Regional OTT players had their moment in the sun during the pandemic when consumers flocked to these platforms but how are they competing with deep-pocketed streaming giants to stay relevant?

Poster from Malayalam movie Aarkkariyam Facebook/ Sharaf U Dheen
Flix OTT Friday, November 26, 2021 - 19:22

Featuring actors Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthenchery, single-shot Malayalam film Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam started streaming on Over-the-top (OTT) platforms like Neestream, Koode, Cave, Roots and Saina Play, among others, in July this year. In the case of Parvathy Thiruvothu starrer Aarkkariyam, before Amazon Prime Video bagged its streaming rights, it was available to watch on multiple Malayalam OTT platforms. Leena Manimekalai’s Maadathy premiered on Neestream in July following screenings at international film festivals. What’s common between these films is that they all started streaming on regional OTT platforms that have gained traction in recent times.

With cinema halls closed due to the coronavirus pandemic last year, it was a natural progression to OTT for viewers. Neestream and Koode in Malayalam, Aha in Telugu, Talkies in Tulu, Konkani and Kannada, Regal Talkies in Tamil, Sun NXT in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali, Adda Times in Bengali, Planet Marathi in Marathi and Olly Plus in Odia, to name a few, are regional OTT players that have become popular during the pandemic.

According to global market research firm PwC’s ‘Global Entertainment & Media Outlook 2020-2024’ report, India is the world’s fastest growing OTT market at the moment and is projected to emerge as the world’s sixth largest by 2024. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)’s annual Media and Entertainment report also indicated how the pandemic has accelerated digital adoption and persuaded many to pay for the content they consume. As per the report, subscription video-on-demand (SVoD) saw a 55-60% year-on-year growth in 2020.

While streaming giants have steered towards star-driven films, regional players are exploring new opportunities. “Netflix started with picking indies at Sundance and Cannes 10 years ago as an upcoming US company,” filmmaker Leena Manimekalai recounts. But she notes that as its curation teams are not aware of regional histories and with decisions coming from the US, the quality of content has been dropping. That, coupled with the increase in demand for OTT content during the pandemic, pushed Netflix and other streaming giants to shift their attention towards big-budget, big star films, to widen their subscription base.

“Earlier when Netflix and Amazon did not have huge budgets for India, they would buy independent films. That was a win-win situation for both filmmakers as well as platforms. But at the moment, we’re seeing how they are going after films starring big names from the industry. OTT deals are made between big production labels and streaming giants,” Harish Mallya, Sandalwood film critic and script consultant, tells TNM.

This has created a space for content-driven, regional language films in the OTT ecosystem. Was this the impetus for the growth of regional OTT players? Speaking to TNM, Charles George, the regional head of Neestream, says, “We’re keen on focusing on the content quality and it’s making rather than taking decisions based on the artiste’s value.”

Platforms have been cashing in on the opportunity and expanding their base through locally sourced content. Neestream, for instance, was founded with the aim to focus on regional films with ‘art value’ that don’t always find a space in the national market, says Charles.

The rising popularity of new regional platforms show how they have had a better shot at understanding the pulse of the audience across the state and the diaspora too. OTT platform Katte was launched by movie producers and brothers Arvinda and Avinash Diwakar earlier this year with the aim to promote stories from different parts of Karnataka and content in various dialects of Kannada.

“We had sent our movies to some national platforms last year, but it had takers only when the movies were backed by big stars. The idea of coming up with a place to put out local stories originated at that point,” Arvinda tells TNM. In order to be more accessible to creators across the state, Arvinda says that they are also planning to set up offices in places outside of Bengaluru, like Shivamogga, Sagar, Mangaluru and Coorg.

Many of these players have a content background. Some, like Katte, were founded by producers, while Studio Mojo was in the digital media space for over two decades before it forayed into the OTT business with Malayalam platform Koode.

“I believe regional OTT platforms will grow the same way regional media grew across other formats. Of course, they will encounter the same challenges that players across other formats faced in terms of the size of the market they are addressing. But right now, for us it is about creating good content for the global Malayali audience,” Radhakrishnan Ramachandran, the founder and CEO of Studio Mojo tells TNM.

Content strategies

Before the pandemic, OTT platforms were synonymous with streaming of films but many regional players have introduced more categories to function as a one-stop-forum for viewers. While the influx of viewers is from the 18 to 45 age group, platforms are tapping into other demographics too. For Koode, it meant venturing into gaming by bagging the streaming rights to India Today’s Esports Premier League (ESPL), the first franchisee-based Free Fire tournament in the country, and launching Koode Kids, an exclusive section for children. Koode has also started rolling out new segments like crime-based docu-dramas, mini movies and web series from this month.   

Similarly, Katte has introduced shows like Comedy Pantru, a reality show for Kannada stand-up comedians, and Kannada rhymes for children. “We felt there was a need to introduce Kannada rhymes with quality visuals that are on par with the ones on YouTube, so that kids learn Kannada too,” Arvinda says. Neestream, on the other hand, has included the option of streaming Malayalam TV channels like Asianet News and Janam TV, among others.   

