The Write Stuff

If ‘cutting-edge content’ and ‘web series’ are the new buzz words in town, here are two gentlemen who certainly know a thing or two about what’s in store. Christopher Brancato, creator of the hit Netflix series Narcos, and founder of Roy Kapur Films and film producer, Siddharth Roy Kapur, in conversation with Sanjay Ram

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Box Office India (BOI): There’s clearly something exciting in store. Do tell us about this collaboration, and what brings you together in the same room.

Siddharth Roy Kapur (SRK): I could start by talking a little about how this came about. As you know, we are developing content for the Jio platform, which is one of the largest platforms in the country at this point in time, with 140 million subscribers, and growing. The idea was for us, who come from the film or television space, to not presume that because we know a certain way of working within those spaces, that they would translate similarly when trying to create for example a 10-episode season that has a certain rhythm and way in which it is created. What we wanted to do really is learn from the best minds in the business as we are creating the foundation for the way we are green-lighting these shows.

We reached out to Chris and asked him if he’d give us his time and he graciously consented to come by. The idea, really, was to involve a group of writers, producers and directors whom we are currently engaged with in developing this content and benefit from his experience.

Also, we are well aware that we, in India, are jumping generations as we usually do, going from traditional television straight to the series, without having to go through what the US went through, which was the HBO model and then moving to edgier content, to what Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are doing today. So we really wanted to understand the way it works in the US and from that, create our own hybrid, uniquely Indian model for what would work best for us here.

I think we are in the process of understanding that right now and hopefully in the coming days we will be able to create our own cocktail of what the show runner model should be like for us in India.

BOI: Chris, what are your thoughts on India, given that now you’ve met these writers, directors and others?

CB: It is very interesting to watch an industry that is on the cusp of something new. We’ve been watching things change in Hollywood for the last 10 years. There have been some dramatic, almost shocking changes that nobody would have expected ten years ago, that there would be this company spending 8 billion dollars a year on content alone, which is Netflix, and Apple spending a billion, Amazon too and so on. At least in my circles, no one predicted it. It’s exciting to see the spread of international interest in good television; it’s only going to mean better television. 

Today we have so many more entertainment options, at least a lot more than when I was a kid and therefore the content has to be good or people will just not watch it. So for me to be able to come here and describe to the people the process by which we develop and create, sell and write shows, it’s fun to talk and meet other writers. And for the system here, people will use what makes sense to them and discard the rest, and I think that’s the way. That’s the way I learnt how to screen write, by just looking to different books, reading screenplays and talking to people, keeping what sticks in my mind and discarding the rest.

I think it’s a very exciting time for the industry. It would be interesting for me to see if Bollywood stars will come and be a part of these shows.

SRK: They have already started doing that. There’s a Netflix show that has a Bollywood star in it and dare I say, they are all looking for great material. So if it is compelling and exciting enough, then I think there is definitely an opportunity.

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BOI: In a sense, both of you have seen the entire gamut… Chris, you with having done films, television and now series; and Siddharth, you having headed Disney and now run your own production house. What do both of you reckon are the challenges, given the fact that here we are in a sense still figuring out the digital series concept?

SRK: To my mind, getting ahead of the audience might be one of the challenges, because what has happened in the US pretty organically is that you have had this reverse feedback mechanism that has developed over time. They’ve created content, some of it has worked, some of it hasn’t and through a process of osmosis, they’ve figured out what’s working and what’s not, with the audience tastes changing and they are hopefully going one step ahead of that, giving them something they didn’t know they wanted but it hasn’t happened in a knee-jerk manner. This has happened over a process of time.

My watch-out in India would be that we don’t presume that because we are lucky enough to have access to the content from around the world, that the bulk of our audience in India is ready for an exact transposition of that content here. I think we need to be cognizant of what they are being exposed to right now and be able to give them something that is definitely different as far as they are concerned, but take them along for the ride rather than intimidate them into getting turned off by giving them something they might not be ready for.

I think Chris in an earlier session nailed it when he said that it has to be ‘Familiar, yet different’ and I think that is something we must be very cognizant of.

