Sameer Nair on Applause Entertainment's shows, content creation and trends [Part 1]

Nair underscored the importance of compelling storytelling


MUMBAI: Sameer Nair isn’t a man in a hurry. The seasoned media and entertainment industry executive describes the content creation business as a real get rich slow scheme and not a get rich quick scheme. He’s in it for the long haul and he’s here to stay. The Applause Entertainment CEO, who has been witness to many seismic shifts in showbiz, is among the most important and influential figures in the OTT ecosystem as India and the word scrambles to deliver consistent and credible content to consumers. During the third edition of Indiantelevision.com’s The Content Hub 2019, Nair gave the audience a tour d’horizon of the Indian and global content landscape. In conversation with founder, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Indiantelevision.com Group Anil Wanvari, the 53-year-old offered key insights into his company’s plans, creating content in today's age and making shows that grip the audience.

You're collaborating with a diverse range of producers, there’s Deepak [Dhar], you’ve got BBC and you’ve got Nagesh [Kukunoor], so how did you go about selecting these guys to produce for your studio model?

Actually, I’ve been working with all of them for all these years so we’ve done a lot of work before. When we set up Applause, the thought was to invest in content. I didn’t want to set up a company and be a production house because that’s not what we are, what we are is a studio which is investing in the production of content and we’re working with the best talent, best production houses, best writers, international formats, books, all sorts of things and we are investing money in content and then once its ready then we show it to platforms and hopefully they like it.

So the thing was that you knew these guys and you knew that they could deliver, what if there’s someone absolutely new but has great ideas?

No, actually it’s a mix. For example, Rasbhari is made with a producer called Tanveer Bookwala of Ding. I’ve known him from Balaji, but his is a relatively new company. Rasbhari has been selected for the Series Mania Festival in France as the only show from India, so it’s a big deal. It’s not necessarily about the big names, it’s really about storytelling and there’s a lot of creative talent out there and I think this premium drama series opens a whole new world because there is daily soap television for the fiction space and then there are the movies and that's a totally different beast. This is opening up a whole new world for writers, for directors, for creators and for actors. It’s not star-dependent, we work on great stories.

So how far down are you on the road that you want to take? You’ve got about six series on board?

Now we’ve produced 10, we’ve also done something in Tamil, we’ve also done a show in Bhojpuri, and we’ve of course done Hindi. We’ve got another 10 in production, we’ve got another 15-20 in development, so it’s actually quite a lot.

Are you getting a good price on these or are they licensing deals?

It’s both, it can be licencing, it can be outright, as in it depends and different platforms have different strategies and not necessarily every show works for everyone. Different people have different ways of doing it, but either way, I am here to help the platforms and work with them. They’ve got the harder job because they are the B2C business, they are the ones who’ve got to acquire customers, they’ve got to retain customers, and they’ve got to spend millions of dollars in doing all of that. What the biggest driving factor in customer retention is the quality of the content and the price you’re giving it at. 

Are you getting the prices you want or is there a gap? My understanding is there is a gap.

There’s no such thing as prices you want. We are not in any sort of 'get rich quick scheme'. This is a real 'get rich slow scheme'. I’m in no hurry. We’d like these shows to be liked by the audience, which should then allow us to do multiple seasons. That would be the thing. The platform should be happy and it should get a lot of traction.

So that’s going to be the first outlet of sale. What happens after that? Do you go out globally with this or do you retain it for a while?

It depends. On some shows our platforms are international platforms, they tend to be everywhere. In some cases, we have domestic platforms so there’s something left on the table for us to continue to sell. We are talking about language dubs, both domestic and international. We are talking about making the same show in another language when we get a chance. It’s brand new, we are a year and a half old, now we are doing our first round of deals, the shows will come out, and we’ll do a lot more.

I think this is a great time, so we are investing in content and I think this is the time for all content creators to genuinely put their money where their mouth is because you keep hearing this debate about IP and ownership and is there anything left for us and all of that. This is the moment in time where it is possible for all the creators to get out there.

Let’s talk about creativity in India. I’m seeing a bit of unfurling of creativity, a lot of creativity is being unleashed. Do you think that it has or there still needs to be a lot more unleashing of creativity?

I don’t agree with this that we are somehow unleashing creativity now. If you take Indian cinema as an example, every year, and you can pick any year at random, has always produced a mainstream blockbuster that has gone out to become a hit, it’s also produced a big mainstream blockbuster that has bombed. In the same year, there have been sleeper hits and there have been art house movies.

But now what appeared to be art house movies are becoming big hits.

No, I’m saying even if you take the year for example when the movie Naseeb released, it was the big AB (Amitabh Bachchan) movie of the time. That was also the year Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro came. It was not an art house, but it went on to become a very successful movie. So this has been happening always, so what happens this year, happened last year, happens every year. I don’t think we have a problem with creativity. India is a very creative country. We are creative with accounting, we are creative with politics, and we are a creative country.

But that being said, I think what is happening now is that the market has grown so we are spending more money on it. But the focus should be on content because that is the soul of the business. Finally, the consumers don’t know what’s behind the screen, they only know what’s on the screen and in this new digital world they just push play and if it captivates them and it holds them, they’re watching or they go away. So while all the tech is important and everything else is important, finally the consumer interface is the content.

Haven’t you got stories being told that could not be told before?

Of course.

So in that sense, it’s unleashing the writing.

It’s a good thing. Actually when you think about it, before satellite TV came Doordarshan used to do this. Doordarshan has done Tamas and Khandaan. Doordarshan has done a partition story. So there has been great work that has already happened on Doordarshan. Then satellite TV came along and it took the market in a direction and then the daily soap operas came along and took the market in an even more skewed direction. But that doesn’t mean India has not done that. So this is a good opportunity.

But the filmmakers are looking at this as an opportunity too..

This actually happened in the US in the late 90s. In the late 90s, TV had got to a point and Hollywood had become really big and that’s when premium drama broke out in the US, starting with HBO and Sopranos and then Showtime and everything else. In fact, a lot of Hollywood, all the film guys moved to TV. That was the golden age of American television and radio and it continues today. This, I hope, is going to be for India.

Have we developed a Chuck Lorre in India? Will you do that?

We will do that. It will happen. It’s just started. We are trying to work on an animated series, we are doing a lot of development on all sorts of new genres, all sorts of crazy shows. Rasbhari is that kind of show. We are doing a show called Salt City. It’s just about relationships, there’s nothing else to it. So there are so many things that are happening.

I want you to commit that you’ll get a Chuck Lorre kind of a guy who can do the shows that he does in America in India.

It depends. Chuck Lorre does a lot of shows, so it’s not just one type. So in that sense, many of these shows have been made and they have been made in India, some have worked very well, some have not. I don’t think Asit Modi is anywhere lesser than being Chuck Lorre. He is our version of it. We shouldn’t be bedazzled by that, but on the other hand, of course, there’s so much to learn, there’s so much creativity and so much stuff that they’ve done which we can adapt, which we can learn from. I don’t like to rip off anything, so I prefer to adapt.

(Part 2 of this interview will be released tomorrow) 

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