We will get through this year if we are smart, efficient and can stick together: Sunder Aaron

We will get through this year if we are smart, efficient and can stick together: Sunder Aaron

Vision & Mission for 2023

Mumbai: There are production houses and more today, Locomotive Global Media is entering the Indian market with its original series Rana Naidu which is an official adaption of the American crime drama, Ray Donovan. It is slotted to premiere on Netflix soon. The company is partnering with Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Films and Applause Entertainment to co-produce an international drama series named Seeker.

They are in talks with premium OTT platforms for various projects and 2023 is looking very exciting for the company. 

Locomotive Global Inc., is an international production company focused on developing, producing, and distributing Indian-themed content for India and the world. It is majority owned by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (NASDAQ: CSSE).

Sunder Aaron is the co-founder and managing partner of Locomotive Global Inc. (LGI), the holding company he founded with its investors in 2012. Locomotive Global Inc., is an international production company focused on developing, producing and distributing Indian-themed content for India and the world. It is majority owned by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment. Locomotive Global Inc.’s primary focus is to incubate and launch new India-oriented businesses.

Aaron is also the co-founder and managing director of QYOU Media India, the division of QYOU Media which operates linear channels and digital programming services for the Indian market. The channel is currently distributed on pay TV, linear TV and digital.

Indiantelevision.com in conversation with Sunder Aaron co-founder and managing partner of Locomotive Global Inc. on the year gone by and what is in store for 2023.

Edited Excerpt:

On the year 2022

Well, it was wonderful for us since we had a new collaboration with a public company investor from the United States (CSSE), giving us a solid foundation to build on. It also enabled us to expand our team. As a content developer and production company, it was important that we build a great team that is both skilled and dynamic. 

Then, of course, there was a general downturn in the world, both macroeconomically and in the content creation business. When it comes to content, India has been somewhat shielded from the severe changes around the world, particularly when compared to the West. However, there has been a slowdown in India as well. So, while it has been a good year for us in terms of our projects, like everybody, we have not been immune to some of the changes that have occurred with our partners, such as platforms and studios.

On the learning’s

One needs to be very shrewd about what one develops and creates. And when we are looking for partners, we are always thinking about what is best for the market, and what Indian audiences will like, but we also have to keep in mind exactly how the platforms, studios, and other financing partners are doing, what they are valuing, and what their current situation is, what is best for them and content-wise, what will strategically help them. So, putting that extra effort into what we put in front of them, and understanding the context of what they are going through, just makes us better partners and content creators. 

On the content

First, it must be formatted and presented well. That is half the battle won. What is the purpose of having a fantastic project or story, if you don't present it well to potential partners? Nobody will comprehend it. You will be unable to convey its genius to anybody. So, first and foremost, it must be effectively presented. It sounds superficial, but every studio and producer will tell you that there is so much material that comes in, that only if something catches your eye, will it have an advantage when they are considering what to invest in next.

Second, the content must be sensitive to the market and a specific target audience. You cannot create something that does not address a specific audience. Who exactly are you making this show or this movie for? Whoever is the creator, whether it is us or someone bringing an idea or script to us, the material must have a clear understanding of its target audience.

Third, have an economic sense of the content. You must be fiscally responsible because it is the producer who is putting in the money and developing the show/film. You are likely to get money from a platform or from a studio to produce it, so it is important to be mindful of both the fiscal and economic aspects. No matter how good an idea may be, if it is not mountable in a fiscally responsible way, then it’s worthless.

The fourth and final thing essential to ensure the success of a project is that the script or the concept must be passionate and compelling. If something is truly captivating on a story level and human level, then it will be something we'd be excited to look at.