CB: So my point is that here, there has to develop a kind of writing community that is studies the modern shows, that works on the craft and that helps each other. There are so many who have helped my writing in one way or another or are part of that writers’ circle, where you’re commenting on each other’s scripts. If that continues to develop here, it will just make the quality of the content better. Until you get Grade A quality scripts, it will be difficult to do quality television. The fact that people are gathered here to try to learn about new methods is an indication of interest. So I am very optimistic. This is a big and smart country and I think there are going to be some really interesting angles on things.

BOI: Unlike television, where there is a sense of being able to adapt a show based on TRPs, web content is usually finite and episodic, and doesn’t allow that. How do you reckon one works around that in the Indian scenario?

CB: To be honest, you just never know. As much as you want to plan for success, you can’t. Things that I thought for sure were going to be successful have been utter failures and vice versa. If you said to me that Narcos would be watched in India, I never would have believed it. 

SRK: In a sense, I wear my movie hat over there. It’s similar to when you are making a movie, you like a script and you make it and then you put it out there and you hope people like it. So I think you have to look at this in a similar way… you have reacted instinctively to a particular material, you are going to get as close to understanding what that show is going to be, green-light it and work hard to make it turn out like you thought it would. Then hope for the best, that the audience feels the same way. I guess that’s the difference between how you look at this versus how you look at a soap opera on television… 

BOI: So will this define the sort of content you will then subsequently green-light?

SRK: It could. I am sure all the streaming majors right now are benefitting tremendously from the data that they get with regard to how their shows are performing and they are green-lighting subsequent seasons based on the feedback to the current season and analytics on things like genre, regions, psychographics and all that. We will have access to the same data and I guess it’s just about how you use that to make informed decisions.

IMG_3415BOI: Chris, what is your feedback with regards to the quality of content or the writers you have interacted with while here?

CB: I’ve only been presented with a couple of treatments that remind me of treatments that I read in LA. So in the discussion of ideas, today, it was effectively a writers’ room, where people were debating and discussing ideas and I also felt there was no difference from what I experience in my LA writers’ room. It’s just smart people poking holes in other people’s ideas in order to test them and make them better… It seems to me that the people here will be able to carry forward some aspects of this collaborative writers’ room stuff. It’s very promising.

BOI: That brings me to the next question. In the West, you are used to writing in collaboration, which is not really how it is here. How do you see this being adapted to the content you will be developing?

SRK: What we want to do is put some sort of structure to how the writers’ room will work and get people to understand why a writers’ room is important. In films, for example, you have a writer or a writer partnership and that’s final. When it comes to television, you have more of a writers’ room situation but it’s really the producer leading that process in getting the writers and directors.

Here, it’s pretty much like make 5 movies right, because you are effectively making 10 hours of content. So I think the writers realise instinctively that it’s not going to be physically possible for one person to churn out that many screenplays without it taking a certain amount of time, which is not feasible. Therefore, everyone has come to understand that there’s got to be some amount of dedication of work and responsibility among a team of writers. Now how that dynamic works out is what we really need to figure out as we go along.

What Chris has been able to explain to us is exactly how it works in the West. To start with, there aren’t always rules but what a loose structure of that nature could seem like.

BOI: Moving forward, are you also going to get regional-specific?

SRK: We’d like to. We are focused on the Hindi space right now but we’d like to move into regional at the right time.

BOI: Lastly, to both of you, at what point do you know if a particular concept is ready and not over-cooked or over-baked?

CB: When it’s on air (laughs). In other words, you never stop working on it, you keep writing it until the last minute, and one of the tasks of the show runners is to make sure that all the notes as assimilated, that come in from all the various people, the studios, the executive producers, from the network, from so many different places… make sure that the script doesn’t actually get worse. You have to keep a tight grip on the process.

SRK: Actually, in our scenario, I think under-baking is the problem. I’d rather get to at least where we are feeling that we are over-baking and that will make me feel really good. So, I dare say, if the amount of rigor that has been discussed goes into what we are doing, that would be an ideal scenario, as far as I am concerned.

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