists Bengali as the most spoken language in India after Hindi and English; followed by Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, and Urdu.)

When Amazon started adding new languages, it was from a learning that more people wanted to watch their regional movies. So Amazon started acquiring rights of regional movies and added to the catalogue. But, for soaps and serials, the viewers were happy with their television DTH provider. On Amazon, what they were looking for was high-quality finite fiction, stories that are cinematic in nature, but have multi-season potential. They wanted to consume a variety of genres that they can consume at ease, depending on the mood.

For Reddy, digital is still an evolving medium for a large portion of the country. But for a category, which is the youth, many of them have stopped watching television. GangStars was to attract them. “That was the population that we were targeting,” he said.

Reddy, however, does not deny that with the rise of Reliance Jio, internet consumption is becoming ubiquitous. For example, a housewife might not be sitting in front of the television to get her daily dose of entertainment. “She watches what she wants on her smartphone while cooking in the kitchen,” Reddy adds.

This changing behaviour and personalised video consumption are making companies like Amazon go deeper into India’s cultural fabric. But Amazon might not reap the benefits of investment in regional content soon.

Faisal Kawoosa, founder and principal analyst of technology research firm techARC, said that there are three kinds of people consuming content online: people who are paying for content, those who understand digital, and people who do not want to pay for content.

Local language content, according to Kawoosa, is largely for people who do not want to pay and consume videos on YouTube. “People inclined towards Netflix and Amazon are people who are looking for international content… local language content serves the tier-II and tier-III category of users,” he said.

Also, the smartphones used by people who are more interested in local language content is of a lower quality, which perhaps not great for viewing Netflix or Prime Video. “Local language content is a good add-on for people who want to want to watch English international content on these platforms,” said Kawoosa.

Subramaniam doesn’t completely agree. “At Amazon, our aim is to give you what you want, when you want, where you want, how you want,” he said.


Updated at 07:50 am on November 14, 2018  to correct typos.