On Rana Naidu

We spent much of last year in production and post-production, to get everything right. We are nearing the end of post-production and should be delivering all the episodes shortly. We are really excited for Rana Naidu. This show has two bona fide, major stars from the south industry - Venkatesh and Rana Daggubati along with a terrific ensemble cast. It's a very daring show, but at the heart of it, it is all about family. This show will hopefully do well and reflect well on Locomotive and help us mount other shows with partners in India, and abroad. During my work trip to London, I spoke to a few people and sensed that everybody is interested in the happenings of India and have got an eye on what we are creating. I hope with Rana Naidu, we get noticed around the world, and hopefully, draw more interest not only to India but also to Locomotive.

On adapting Rana Naidu for Indian audiences

Ray Donovan is an American show that was released almost a decade ago. Adapting it for Indian audiences through Rana Naidu will not hamper the latter. A show must stand on its own merits, regardless of how many times it has been adapted. We have seen Applause successfully adapt numerous shows. A show, if well-written, can work in any market. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what you're adapting; what matters is how well you tell or retell the story. 

On the risk of adapting shows especially for Indian audiences

As a producer, you are always looking for ways to mitigate and diminish risk. That is why we develop things to such an extent that we are confident in how the story will look before we invest in production. This is critical. And if you already have an established story that you can adapt, you can diminish some of the risks because it is already a good story that viewers and audiences, even in other parts of the world, have responded to.

No matter how strong a story is or how well-received a film or a show has been overseas, it won’t work in India unless it is developed with that audience in mind. We obviously have selected some outstanding talent to work with, including Karan Anshuman, who is our showrunner. He was responsible for Inside Edge and Mirzapur. Karan is somebody who knows the Indian audience and what they like to watch. This is the first step to getting people to understand the audience here and what they want to see. Every day I am made aware of how well the writers, creators, and production team know how to create something that works for the Indian audience. But how do we adapt it? It all starts on the page, as the writer's room works very hard to adapt the storylines and characters from the original show while making them uniquely Indian.

We had an edge because Ray Donovan is a narrative about family, and in India, family comes first. You can tell that by watching the show that it would work when adapted for Indian viewers. I am sure it will translate well in certain other cultures and markets, particularly in India. You also have Bollywood as the counterpart for Hollywood. As a result, the problem solver in Hollywood is Ray Donovan whereas in Bollywood it is Rana Naidu. As we like to say, "Rana Sort Kiya!" 

On Hollywood and how is the Indian market perceived

Although expenses have been rising for production in India, the economics of creating something in India remains significantly lower. Making something in India, like a comparable product or an hour of premium dramatic television in India will cost anywhere between one-fifth and one-tenth of what it would cost in the United States or the United Kingdom. That is a significant distinction that we should all capitalize on.

Another difference is that writing in the West, particularly in the US especially is so advanced and proficient, and our writers in India have some ways to go but are surely getting there. Their quality is evolving really rapidly. If you think about it, we've just been writing for premium scripted television long-form content for the last four or five years, whereas in the US, they've been writing for television on this level for 40-50 years. We have a lot of catching up to do and we are evolving rapidly as writers and as filmmakers.

Our DOPs and directors are getting on par with their western counterparts. Some of our Indian filmmakers are already overseas, in LA and London, talking to people about doing projects there, which is fantastic since platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, and Netflix are raising the prominence of all our artists. If you write something really terrific in India, direct something, or are a DOP who produces fantastic work in India for a show that's on one of these leading platforms, it won't go unnoticed around the world.

On crime genre which is the go to for Indian story tellers and other content choices of Indian audiences 

We decided to adapt Ray Donovan because we knew it was a great show already with great writing, and since it is in the crime genre, Indian viewers would immediately have a level of interest. The platforms want crime because viewers and audiences in India demand such shows. Clearly, crime thrillers are a dominant genre.  

The viewer’s today demand it, platforms and theatres are interested in the crime thriller genre, so that's one, but everything fluctuates and evolves. Maybe, five years from now, you will see more horror and science fiction. Indian viewers are being exposed to a wide range of content. Look at how popular Korean and Turkish content has become, simply because Indian audiences are receptive to such things, which suggests that their tastes are evolving and therefore, we will have to evolve with them. 

