With the shutdown of theatres due to COVID-19 spread in the country, there seems no hope for the filmmakers and the audience to get back the fancy theatre experience very soon. Even if the restrictions are lifted from the theatres, the situation will remain scary for a long time and the makers will have to gain the trust of the audience back. Even though the experience of watching a movie on a big screen can’t be compensated, the digital platforms have come with their own strategies to market films that can give them more clicks, views and subscriptions. We talk to director Ashish Shukla who is gearing up with the release of his film titled Bahut Hua Samman on a digital platform.Also Read - Vidya Balan: I am a Feminist Work-in-Progress | Exclusive Interview

Shukla says that the game on digital platforms is only about more and more subscriptions. He tries to introduce us to the number aspect of digital platforms and how do we really judge that a film released on an OTT platform is successful or not. Excerpts: Also Read - Chandrachur Singh 2.0: Aarya Brings Back The Gem Industry Lost a Few Years Ago | Interview 

If a filmmaker has made his movie free on an OTT channel, how does it add to the business of the channel and the filmmaker? 
It has got nothing to do with the makers. The maker has sold his film. Now, this is the strategy of the OTT platform. If it’s a film that is associated with something that has recently happened, it’s relevant. The OTT is trying to monitise that incident. This leads to n number of subscriptions. This works emotionally on the audience. Also Read - Exclusive: Rahul Bose on Misogyny in Movies, Marital Rape, Domestic Abuse And His Fight For a More Gender-Inclusive World

Please elaborate. 
You must have realised that when Irrfan Khan passed away, all these OTT platforms had a separate slate of Irrfan starrers. Similarly with Rishi Kapoor and Sushant Singh Rajput. These platforms try to appeal to the emotions of the audience and tell them that ‘we are like a family… so something which has touched you emotionally has also touched us’ They say ‘look, we are not just all business, we also have a heart.’

What is the best thing about the films releasing on OTT platforms?
OTT has actually provided a self-check to the filmmakers. It has given a level playing field for the makers which also means that the huge-budgeted films are also getting the same audience that a small-budget film is. There’s no overseas recovery happening now. This will now make the filmmakers think twice of the kind of huge budget they were setting their films on because the audience sitting overseas is also watching the film on their phones.

So how does a channel ensures profit if Sushant Singh Rajput’s last film Dil Bechara is announced free for the audience on Disney+Hotstar?
Dil Bechara has got a lot of relevance, it’s very hot. It’s like how patriotism is used to sell products in ads. The audience somewhere feels obliged to think that this is a channel which is not thinking about money, now it’s also our responsibility to subscribe to it. The viewers who might have not subscribed the channel yet, download the app and feel like subscribing to it out of their moral duty.

One has to see that OTT is all about subscriptions so whatever marketing or strategies you see, it’s all about the war of subscriptions. No other parameter exists. Apple is still on-demand where you have to give money to watch every video but the rest of the platforms are only about subscriptions.

When movies release in theatres, the filmmaker is not choosing one particular screen. The film is just releasing on all the screens on a specific date. However, in case of digital release, every OTT platforms has got its own set of niche content. How does a filmmaker choose between so many digital platforms and decide which channel to approach for the release of a film?
Every OTT platform has a strategy. There are a few digital platforms, I won’t take names, that have clearly said that we won’t make thriller (shows or films) now. So the decisions are taken like ‘we will only greenlight comedy content for the next six months or we’ll only make romantic shows for the next entire year’. For example, Disney has a culture of making family content. Now when UTV migrated into Disney, the makers knew that they only have to go to them with content that can be watched by a family in India. You can’t go to Disney to pitch a film like Gangs of Wasseypure or any dark film for that matter. There’s a particular OTT channel that says ‘we want only pure Hindi heartland crime content.’ So kind of shows like Jamtara and Pataal Lok – these are the kind of shows that they have included in their policy now.

In fact, the decisions are also taken on the basis of which actor has been seen the most on which OTT platform. So sometimes, they will also say that ‘we have worked with this face for such a long time, now we will not have this actor on our channel for this long period.’ Such strategies are also made at the overseas offices of these channels.

Now when we pitch our content to these channels, we go to them with multiple pitch ideas because we know a part of their strategies. We go to them with say three-four stories so that they pick one as per their running policy.

What about the platforms which are relatively new to say ‘no’ to some content? 
Then they just focus on filling up their slates with content without any strategy in mind. Having more and more to stream on their channel is their first agenda.

Do you think that these strategies are designed considering the audience in mind?
Honestly, all these strategies really don’t matter to the audience. People initially used to feel apprehensive about backing dark heartland crime dramas then Sacred Games and Mirzapur came in and the history was changed. The audience is watching everything. They are watching rural dramas like Panchayat also and modern crime drams like Aarya also as well as the family comedies from the West. Amazon (Prime Video) is a platform that has actually established itself as a perfect blend of every type of content. That’s its strength today.

What are the parameters to judge a film’s success releasing on an OTT platform?
Personally, for me, I want my film to have a good audience reach. Whether its making money or not making money is not my prerogative, it is being handled by a producer, the channel, or the OTT platform. A director though should make a film that can at least recover the budget of the film for the producer. In the OTT scene, I believe you make a film on a small budget and then see the kind of response it has generated. We made Undekhi (on Sony LIV) and the kind of response it generated was unexpected. There’s good word-of-mouth that goes on. There’s always a marketing body that judges all these things along with what people are writing about that film, what are the IMDb ratings of it, and calculating views on it – there are more parameters also and things are constantly evolving. The owners are working on figuring out more ways to judge the success of content on their channels.

How has the OTT changed the game of Box Office numbers and the exaggeration around it?
OTT has somewhere helped beat this unnecessary gossip around numbers. You don’t go and watch a film on a digital platform because it’s a film from a production house who’s running in profits and whose last film made Rs 400 crore at the Box Office. That is not the parameter to judge a film here. You see a thumbnail of a film which has been made on a Rs 500 cr budget and then you see a thumbnail of a film which is a Rs 100 crore budget film right next to it. That’s the fun of having a level playing field.

Earlier, a big film used to dominate screens and a small film never used to be visible in front of that big-budgeted film. That gap has been bridged by the OTT platform. The audience used to be kidnapped in a theatre where they were subjected to the three-hour-long torture but here, a film is just a thumbnail. The audience has the remote. If they don’t like it, they will move ahead. The audience of the OTT is aware. They want new. Plus, every OTT platform already has 10,000 other shows and films. The audience always has the option of switching to some other film by discarding what you have to offer.