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Sameer Nair on Applause Entertainment's shows, content creation and trends [Part 2]

Nair underscored the importance of compelling storytelling

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MUMBAI: This is the second part of Indiantelevision.com’s conversation with Applause Entertainment CEO Sameer Nair. You can read the first part here.

So within your company, is a format kind of a lab being developed going forward? Because I see opportunity in format, paper formats too while you’re creating content and you’re going to start licencing it in stage two I presume. That will be next year after the first wave is sold out.

We hope the first of our shows streams at the end of March, so let’s see.

So when will your agreements allow you to sell those globally?

It depends. Some will be after a year.

In the meanwhile are you looking at setting up a format lab? Like Zee has set up a format lab which is working on creating formats, Star is working on formats in house.

No, I don’t think we are doing that. Currently, we are focusing on drama and fiction, not so much on the non-fiction part of business. And within that, if we find something that we really like, we proceed to make it. We are not really making a paper pilot or a pilot.

We are not really making globally relevant content whereas the Turks make it, the Koreans are more advanced as a culture so their shows travel, but Indian shows are not really travelling, we’re getting $200, $250, maybe a Porus might get $3000 or $2000 per hour but not all shows are getting the money that they should.

Actually, apart from US content which is the English content and which is what makes it a globally dominant soft power, I don’t think any other content is genuinely travelling.

Today Turkish content is going at $150,000 an episode in west Asia.

What I’m saying is that we’ve got a very large market, we’re a billion Indians. In any case, you’ve got to decide who you’re making this content for. There’s something known as primary audience and secondary audience. Narcos was not made for us, it was made for Latin American and North American audiences. We happened to like it, it went on to become a global hit and well, good luck. Like that, I’m sure a 100 other shows are made which we haven’t heard of. So what I’m saying is that as far as we are concerned, we are focused on telling great stories and we are catering to an extremely large Indian audience.

Some shows do travel but you can’t set out to make something thinking it will straddle a global audience, even the Americans didn’t do that. When the Americans made Seinfeld, they didn’t make it to make Indians or Koreans or Japanese laugh, they made it to make Americans laugh. That the rest of the world laughs with The Big Bang Theory or FRIENDS or House of Cards or whatever is a happy outcome. So I think from a content creation point of view, we’ve got to focus on how we can tell great stories, how we can monetise those great stories and how can we make this business profitable.

So you’re investing in production value, you’re investing in writing and I see that you’re investing in the cast.

You’re investing in good actors, you’re investing in good writing, you’re investing in production values, good directors, you’re making these like essentially extended films, it’s all produced at one go, it’s post-produced at one go, so we are doing that and we should invest.

Will all of these travel or will some of these travel?

Some of these will travel, all may not. For example, The Office comes from abroad and I believe that a show like that should be made in every country because every country would have this dull sleepy office with the horrible boss from hell and the other terrible people we work with. But some will travel, I think something like City of Dreams will travel, that’s a nice political story. I find too many of my colleagues in this business stand on the shore and look towards the sea. I think we are a large enough country to stand on the shore and look inwards.

That’s why Hollywood is a soft power.

Hollywood is a soft power not for what they’re doing, it’s because it’s driven by the language.

Roma is a Mexican film that went on to win so many Oscars.

You know what, it is a cool fashionable thing to say that we should be all making stuff that the world applauds.

But if you put sub-titles, everybody watches.

I’m not disputing it, I’m saying that you’ve got to run a business, it is called showbiz. There’s show and there’s biz and they go together. So when you’re running a business you must be clear as to why you’re doing it. It cannot be for an amorphous global audience. If it’s a good story, the world will watch.

There’s a science to get the world to watch, getting recommended, the social bars, etc.

That comes after you’ve made a good story.

Do you have a strategy to build this globally? Would you be investing as much to push these globally?

