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Voot Camp

As Viacom18 launches its video-on-demand service, Voot, Gaurav Gandhi, COO, Viacom18 Digital Ventures;Monika Shergill, Head, Content, Viacom18 Digital Ventures; director Soumik Sen; and veteran actorGulshan Grover talk to Team Box Office India about their new collaboration.

Box Office India (BOI): Tell us about Voot.

Gaurav Gandhi (Gandhi): Voot is a video entertainment platform from Viacom18. The idea really came from the fact that there is massive consumption of digital content in India right now. We have 400 million people on the Internet and there are about 160-180 million people already using smartphones. And over the last three to four years, digital videos have become fairly mainstream. You know, 100 million people consume digital content every month. And that is a very large number.

BOI: All-India?

Gandhi: Yes, everything is all-India. To give you a numerical reference point, last year, on Viacom18 channels, in fact on just Colors and MTV, and I am not counting big shows like Bigg Boss, which we don’t put out on YouTube, we registered 2.5 billion views on YouTube in India. We have over 90 million people on social media following us.

The other thing is there is a gradual shift towards people wanting to watch content when they want to watch it and on the screen on which they want to watch it. The phenomenon in India was slow to pick up but is gaining momentum. Even in America, for example, 25 to 30 per cent of people who watch television content have shifted but they use a DVR to record shows. We have nothing and our default (choice) was to go online, so we went to YouTube or even pirated sites.

Secondly, India is a largely single TV market. It remains an 85-per cent, single TV market. With digital growing popular, more than one family member can watch that they want simultaneously. It becomes a multi-screen household. Lastly, I think the idea of a digital video platform also presents opportunities for advertising, unlike in the US, where subscription revenues are very high and you can pull off a model like that. To a large extent, this is an advertisment-supported market. We already have `1,500 crore in revenue from digital video and advertising today. This will go up to `7,500 crore in the five to six years, and that is a billion-dollar market in digital marketing and advertising.

To put that in context, it will be the second-largest video cluster after Hindi GECs. Why would any large media company want to stay away from that? If you take into account the fact that we own almost all the IPs of the content that we produce, it is a no-brainer that we would get into this space.

But Voot is not just a catch-up service; we are actually building a platform for the digital consumer. It has four layers. It has the TV content that we are bringing in naturally, for which we have the IP in multiple languages. We put an exclusive layer of content around the TV brands that we build. There are a lot of our shows, we have spin-off properties, we have additional content, and we have stuff which you will not get elsewhere.

We also want to build on a huge play for kids. We have the largest digital platform of kids’ content in India right now. YouTube has a lot of content for kids but not a lot of preschool premium content. Lastly, we wanted to be very clear that we are all about original content being created. That is the long and short of what Voot is all about. Monika can add to this as she drives the content strategy for Voot. So Monika over to you…

Monika Shergill (MS): From the content point of view, we are focusing on certain genres, and kids are a big differentiator for us. Unlike Hotstar, which drives on sports and maybe movies, they have the repository of their broadcast content, we have our entire broadcast content but we are very clear that we are the biggest players of reality content. Eight out of the top 10 reality shows belong to Viacom18 as a network, between MTV and Colors. Also, Viacom18 is the destination for comedy and the ratings will tell you that the top five dramas belong to Viacom18.

So between these three genres, which are seen as the pillars of entertainment, we are very strong. As far as movies are concerned, movies don’t really drive the audience to a mobile screen because watching a movie on a mobile screen consumes a lot of data and this is very expensive. We are very clear that we want to create bite-size content and content that is very easily consumable and sharable, and that gives you an opportunity to tell stories in a 15-to-20 minute format or even a 10-minute format while also going through the arc of story telling, which provides entertainment.

Gandhi: To add to what Monika just said… if you are building an advertisement-supported platform just like a Hindi GEC or any regional GEC, the idea is to have a consistently large number of viewers. If this takes place in spurts, and if it is just a tentpole, then viewers will come in on that day and they will not return. I am not commenting on other models; all I am saying is that our strategy is very clear.  We don’t want to build our business on spikes; we want to build our brand on consistency. You will get advertisement dollars only if you have daily active users in the millions. Otherwise, you are not chasing the right goal.

This is not the download business, and I am not chasing an investor and saying, ‘I have 50 million downloads, please give me more money.’ We have a real business to run here, which is not built on downloads because it is like saying that Colors is available in 200 million households, but how many people are actually watching it? It is not about availability. So that is one of the big things and just about the point that Monika was making, so when we say that we are going to go after the three genres that come from television, how do we layer that with kids play? Which I feel is a very big play as large portion of our country is under the age of 14. Therefore you don’t have a destination for kids at all in the market.