For most of these platforms, producing originals has also been as important as expanding their content footprint. Experts believe that in a price-sensitive market like India, making originals and having a broader content strategy will help them build a loyal consumer base and stay relevant. “Audience retention is a constant challenge, with content explosion happening across different platforms. If the content is not captivating enough, the user quickly moves on to the next available option,” Radhakrishnan tells TNM. Many are using a two-pronged approach to accomplish this by producing originals as well as curating content that is popular among viewers.   

At the same time, regional players like Katte are also trying to break away from the ebb and flow of the box-office and the theatre ecosystem by acquiring streaming rights for films releasing in theatres. This, Arvinda believes, is a win-win situation for producers and OTT platforms alike. “It will be useful for global audiences who might not be able to watch newly released films in theatres or on satellite channels. And even for audiences back home, instead of spending Rs 150 per ticket, they will be spending Rs 50-60 on a movie that they can watch with the entire family, and even rewatch till its validity ends,” he points out.   

In the works are also ways to build an ecosystem that enables creators. Radhakrishnan shares that Studio Mojo has set up centres in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram for creators to collaborate for originals, but the platform is also relying on data-driven insights and analytics to understand their audiences. “We are in the process of identifying micro-influencers across the length and breadth of the state to work with us and create programming. We believe good content will always have takers and so we will be experimenting across multiple genres,” he observes.

Competing with streaming giants

From Fahadh Faasil’s Malik and Mohanlal’s Drishyam 2 (both Malayalam) to Nani’s Tuck Jagadish (Telugu) and Dhanush starrer Jagame Thandhiram (Tamil), streaming giants like Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus Hotstar, Netflix and Sony Liv have paid huge sums of money to acquire the streaming rights of movies backed by big production banners and A-listers. So how are regional OTT players competing with such platforms with deep pockets?

As the OTT market grows bigger thereby offering more options for viewers to choose from, audiences grow more cautious about their spending. Many users prefer paying only for the content that they watch rather than availing subscriptions. “Neestream follows a pay-per-view concept, where a viewer can watch something by purchasing a ticket for that particular content,” Charles George tells TNM.

Both Katte and Koode have multiple payment options depending on the content categories the viewer would like to stream. Katte introduced festival offers where yearly subscription plans are priced less than Rs 200, which is lesser than other platforms.    

Radhakrishnan says, “I’m not a big believer of the subscription only model. We currently have a pay-per-view model for new movies. We will soon be introducing a module-based subscription package where consumers can subscribe to specific genres like Koode Kids or Koode Gaming.”   

OTT platforms are also targeting audiences from B and C tier cities. Both Koode and Neestream have gained more traction from metropolitan cities in the past, but with the rapid evolution of the OTT landscape, locally-sourced content is becoming popular in smaller towns and cities. “In Kerala, we have experienced that the awareness is high, but adoption has its challenges. It is B and C tier cities that we are constantly targeting by working with creators from such places, promoting them and collaborating with them. This is where we see the opportunity,” says Radhakrishnan. “We are also looking beyond just showcasing content to providing immersive experiences, connecting local businesses to the audience, bringing communities together for events. Content is just one layer,” he adds.

Do regional players have a fool-proof system?

With regional players focusing on content-driven films, are things looking up for independent filmmakers? Leena doesn’t think so. Her Maadathy was specifically made for theatres, but couldn’t release in theatres following the coronavirus outbreak. “I spent weeks and months on editing, sound design and grading. I had fixed the aspect ratio to cinemascope in the pre-production stage itself with all the conviction of giving an immersive experience for the viewers,” Leena says.

But the film was not picked by larger OTT platforms like Netflix and Amazon. “OTT giants in India are in the process of hacking subscription bases. The market potential in India has them chasing profits. Why would they care about indies? How can we expect million-dollar corporates to care about indies when our own state has made the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) and Film Divisions incompetent?” Leena points out. The film subsequently started streaming on Neestream in June this year and it will start streaming on Mubi this December.

Although regional players are willing to onboard independent films, experts note that there are different challenges. “Regional players don’t buy out the streaming rights but employ a revenue- sharing model. The filmmaker gets paid based on the views the film gets,” Harish Mallya explains.

If the film is leaked online or if multiple users watch it from the same account, it affects the profits made by filmmakers. Elaborating on this, Leena shares: “Their streaming facility is inconsistent and they don’t have a fool-proof system to deal with piracy and geolocation.” She also points out how it is not completely user-friendly since viewers do not have the option to stream films on smart devices.

Leena says that apart from working on improving their infrastructure, she would encourage independent filmmakers to choose the digital theatre system over the pay-per-view model or SVoD. Both Harish and Leena observe that all OTT platforms need to build better curation teams. Working collaboratively with creators and owning the content they license is the way out, says Leena.

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