Netflix looks to India as content export hub

Handout photo from ‘Sacred Games’ via Reuters

The Indian film industry, best known for its song-and-dance sequences and over-the-top melodrama, has the potential to emerge as a global content exporter for Netflix, a top company official said.

India churns out more than 1,000 films a year, watched loyally at home and abroad by a huge diaspora. Netflix thinks content made in India will be a good addition to the streaming service’s varied global offering.

“There are great stories everywhere, but there are really four or five centers of TV and film (globally). Mumbai (Bollywood) is certainly one of them, and it is important for us, because we are going to be actively invested in India,” Erik Barmack, VP, International Originals at Netflix, told Reuters in an interview.

The first of its original series in India is “Sacred Games”, based on author Vikram Chandra’s eponymous book, which streams on Netflix this Friday. Starring A-list Bollywood actors Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the Hindi-language show will have a global release on the lines of the popular German series “Dark” and the Spanish show “Narcos”.

Bollywood has rarely moved beyond its comfort zone, content in making films that suit its home audience, but Netflix is hoping that the mix of kitsch and melodrama will appeal to its global audience too.

“The potential is huge. The simple one is just the diaspora, which is if you added up all the users in our global markets outside India, it would be bigger than many European countries. But there is craft and skill in the film market here, and we strongly believe that what is happening in places like Spain, where that content is travelling, will happen in India too,” Barmack said.

Netflix has commissioned several more shows in India, including an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker-winning novel, “The White Tiger”, as well as Prayaag Akbar’s “Leila”. Last week, it also announced that it would be adapting Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”, a book set in India. It has also signed a deal with Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment.

Barmack, however, said convincing Indian filmmakers to make shows for Netflix took a while.

“Convincing people of the opportunity that we can do things at high production levels for TV, when so much of the community here is geared towards films (took time)… we have to prove that it is worth their energy and their effort to try something new,” he said.

Vikramaditya Motwane and Anurag Kashyap were among the first to be convinced. The two directors, who are co-founders of Phantom Films, a production house that was set up with an aim to support indie cinema, co-directed “Sacred Games”.

In an interview earlier this year, Motwane said a platform like Netflix afforded freedom to both audiences and filmmakers.

“We’ll find the talent for this medium, and more importantly, we’ll find the audiences. At the end of the day, if someone tells me that my film will be watched by more people on Netflix than in the theatre, why should I make it for the screen?” he said.

That potential audience is who Netflix is hoping to attract, despite its service being priced almost six times more than rivals Amazon and Hotstar. In February, CEO Reed Hastings said Netflix’s next 100 million subscribers would come from India, citing rising mobile penetration and falling data costs.

Since launching in 2016, Netflix has been slower in India than rival Amazon, which has already commissioned and aired much more local content. But Barmack says the company is scaling up in India faster than any other market.

“We have doubled the size of our catalogue since launch. And in the same period, relative to every other market in the world, outside of the U.S., we have put more local, original content in development, including films, series and stand-up, than any other country. This is the fastest that we are scaling to meaningful local content,” he said.

Indian films are also not just limited to Bollywood. Last year’s biggest Indian hit came from the Telugu film industry, located in the south. Barmack said at some point the company would look beyond the Hindi film industry.

“There is an argument to be made that each region in India is rich enough to be developing series, as if it is its own country. We should and we will. It is a matter of sequencing.”



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