We all know our phones don’t belong to us once we go back to home. We also know that if there is an app that our child absolutely loves, that app can’t go away. We have received this data from The Boston Consulting Group which says that the kids’ engagement time on perception is the longest; they watch the same video again and again. We also know that once they love a character, it becomes very popular because all they want to watch is them (repeatedly). They become obsessed with the character. So we have built an interactive kind of platform.

For instance, if we share a video via Whatsapp, we always share it with comments. Our platform functions in the same way, where you can interact and comment on every video. The whole idea is to bring social elements alongside the video and make it interactive. I have 17 hours of content to start with. How would you search for it? That is also a very big differentiator. Then, of course, content strategy comes to play.

We are talking more about high-concept originals. That’s where we announced the originals and we are here with Bad Man. Let’s talk about Bad Man, which I think is one of the most unique ones we have done.

BOI: Whose idea was it?

MS: It was Soumik’s idea.

Soumik Sen (SS): Once upon a time, we used to have demarcated roles – hero hai, villain hai. So you had these villains of the ‘80s and ‘90s who would do the same thing in every film. But films have since changed, heroes have changed and villains too have changed. So earlier for the novelty factor ki arey yeh villain hai has changed. Over time, the traditional definition of ‘villain’ has lost its relevance. If you look at it now, something like the Bad Man – toh woh toh ab hai hi nahi.

So I asked myself how is a villain relevant in cinema today? The films that today’s younger audience watches don’t really have villains. So what would a villain do? Our film starts with a villains’ association saying, ‘We want reservations’ because these days heroes play the villains’ part too, like Aamir Khan, Akshay Kumar and Rajinikanth who play the role of the villain. And I cast Juhi Chawla as a villain in Gulaab Gang. So this villains’ association is going to petition to the government, demanding that only villains should play villains. My idea was to epitomise the villain better than the original ‘bad man’. When you say ‘bad man’, there is nobody else. There is only one bad man. And then for him to find ki arey, why can’t I play the same role? That’s the fictional angle. But the main idea was someone who would play himself and allow us to have fun at his expense.

It takes a lot of courage and he (Gulshan Grover) agreed instantly. In the trailer, you see Rishi Kapoor saying, ‘Tu budhe ka role kar, hero ke chakkar mein mat padh.’ It’s almost like telling him what not to do. In the end, it’s comedy but the unique thing is everybody is playing themselves. So Chunky Pandey, who is the villain in the film, they have a history. Gulshan sir has played the villain in many films of Chunky, where he was the hero. So we paid tribute to that too – if I am playing the hero now, I want to release my khunnas on Chunky. That was my idea. It was also brave of Chunky to agree to do the role.

It’s not just a collection of gags that keeps playing. It’s a film, and full credit to Monica and her team for being able to see this entire self-spoofing, self-parodying thing. In Bollywood, we always say that ‘Hum Bollywood mein hamesha ek dusre ka mazaak udate hain’ but we are never able to laugh at ourselves.

MS: It was the most improper film ever, with the most improper hero and the most improper director. ‘Improper’ is the operational word. And we wanted to make a statement out of that – you can go out there, and you can play with the format where you travel between reality where Gulshan is playing himself, and you move over to fiction very seamlessly, back and forth. He has two sons who don’t look like brothers and who don’t even look like his sons, but they are!

BOI: (Cuts In) Basically, it is classic Bollywood.

SS: Where else would you get Captain Zatak and Ranjit saab saying on his (Gulshan’s) birthday ki you handle the federation.

MS: It is outlandish but that’s what makes it so much the fun! It keeps pushing the boundaries with every scene, with every chapter. It is a film with four chapters, and with every chapter, it pushes boundaries, and the making of the film within the film, which is a saga itself.

BOI: What exactly is it? Is it a full-fledged film or towards a…

SS: It is a film but it will have three intervals.

Gandhi: (Cuts In) You can see it as a three-interval film.

BOI: All in one go?

Gandhi: No, there is a reason for that. I don’t think 15 minutes pass without us getting a text message or a Whatsapp message or a Facebook update. So the engagement time on a mobile phone doesn’t last longer than 16-18 minutes. So if you have really engaging content, you will be on for 17-18 minutes.

We have said that there is a movie with four intervals and there is a popcorn break. But we will also serve up a full-fledged movie so that everybody can watch it. We can have two versions of it, that’s the beauty of this platform, the way you can offer it. You can offer it as a full film or as a four-part film. But we will release it as a four-part film and then eventually put it out as a full film. You catch the whole thing at one go, if you want to.

BOI: Gulshanji, what was your reaction when Soumik came to you with this project?

