Netflix, Amazon join regional bandwagon with Marathi, Bengali, Tamil movies

Regional content, be it films or documentaries, comedy or music, has been firing up the Internet in India for a few years now. With cheap data and easy access to content, small local libraries such as Hoichoi (for Bengali content) and national home grown platforms such as Alt Balaji, Voot from Viacom 18, Hotstar from Star India and, besides of course the dedicated channels for several Indian languages on YouTube, have flourished. Now Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar are raising their stakes in the game, commissioning original shows and going all out to acquire regional films for their libraries. Could this sound the death knell for local entertainment platforms or will the entry of the big brands help deepen the language market further?

“India is one of the largest internet markets in the world and we have seen strong growth since our launch,” says Jessica Lee, vice president, Communications–Asia, Netflix. The availability of regional content on Netflix has increased significantly since its launch and a range of titles, old classics to modern hits in Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam and other languages, are a part of the library. Ditto for Amazon and the rest.

Experts say that the Indian market appears to be hugely lucrative given the vast numbers of Internet users and untapped potential, but when Indian and international over-the-top platforms look to grow their presence in the country the multiplicity of languages is a challenge. But this is also an opportunity, according to the recently released Ficci-EY report (Re-imagining India’s M&E sector) rural viewers will make for 52 per cent of the total Indian Internet user base by 2021. Also the preference for regional content has been steadily rising with 93 per cent of the time spent on videos is in languages other than English.

With an eye on these numbers, American e-commerce giant Amazon has signed multiple output deals with Bollywood and regional studios for its Prime Video service in India. Netflix too has acquired a vast amount of content in various languages since it set up shop in India in 2016.

Viacom18’s OTT platform VOOT (launched in May 2016) currently has content in multiple Indian languages including Kannada, Bangla, and Marathi. In December last year, the platform also announced it will be making web-series in regional languages this calendar. “Over the past year and a half, we’ve noticed that almost 25 per cent of our consumption happens in the regional space (example Big Boss). So, we’re confident there is appetite for VOOT Originals in the regional markets. And since we’re entering the Tamil market in TV, we thought it would be a good idea to compliment that with content on VOOT in the language as well,” said Gaurav Gandhi, COO, Viacom18 Digital Ventures.

The opportunity in regional content has been harnessed by local platforms too. Players such as Hoichoi are dedicated to the language consumer, Bengali in this case but there are similar ones in other languages too.

Hoi Choi went live in 2017 and the goal it says is not only to reach Bangla speaking audiences in India, but expand beyond Indian borders and reach out to the diaspora as well.

Vishnu Kant Mohta, co-founder and director, Hoichoi says, “There are 250+ million Bengalis residing worldwide who do not have access to Bengali movies, be it new or old. With the advent of smartphones and digital platforms, the thirst for web content has also increased in the past decade.” He says that according to Times Internet, regional languages have surpassed English with a 66 per cent share in overall content consumption and that is the reason behind the big thrust into the country’s linguistic minefield. Interestingly these platforms are all built on a subscription-led model.

Will the growing aggression among large global platforms in the regional space obliterate the local players? Not many are willing to bet on a yes or a no. Change is a given but in all probability, the sector will see a spate of alliances and sharing agreements in 2018 they say. Netflix seems to hint at the same. “We are focused on primarily on content, partnerships and technology, to drive a great Netflix experience in the market. Key to our content strategy is becoming a leading producer and distributor of high-quality Indian content. Currently, members can watch local content in several languages on Netflix, including Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil and Punjabi, and we will continue expand this regional offering,” says Jessica Lee.

While players like Netflix, Amazon are focused on building strong local libraries, Indian entertainment giants like Viacom18 and Zee are leveraging the extensive television content libraries in multiple languages to promote their online video streaming platforms.

The interest of OTT players in regional content libraries is also a result of the growing popularity of language films at the box office. Over the past few years, regional cinema has found success at the box office, along with critical acclaim. Whether it was the magnum opus Baahubali franchise, or the small budget love story Sairat, audiences flocked the theatres and set the cash registers ringing. Experts see the relationship between regional content creator and streaming platforms as symbiotic.

“Regional films are saddled with some basic issues of revenue streams and OTT is a good option to monetise the IP. For players like Netflix and others, it goes a long way in strengthening a diverse library not only for India, but for international audiences too,” says one expert.