We must have the courage to lead with shows and stories from unexpected genres and categories. In India, people enjoy romantic comedies as well as musicals, which are still popular in Bollywood. But even those are changing.

On the slew of appointments in India for LGM

We are fortunate enough to have the capability to expand our scale. Our intent is to invest in development and people. To build up the number of projects that we are producing, we have to find the right people to work with.

We are venturing into films and therefore hired Kanupriya Iyer formerly from Colour Yellow Productions. She has joined us as head of films. We also hired Roshni Ghosh to spearhead our premium television business. She joins Locomotive Global Media from Emmay Entertainment and Motion Pictures. We got a few more teammates who are strong, creative, aggressive, and proficient. We want people that are dynamic and I believe we have found them.

On the various partnerships LGM has entered into recently

Applause is a terrific partner with whom we have two projects. One is a show with Gurinder titled Seeker. That is something we are still working on. It has taken a couple of turns as sometimes shows take a little bit of time to find their right path, but we all remain committed to the story and material we have developed.  We are really excited about that. We've got another show with a working title Case Closed. It is an episodic procedural crime series for which we partnered with both Simon Mirren and Benjamin Anderson. Simon was the showrunner for Criminal Minds.

On consuming content on OTT versus stepping out to go to the theatres

Given the present nature of theatrical distribution around the world, people are expecting really big films to be distributed in theatres. As a result, there is a market available online, for smaller-scale film production. For instance, you would not make Avatar and then release it only on Disney+ Hotstar. A big-budget picture will almost certainly be designed for theatrical release. And those mid-level films that were always created are now making their way onto streaming platforms. 

On preference between theatre and OTT platforms

I don’t have a preference. I enjoy going to the movies. I recently saw Avatar: The Way of Water, and it was an incredible experience. And even though it was a three-hour-long film, I didn't notice it. Basically, watching anything for three hours at home might be incredibly engaging and fun, but at the end of the day, you're going to take breaks and end up being distracted. But theatrical is altogether another experience. Both mediums lead you to your destination, which is hearing, watching, and experiencing a good story. It is merely two different ways of getting there.

On the rise of regional content

We already have some projects in the works. I am delighted to see that the market is finding a lot of traction for regional content, especially for south Indian films and television. I am thrilled to see this happening, and this is something we have been working on for quite some time. It’s also great to see that streamers are investing more and more in regional content. There are voices all over India that have great stories to tell in each and every language too!

On plans for 2023

Besides Rana Naidu, we have got a couple of other projects in development, one is a co-production with Endemol India, for which we have a terrific showrunner, Prashant Nair, who recently did an exceptional job on Trial By Fire on Netflix. This will be a True Detective type of series, set in the foothills of the Himalayas. I believe it will have a global appeal and in addition to this, our showrunner is a terrific talent. We also have an exciting and unique Tamil language series that we are setting up now. It is in the writing stage now, but when done it will definitely blow people away. It has a very Guy Ritchie kind of feel set in Chennai.

Personal expectations from 2023

I hope it's looking good for everybody. We simply have to remain optimistic, despite the challenges that we are all going to face. And we are fortunate to be in India because the rest of the world is suffering a lot more than we are. Ideally, we will be able to get through this year, and hopefully, by the end of 2023, the conflict in Ukraine will be over, and we will begin to feel that the world is returning to normal.

There are other macroeconomic concerns that must be addressed, including inflation and trade. Everything has slowed down since the outbreak, but issues have been exacerbated by the war that Russia is waging in Ukraine. Once all of this is under control, a positive trend will begin to emerge. Last year was probably required for rationalisation in our business. We needed to get better at creating content for less budget and this encouraged everybody to think more shrewdly and sharply in this manner.

Slates, investments and overheads have been rationalised and nobody in the media business is immune to that. It is actually a good thing that we are compelled to reassess our business every 10 years to ensure that we are operating as effectively and efficiently as possible. The same goes for all of us in our personal lives as well. We will get through this year if we are smart, efficient and can stick together.