Gulshan Grover (Grover): I had never been approached for something like this before.  In fact, no one in Bollywood had ever had an offer like this, where two very interesting things are happening – one is for me to play the hero, the lead of the film, and the second was to play myself and the most iconic villain character that I have played. As Monika said, the reality and the imagination merge seamlessly in this. It was also about being ready to poke some fun at myself.

I had only one concern, so I asked Soumik whether the makers were as enthusiastic and as excited as he was, as a creative person. After acting in over 400 films, it would make no sense for me if the makers weren’t as excited as the creative team was.

So I had a meeting with them (Gaurav Gandhi and Monika Shergil) and when I saw the clarity in their thoughts and their courage, I was confident that they would do justice to this. Forget about saying yes, I was jumping kahin yeh mind change na kar de. I would also say that I was a pioneer in a sense by being the first actor to make the transition from commercial cinema, from Bollywood to Hollywood. This idea is also a pioneering one, to make a film for the web audience.

These people, sitting here, are pioneers in raising the bar, making a film, and making it with a proper, or according to Monika, an ‘improper’ star, and treating the audience with dignity and respect by saying that digital is the future market and with the amount of money they have put into this film. I have 150 costume changes in the film. The other day itself, Gaurav said that in a regular film, the P & A is much smaller than the P & A in a digital project.

Gandhi: That is a very key point in any digital product. When you promote a movie, it will release on Friday and will run for a week or two. After that, the life on that vertical, which is the theatrical release, is over. With digital, it is exactly the opposite, it all adds up over time. The most iconic digital property you can talk about…

BOI: House Of Cards?

Gandhi: Anything. You can talk about Korean artist Psy, who made history with one song… the multiplicity only adds up over a period of weeks, months, quarters, and lives forever. I think the way to look at digital marketing in the context of key premium content that you create is that it is not about what happened on that day, it is about how you give it life for a long period of time.

It’s like saying you know you have to take it to a particular level for it to take off on its own as word-of-mouth then takes it forward. You can’t blow up a whole lot of money on that first day; that is not how digital behaves. The momentum grows and you have to make sure you support it with adequate promotion, both off-air and on-air till it gets a life of its own. And this ‘life of its own’ can create history.

Grover: This clarity fascinated me as well. As an actor, I have never been scared of challenges. Even when playing only villainous roles, everybody told me that I would be typecast and that I wouldn’t get a chance to play any other roles. I said, only weak actors and people who don’t have courage worry about these things. I am a formally trained actor, I have tremendous faith in my ability and my craft, and when the time is right I will break it.

I did it over and over again for many films and also was part of a National Award winning film I Am Kalam in which I played a positive role. I am not scared of experimenting. Also, that must have something to do with having had some exposure in the West, in international cinema and Hollywood. For example, if you look at the film like Tropic Thunder with Tom Cruise and the other actor…

SS: (Cuts In) Ben Stiller.

Grover: Or you look at Sacha, the thing is, why don’t we have the courage to…

MS: (Cuts In) I was actually dying to say this but it is India’s Borat, if you look at it..

SS: (Cuts In) No!

MS: I really like to think so, it is also why…

Grover: (Cuts In) I would say it is India’s Tropic Thunder, it is a bigger film and a bigger star.

MS: (Cuts In) More following for Borat, I can tell you that it has more following.

Grover: That is later.

MS: Move over Sacha Baron Cohen, Gulshan Grover is here!

Grover: So I wasn’t scared. Look at my body of work. I started going to Los Angeles and Hollywood in 1994. I had the courage to go there and my first Hollywood film, the large studio film, Columbia Tristar’s film, The Second Jungle Book: Mowgli & Baloo released in 1997, where I had 67 scenes in the climax fight and I was a major star in the film.

My take was that why are we, commercial cinema actors who are more popular, who are household names, treated like naked children? When somebody comes here from the international market, inko chupa doart cinema ke bachon ko saamne laa do. Shah Rukh Khan is popular, Salman Khan is popular, they are loved by everybody. Is there anything wrong with that? Why imagine that we are lesser actors? No, we act in a certain way because we built a brand and we kind of recycle it for various films because the audience has come to watch that.

So my fight and my challenge as an actor was that commercial cinema actors are equally talented, equally reliable and far more professional because we do multiple films. We are not like poor people who are lost in a particular role, kahan pade hain pata nahin. We are like thodi der role mein khona hai, phir next role mein hum aamir aadmi hai. That was the determining thing then.

Similarly, I am very excited with such clarity for Voot. I am honestly saying this, listening to Gaurav’s vision and the vision of everyone involved in this, and the courage of a director who made Gulaab Gang, to think of a film like this.