It’s a process. You don’t plan for all these things, you’ve got to make it, you’ve got to put it out there, it gets some traction, it builds an audience, the word of mouth spreads, when things are going well you keep adding to it, it’s a process. I don’t think Ramesh Sippy set out to make Sholay, he set out to make a movie that proceeded to become Sholay. That’s how it goes. Everything happens like that.

I believe that you’re more evolved than Ramesh Sippy in terms of understanding the ecosystem.

No, not like that. I’m saying that even when you take a movie like Dangal, it went on to become a big success in China. In hindsight, we can all be geniuses and have 100 million reasons why that happened. But in the process of making it, it was not being made for that audience, it was being made for an Indian audience is what I’m saying.

So around IP sharing, you’ve always told me that put your skin in the game then I’ll give you a piece of the action. The industry has started putting money where their mouth is. Producers like Siddharth Tewary, Abhimanyu Singh, Asit Modi have been putting their skin in the game and they’ve been retaining IP. How’s that going for you now that you’re on the other side?

I remain exactly where I was. I think there should be a share of the spoils definitely because there’s a certain degree of a creative investment, there’s a certain degree of financial investment. I think it’s fair enough for people to want to have a share of it. So we are continuing with a similar model, we’re happy to do that. When I talk about putting skin in the game, I mean that. Not everyone has money, but there are different ways to do that. But again there’s so much debate that keeps happening about IP, that where are the shares of IP? I think the first important thing is to create IP. If you create intellectual property then you can derive value from them.

I find too many people talking about IP without ever having created IP. So I think that focus is important. Beyond that, different models will emerge, we are already doing that. A lot of the international shows that we buy are represented by format owners who then proceed to give a share of what we have sold it for back to the original creator. It’s a process, internationally it’s been done forever. So I think it will happen in India as well. If the content community is not careful at this point in time, then it will just be a replica of TV.

Do you fear that it could end up being a replica of what happened in TV?

Currently, it seems to be approaching it in that manner, as in you get commissioned and that’s it, you have nothing left. If you indeed want to have a play beyond that, you must be willing to give up something, you must be willing to put something and you have to figure a way around it.

So what are the different models that are available? Do you give the story rights, dubbing rights, sub-titling rights, Indian language rights, film rights or animation rights?

No, this is an evolving market. Currently, the position is that we give nothing or we get nothing. But I think as it gets along it will sort of play out.

Which of these will play along in the market or be more relevant to India?

There are at least 10-15 streaming platforms. These are the early days, everyone is well funded, obviously serious competitors, nobody’s going away in a hurry, so I think the next 2-3 years will help define that as to who pulls ahead, who falls back, what kind of content works, how India responds to it and all of that. Currently, the default position of all the broadcast players is, well we want everything, even if it never goes on TV.

So in terms of exports, we haven’t really grown.

Again, now what will happen is you’ve created this great show, and it’s going to go onto a global platform, but now the platform itself wants to dub it into all international languages.

If they give you a piece of it?

So you’ve got to work all that out, it’s got to be figured out but the thing is that everyone is pushing in that direction. So your dream of having an Indian show that the whole world watches is around the corner now.

Do we need legislation in place?

I think that ship has sailed. Legislation and the opportunity of making a law out of this is long gone. This happened in the US in the 60s. Now I think if we indeed want to resolve this problem, we’ve got to be more creative about this. They’re not going to get a law passed.

Javed Akhtar did that for the music industry.

It’s a royalty thing. And the control of monetisation still rest with the music companies, it’s not with the composer.

So at least, could we move in that direction?

No, so the way to do that is for all the content creators to sort of galvanise and unite and work together and try and attract more money to the content creation business and have people believe in the process, believe in the thing that you can create content and that content can then be sold. Currently, the thing is that it sounds very risky, you’ve got to get commissioned from someone. If somebody is going to give you the money then I’ll move and make something. As long as it exists in that manner, it’s always going to be a hard sell and especially for something as large as a content business. A piece of music, a song, these are smaller pieces of content

So you don’t see a solution?

Not legislation, not at all.    

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