In the world of media, content is supposed to be the king. Increasingly, however, distribution of content across a bursting sprectrum of media platforms is becoming the king maker.
Despite the hullabaloo of the new media eclipsing everything else, distribution of content, any content, still remains a powerful function in the game of media delivery to the end consumers. Referring to this year's MIPCOM at Cannes, The Screen Daily noted: "For most of the studios, distribution rather than film-making is what they do best. If the rest of the world makes great movies that their markets want, and Hollywood is a partner in ensuring they are seen, so much the better."
Bollywood has already made its way into Western popular culture over the past few years, frequently cropping up in American movies, television programs, and commercials. The emerging power of Indian content was clearly in evidence at this year's MIPCOM where the keynote speakers were from India - Mipcom's focus country this year - UTV founder and CEO Ronnie Screwvala and ZEE TV's founder and head, Subhash Chandra. In the event, Ronnie Screwvala reminded delegates that dealing with India was not one-way traffic.
And sure enough, as Bollywood's content (films, television software and music) looks westward in a bid to corner many more millions of eyeballs and a neat packet of revenues, there is one company in the US that is at the forefront of this jaggernaut, forging ties with America's powerful distribution engines.
That company is Saavn. It is playing a key role in bringing South Asian content to American consumers. Saavn has relationships with leading South Asian content producers such as Yash Raj Films, Adlabs, UTV, and T-Series and key distribution relationships with companies such as Time Warner, Cox, Rogers, iTunes, Amazon Unbox, and Verizon Wireless. In addition to packaging programming for these cable, Internet and mobile carrier companies, Saavn also runs media and marketing programs to help them serve the passionate audience for Bollywood and other South Asian content.
Its most recent move was to make Bollywood music available on Apple's iTunes in October. It came after the fact that even though Bollywood music is becoming more and more popular in the US, but it’s still not readily available. Until now, it could mostly be found in small, neighborhood Indian shops or through low-quality clips of videos found sporadically on the Internet. With Saavn’s content being available through iTunes, everyone can enjoy Bollywood music on their own iPods or computers.
To explore the issue further, I spoke to Mr. Vinod Bhat, General Manager of Saavn (formerly BODVOD Networks), the largest digital distributor of South Asian content in the world with exclusive rights to movies, television shows and music videos from the premiere movie producers, television networks and record labels in India and other parts of the world.
How popular is the Indian entertainment content--Bollywood and television software from India--in North America?
Bollywood movies are the second best performing ethnic category on Time Warner Cable behind Hispanic content. Given the size of the Spanish speaking population is greater than 50 million and there are several other foreign genres of content, Bollywood has a stronger appeal across a wider audience group.
How is Saavn trying to leverage on this popularity of Indian entertainment content?
We’re not trying to leverage per se, but rather correct what we see as a supply-demand imbalance in the marketplace. Many people have heard of Bollywood content, but the problem more lies in their inability to purchase it in traditional retail locations. Unlike India and other parts of the world, Bollywood content is not readily available in mass market retail stores like Wal-mart, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, etc. Digital and mobile media delivery methods are ideal approaches to correct this problem and serve interested audience segments.
Is Hollywood too interested in marketing this content within the USA, which in effect is a chunk of its domestic market?
Yes, as evidenced by Sony’s first production, Saawariya. The marketing power and sales force of a studio’s distribution arm is critical if Bollywood is to ever have a hit in the U.S. by Hollywood standards.
Which medium is the most popular (among Cable, online and mobile) one in the distribution of this content? What are the trend?
It depends on the content category. For movies, it’s cable VOD. Movies are long form and require the comfort of a couch to view. Music purchase, on the other hand, is all online and mobile. Full length audio is short duration, portable content that is in the sweet spot of online usage. For mobile, music ringtones, wallpapers, etc. are more about handset personalization.
Saavn has recently tied up with itunes for the distribution of Bollywood songs. How is the response?
It’s going very well. We’re working on ways to increase the profile of Bollywood for all iTunes customers.
What is the future of Bollywood content worldwide? How well it may perform on the mobile medium as all future media is said to be converging on that device?It will be several years before we see an “all-digital” distribution of Bollywood content. As they say, the general public overestimate what will happen in 2 years, but underestimates what will happen in 10years. There are also major infrastructure, consumer behavior, and incumbent business hurdles to overcome in certain markets.
Coming to the Hollywood-Bollywood relationship, what's brewing right now? Sony's first Bollywood production Saawariya released in November. Many more Hollywood studios are getting into Bollywood film production. Why is Hollywood interested in Bollywood?
Hollywood is interested in Bollywood because India as a market has the largest and fastest growing middle class in the world. As more wealth is spread among its population, more people will have disposable income to spend on entertainment. Furthermore, the infrastructure to properly support and market theatrical releases is in place. First, multiplexes are now commonplace in all the major tier I and tier II cities. Second, mobile phones have become a very effective means to promote new releases.
Will Hollywood's entry in Bollywood change the equations in Bombay's film industry?Will it break the stranglehold of filmi families (powerful production houses) and provide new filmmakers more platforms to express their vision?
Yes and no. Yes, because similar to the way Hollywood works here, it will back people and projects that have less risk associated with them. If filmi families have demonstrated success and a proven track record, then Hollywood studios will prefer to back them and the strong will only get stronger.
However, there are two definitive positives for independents: 1) if there are independent filmmakers that have had a breakout hit(s) prior to Hollywood’s arrival into India, they (and those associated with them) will get legitimate opportunities from these studios to direct feature films. 2) Because the budgets for Bollywood movies (avg is $3mm) are much smaller than Hollywood (avg is $45mm), the studios may be more flexible in backing emerging filmmakers that have demonstrated success in another medium (i.e. television shows, ad films, etc.). This is the classic portfolio approach in which if you back 10 unknown filmmakers, 5 will likely lose money, 3-4 will breakeven or produce marginal return and 1-2 will be substantial hits.
This interview also appeared in the December issue of India Se magazine.