Although it isn't immediately clear exactly when Amazon Prime Video will make its Indian debut (market speculation hints at a Diwali launch), the e-commerce giant's subscription-based streaming division is making solid headway in acquiring Indian film titles.
According to a report in the Economic Times, the Jeff Bezos-led company plans to invest about $300 million, or close to Rs 2,000 crore, for content in India, a figure higher than annual programming budgets of the top three Hindi general entertainment channels put together.
In July, HuffPost India reported Amazon had roped in top Bollywood filmmakers Vishal Bhardwaj and Vidhu Vinod Chopra to create original content. While the company has been mum on officially confirming that deal, on Friday, it announced a partnership with Baahubali director SS Rajamouli to develop an animated series. "Baahubali: The Lost Legends" is expected to premiere on Prime Video India in 2017 with its first teaser expected this October.
"What we managed to showcase in the film was just the tip of the iceberg," SS Rajamouli was quoted as saying. "From the minute I started working on this story, I knew the world of Baahubali can't be encompassed into a film or two, simply because there's so much more to tell and animation is another way to do that."
But Rajamouli, clearly contemporary cinema's most original voice today, isn't the only talent that the bosses at Amazon Prime have tapped into. Other than focussing on creating original content, more of which we will know once the paid service gets rolling in India, Amazon execs are fast cracking lucrative licensing deals with top Bollywood production houses to stream their titles.
Highly-placed sources told HuffPost India that Amazon has also met with Yash Raj Films' top brass and a deal with Ekta Kapoor-led Balaji Motion Pictures and Mahesh Bhatt's Vishesh Films is also in the works. Additionally, Excel Entertainment is already in the process of producing an original TV series for Amazon, tentatively titled Power Play.
More importantly, the streaming platform has already tied up with two major production houses and acquired both, previous and upcoming films of the Karan Johar-led Dharma Productions and Bhushan Kumar's T-Series.
If all these go through, Amazon could even lead the market, given the limited titles of rivals Hotstar and Netflix. Both Hotstar, whose titles are produced by its parent company, Fox Star, and Netflix, which has 34 Indian titles, may be left with even fewer options as major studios and production houses sign up with Amazon.
Three highly-anticipated Dharma titles, Karan Johar's directorial Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Shaad Ali's Ok Jaanu starring Shraddha and Aditya Roy Kapur, and Alia Bhatt-Varun Dhawan's Badrinath Ki Dulhania, have already been snapped up by Amazon. It has also been given digital streaming rights to old titles from Dharma's enviable library.
"We have kept a close eye on the explosion of digital media, and the increased consumption trends of Bollywood content on Video-On-Demand and OTT Platforms," said Apoorva Mehta, CEO Dharma Productions in a press statement.
"We at Dharma felt that the time couldn't be more right for us to mark our presence on such sought after platforms. We are confident that partnering with a credible brand like Amazon will go a long way in ensuring that our content will not only be seamlessly streamed but will also see a huge demand from users of Prime Video."
A source in the know of the development also told HuffPost that Amazon has been asking for a specific clause in their licensing agreement, which will allow them to stream acquired titles before their television premieres, something that could drastically affect the satellite market, too. It isn't clear yet if Dharma movies will be streamed before they air on TV, but the company's partnership with T-Series allows that.
That means films like Sushant Singh Rajput and Kriti Sanon's Raabta, Saif Ali Khan-starrer remake of the Hollywood hit Chef, Hansal Mehta's Simran with Kangana Ranaut -- will all be available for streaming online before playing on television.
And while that isn't an entirely unique initiative (Hotstar already does that thanks to Star Network's exclusive satellite deals with some of Bollywood's top stars so does Viacom 18's Voot), this will still give Amazon a major edge over its biggest rival Netflix, which lists Piku, Talvar, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo among its somewhat limited lineup of 34 Indian titles. Netflix also doesn't appear to have yet entered into a long-term collaboration with any major Indian production house. The only Indian talent it has signed up thus far is Anurag Kashyap, for an original mini-series that'll be an adaptation of Vikram Chandra.
So far, for Indian viewers, the major attraction for a Netflix subscription has been not so much local content, but the streaming giant's premium shows like Narcos, Stranger Things, Daredevil, and Jessica Jones besides several others.
Amazon is likely to give a tough fight to Netflix with breakthrough shows like Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle, and Alpha House. Woody Allen's upcoming show, Crisis in Six Scenes, is also in the pipeline, all of which will be made available to Indian viewers once the service is launched.
Speaking on how Netflix should prepare itself for Amazon's entry, Liz Shackleton, Asia Editor of the trade magazine, Screen International, said: "Amazon is spending a lot of money to capture a mainstream audience in India so Netflix may need to focus on a niche with English language content and award-winning Indian movies. Interestingly this is the exact opposite of the two streaming giants' strategy in the US."
Shackleton said that in America, both Amazon and Netflix score big on original TV dramas but the former is more arthouse, working with directors like Woody Allen and Jim Jarmusch, while the latter tends to stick to mainstream players like Adam Sandler.
A Bigger Disruptive Threat?
While Hotstar and Netflix will likely face the heat from Amazon, how disruptive will Prime Video be for Indian TV networks?
A renowned media consultant and researcher into consumer behaviors who spoke to HuffPost on the condition of anonymity, said, "At this stage, when Internet penetration is still at a relatively nascent stage in India, there is a good chance for both, streaming giants and TV networks to co-exist, like they have so far. While Amazon has a long-term strategy in place and a very effective one, Netflix, being a major global player is likely to counter it when the time comes."
The consultant added, "One must understand that the online audience and the television audience are two vastly different sets of people and till those lines blur and overlap, you can only say that Amazon's move can be potentially disruptive as far as television channels are concerned."
And for competition with streaming platforms? "They'll need to amp up on the local content. Amazon is coming out all guns blazing."
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