Gandhi: Also, remember how cinema changed when multiplexes came in? How movie started aiming at the multiplex audience rather than at large screens? Suddenly, we didn’t have to fill thousands of seats in cinemas. Also, one could now do genre films, themed films, multiplex films.

In a digital market, everything is actually a ‘multiplex film’ or more than plex because everything is one-on-one. I am not streaming to the world, I am streaming to you, and you have the option to, on-demand, take it or not. There is a very large market for this but we are not making it from the point of view that ‘the entire world is sitting to watch this mega blockbuster  movie’. We are making cinema of a particular type, which a large audience would watch but it is because you can afford to do it in a digital market, which is
on demand.

Each time you release an instalment, you will get a particular kind of audience watching it, and that gets carried forward by word-of-mouth and social sharing. The ability of the Internet and the on-demand world allows you to create themes like this. You cannot do this even in the television world because you are worried about ratings.

BOI: But, Gaurav, to give you the strategy to create a property which you can milk over time and therefore…

Gandhi: Oh absolutely!

MS: (Cuts in) The digital audience is very restless and is constantly seeking new content.

Gandhi: What happens is, you pay `100 or `200 to watch a film in a theatre, where teen ghante hain aap ke paas and you decide you will watch it. You rarely walk out. With the television, the remote is in your hand. The moment you don’t like something, you switch channels but you have limited channels. But with a phone, you are only a click away from a hundred million choices. So you can’t think ki mujhe bana lene do, main kheench loonga isko. You only have to make quality content. And the life of the content depends on how good it is. It could be priceless!

MS: People are not even aware of many of the shows in the digital space for the first few months. They become famous only after word-of-mouth publicity gains momentum. There are people who are still sampling when the second episode or season is underway.

Gandhi: In Mumbai, we create 200 hours of content between six or seven television channels. That’s 800 hours every month, which is what the US does during an entire season or year. We are a volume-based business with everything but, with creativity, I feel you don’t always have to look at volumes.

Grover: I’d like to add a few points. One is that there is no clarity on the digital market or the viewer and where it is going from here. If you look at Viacom18’s various products, they are gutsy, and they have diverse products. Similarly, no film has been offered solely to the digital audience.

Second, the other day, I met Shah Rukh Khan, and I asked him to listen to the title song of our film, which has been sung by Vishal Dadlani. I also showed him photographs of my look in the film, and the logo of Bad Man, ‘Viacom presents Gulshan Grover in and as a Bad Man’… and he asked me, ‘Who is directing it?’ I said, ‘Soumik Sen,’ and he said, ‘I have seen Soumik’s film and this is the way to treat the digital audience, to have a proper director and a star, and this is the way to enter the digital arena and treat the digital audience with respect.’ I am extremely happy to be part of this pioneering effort for the web or digital viewer.

Gandhi: We are very happy that he is giving us credit but, in the digital world, it is too new for anyone to say ‘we know it all.’ We don’t know it all, we are going by some learnings and our conviction. We have a strategy in place, we have good products, we have good partners, who have created this and I think we also have a mix of really good content which will pull in all kinds of viewers.

Voot is the only platform where you have people from two years to 50 years coming in, the whole spectrum from kids to old, to the reality audience. When you are able to draw that kind of viewer base, from a Roadieslover to a Big Boss lover, to a GEC lover, to a kids and a mom, you get a whole spectrum and the kind of sampling you can get from this is very big. Each of the four shows that we have showcased at the press conference recently, has a very different taste. The idea is to offer something unique to the audience, something they have not seen earlier. And we believe this is truly unique. Who knows, maybe Bad Man 2 is in the pipeline. We have a property and we can make a franchise.

BOI: You can even call him with his other character names like Chhapan Tikli?

Gandhi: Totally, he has done more than 400 films, why not take advantage of that?

MS: We shaves a property we have planned after Bad Man, where we make him read all the mean retweets.

Gandhi: Don’t reveal anything now, we can do another interview with Box Office India on that! (Laughs)

BOI: Looking at the independent content you are creating… Will you keep it only as your platform’s property or would you be open to syndicating?

Gandhi: We are not syndicating any content. Voot has opened only in India and in time we will take it international as well. These are Voot originals, so they will be on Voot. They will be promoted everywhere and we want to build Voot as a platform but there will be IPs of Viacom. And Viacom18, the company, and Voot if we decide to take it outside then we will take it outside. There is no reason why, after some time, the content shouldn’t be available in a movie listing, on airlines, as an on-demand service on DTH. But, right now, it will be available only on Voot. It will not be available on YouTube as it defies the purpose of creating original content for this platform.

BOI: Does this hold true of the other Viacom content too?

Gandhi: Absolutely. They are all exclusive now. As we speak, it is all available only
on Voot.

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