Sci-fi genre approaching its heyday in global entertainment market

The film depicts features of Dell Cinema that collectively offer an immersive cinematic experience

MUMBAI: The enchanting and forward-thinking views and pictures of the science fiction genre could not captivate the masses for a long time. The high production cost and limited audience have acted as catalysts to make it commercially less viable especially for the small screen. But with the change in audience preferences, better technology and more dramatisation in sci-fi stories, the genre has gradually caught people’s eyes, even among networks and cable channels. Moreover, the new content king Netflix is also highly obsessed with sci-fi.

In contrast to older shows, the newer ones deal with growing complexities amidst the flux, along with reflecting a futuristic vibe. Commonplace issues have attracted more millennials to the genre which was previously dubbed as nerd content, for example, The Big Bang Theory. Technological advances have led to an explosion of sci-fi content by reducing production cost for the small screen.

When it comes to the Indian market, the genre is still unexplored. In an exception, the state-run broadcaster DD aired a science-fiction show in 1989 which was way ahead of its time, Indradhanush. The show, which ran for only 13 episodes, did not have any celebrity face. The story is about four kids assembling a computer with great difficulty and then discovering that it is now a unique entity which also functions as a time machine.

From a 2018 lens, the plot may seem very poor but at that time computer was nothing short of an alien to Indians. That’s why it could create the mystic, futuristic vibes which science-fiction shows reflect. The series was produced and directed by Anand Mahendroo. It also featured several young actors like Karan Johar, Urmila Matondkar, Vishal Singh, Ashutosh Gowarikar who all became famous later.

"In my opinion, it would be a niche genre. It’s not something that will be mainstream. But in a market as large as India, there is a niche audience available for everything," Dentsu Aegis Network chairman and CEO Ashish Bhasin comments.

PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) partner and leader, media and entertainment Frank D’Souza also thinks there will be a limited market for it. He thinks the audience for Hollywood would catch the content but not to the extent of Bollywood content.

On the contrary, Eros Group chief content officer Ridhima Lulla says ,”The Indian sci-fi films made in the recent past have done fairly well, garnering fandom with merchandise and theme parks. Additionally, international sci-fi films that are released in India do great business at the box-office, sometimes even leaving the local films gasping for attention. Hence, I do not see a reason for this genre to not work in India.”

“Unfortunately, our supply of sci-fi content comes more from international market and that is something that will get addressed in time. I would say that it is not about the lack of appetite for this genre but essentially on digital we will see a good fragmentation of genres once the viewership population and preferences evolves. Fathoming that the content consumption ecosystem is highly dynamic, sci-fi genre is certainly going to conquer the market in the future,” she adds.

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have been quick to grab the opportunity that lies in engaging viewers with high-quality sci-fi content. Hits like Stranger Things, Lost in Space and Black Mirrorhelped the streaming giant Netflix to add more subscribers and now it is ramping up its spending on fantasy and sci-fi, according to a report from Business Insider. Taking down comedy as the most watched originals, these two sub genres have emerged as top loved categories. Amazon is also investing in the genre while HBO already has super hit shows and Disney’s upcoming streaming service will also offer all the Star Wars series.

“OTT platforms are not necessarily only for India, so they will produce depending on their reach. Indian OTT platforms which have a reach outside India might try but we don’t have production people or the content of that kind,” observes D’Souza.

The main challenge according to him is the lack of consumption in Indian audiences for this genre. D’Souza thinks one of the main constraints is we don’t consume this kind of story very much. In addition to that, these are not mythological stories. To tell it in the Indian context and Indian landscape becomes more difficult.

Bhasin feels that in India we have everyone jumping on the bandwagon. “So, if any of the science fiction shows does well, others might attempt it but it will still remain a niche. Same goes with sci-fi on OTT players," he says.

“I strongly believe that Indians have a huge inclination towards content that is exciting, compelling and well-crafted. Sci-fi is definitely a genre that fits well in these criteria. We, at Eros Now, keep analysing what our viewers want to watch and roll-out content that is driven by data science and deep routed in our experience of delivering good creative. With our Original content slate, you will soon realize that we have encompassed a range of genres that the audience would like to watch, sci-fi being one of them,” Lulla says.

The biggest constraint for making a good sci-fi show in India, as per Bhasin, is the niche market as viewership doesn’t justify the large investment. The second problem is that quality of content so far has not been of great levels. “If a programme does well, you will get viewership and hence advertisements. So, it depends a lot on the content and how it clicks to the consumer,” he says.

“Sci-fi content involves a heavy monetary investment and hence we do not see as many sci-fi films as we see comedies or dramas. Another challenge while making a sci-fi content piece is to strike a perfect balance of science and story. We mostly come across films that are bent towards one of the aspects and the primary purpose of the movie being made gets lost. It’s a chicken and egg situation currently for this genre wherein we will see more active sci-fi programming across platforms and great stories as the business model also matures,” Lulla commented on the constraints to makle good sci-fi movie or show in India.

Data science farm Parrot Analytics has mentioned in a recent report how the genre has surpassed its sister genre fantasy in terms of popularity. According to the report, since this time last year, the average demand for sci-fi titles has steadily risen. Moreover, since the beginning of this year, it has exceeded the demand for fantasy consistently every single week. Other than the US, countries like Australia, UK, Japan and Germany have also reflected the same nature. In the US, the top 15 titles consist of at least three sci-fi titles.

Franchisees of Star Trek, Star Wars, Doctor Who along with iconic shows like Battlestar Galactica, Lost, Firefly revived sci-fi on television in the last decade. These iconic shows were then followed by Black Mirror, Westworld, The Expanse, Orphan Black, revival of Star Trek, Stargate franchisees which are critically acclaimed also. The earlier notion that sci-fi needs higher attention to fathom everything is fading as the shows become more relevant to the present time. However, despite emerging popularity, the genre has not turned into a mainstream category for TV. The $100 million cost for the first 10-episode season of Westworld clearly indicates the main constraint.

If sci-fi is able to create India-specific content with high quality, the genre is likely to take off in one of the world’s largest content markets.

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