Exclusive: Amazon's James Farrell greenlights crackling desi content for the streaming giant

Updated: Jun 27, 2020, 11:48 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

That's the man from LA, responsible for around 20 hours of fresh, quality entertainment, while we've been holed up at homes past few months!

James Farell. Pic/Nikul Gala
James Farell. Pic/Nikul Gala

James Farrell, sitting in his Los Angeles home, and on a screen before me in Mumbai, is one of India's biggest stars. Except that few in India, even in the movie industry, would've heard of him; let alone met him. And Farrell is not an actor. So, how is he a star in the showbiz sense? Let me explain.

By movie-market definition, a star is someone who green-lights scripts, unlocks the budget potential of a project. And gets a big film on the floors. Why? Because the star, by virtue of a fan-base, or captive audience, ensures that people will give the product a shot, on Day One of its screening. So, some part of the financial risk is covered. What happens thereafter, of course, depends on the word-of-mouth that follows the early/weekend shows.

Match my analogy for a second. And you'll realise that popular streaming giants — like Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, Zee5, or Disney+Hotstar — perform precisely the same mainstreaming role for a script as a traditional star. Even more so in the current, COVID-19 scenario, where cinemas/multiplexes as an entertainment window no longer exist — although one hopes that's an extremely temporary situation.

Farrell heads International Originals at Amazon Prime Video. Working out of LA, he's the final green-lighting authority for Amazon's shows in India. Those creative decisions and mainstream movie budgets based on stories, and scripts alone — rather than the cast attached, or interested financiers thereby (or traditional Bollywood, so to say).

Unsure of what he makes of my 'OTT, the new star' analogy. Farrell should be glad that all his Amazon Original series in 2020 have been warmly received by captive audiences on his platform/fan-base.

And the shows couldn't have been more diverse from each other: Four More Shots Please was the Indian 'Sex And The City' womance, upping the ante as a sequel. Panchayat — a warm, coming-of-age drama, set in a village in Uttar Pradesh, without any guns/violence involved — something Bollywood would never touch with a box-office pole. And, Paatal Lok — perhaps the most delightful yet disturbing, deliriously dark, Indian crime-thriller ever!

All these showed up back-to-back, like precious gifts delivered home by Amazon. While India, like most of the world, was under lockdown — desperate for distraction from a 'Groundhog day'! These three shows equal over 15 hours of life. Plus, there was the first season of The Forgotten Army, that dropped earlier this year, raising the bar on scale for an Indian war-drama. In terms of quality, they pit Amazon Prime, arguably, if not convincingly ahead of all its competitors in India.

James Farrell
James Farrell

The fact that they've got it right across genres makes one wonder, seriously, what's the strategy? "Strategy is the same everywhere. India is the best example," says Farrell. "[As a service], we're lucky to be bundled as part of Amazon Prime. We're not a standalone video/music app. We don't have to create a large volume, or hours [of content]. Somebody's going to avail of other benefits on Prime as well. This gives us the time to focus on quality. So long as we can present one great show a month, we're super happy. You don't have that kind of luxury, if you're a broadcaster, or a stand-alone streaming service."

Of course the Indian market with its own multiple languages allows for greater depth, something Farrell says he's exploring, "ramping up teams for Tamil, Telugu [content]." Note that content in Amazon's case essentially means series. Unlike Netflix and others that also roll out a bunch of original films, as against acquired productions alone.

Farrell says, "The reason we haven't produced films in India in a real sense is because we have such good relations with [Bollywood's big production houses] Yash Raj, Excel, T-Series, Dharma and all these folks. We license their films, right after theatrical release. We're happy with that. Producers and theatre owners are happy with that too."

It's a win-win, yes. Just not sure about the relationship between theatre owners and Amazon for the time being. On June 12, the platform released Shoojit Sircar's Amitabh Bachchan, Ayushmann Khurana starrer Gulabo Sitabo, making it the first hardcore Bollywood film to drop directly on an OTT platform, indicating a commercial coup of sorts. This shook up the cinema/exhibition industry at once, with at least two multiplex chains, PVR and Inox, publicly shooting off angry letters, screaming blue murder.

"Well, COVID is a tough spot [for everyone]. The filmmakers were in a tough spot. And we tried to help out," Farrell reasons. What that move also momentarily upended, again, was the Bollywood star-system. Which is based on box-office figures of films. And OTT platforms principally do not reveal viewership numbers. So how do I know, in a conventional sense, if Gulabo Sitabo was a hit, given that there's been a parallel industry in place, tracking this data for decades?

"Good question. If it's a series, I guess you'll know soon as we announce Season 2," Farrell smiles. "But there are independent tracking systems like Nielsen for the US broadcasting industry. They didn't start the day TV started. Likewise, it will take some time for a system to develop [for OTTs]. There are already research agencies that make estimates of how many viewers we, or Hotstar, have. Can't say if the numbers are accurate. But they aren't that far off."

a still from Pataal Kok
A still from Pataal Lok

Farrell is perhaps referring to research-agency Media Planner Asia, recently quoted in Forbes US, that pegged Prime Video paid subscribers to 17 million in India, by year-end. Second to Disney+Hotstar at 18 million (thanks in part to live sports, and 'catch-up TV'). Netflix India, with a much higher subscription rate, is seen lagging for now, at 5 million.

While green-lit sequels are indeed indicators for surefire popularity of a series, Amazon Prime did, perhaps for the first time, officially announce in May that Four More Shots Please was the most watched Indian show on their platform, thus far, in 2020. Why make the exception?

Farrell admits, "It is not a common thing. But the [central] question nearly nailed on our [office] doors is: Is this good for the customer? Just bragging about certain numbers is not. This was just a good story to tell, and we can help the show. It's always about that."

Also, shows tend to organically grow in scale/budget as a franchise, with subsequent successes. Case in point: Money Heist on Netflix. Case Two? Four More Shots had Goa for its only outdoor location. The sequel travelled to Istanbul and Udaipur. The third one, I'm told, will travel to Europe.

"That's speculation," Aparna Purohit gently interrupts. Purohit heads Indian original content, based in Mumbai. She's been on shadow-mute, throughout this video-conference call with Farrell. Clarifying at another point, when asked why the original author Tarun Tejpal — on whose book (The Story of My Assassins), Paatal Lok was based — wasn't credited at all on-screen, Purohit says, "We've stated our position. The creators were inspired by the book. But the author had no role in the development of story, characters, or production of the show."

Paatal Lok is Farrell's favourite series from the Indian slate. And he's equally excited about Breathe Into The Shadows: "People are going to be shocked by the twists and turns on that one." In another rare instance revealing numbers, Farrell points out that of the entire audience of Breathe—the first season, starring R Madhavan—around 40-50 per cent came from outside India. "With the second season coming back (on July 10), with Abhishek (Bachchan), think it'll go even bigger."

A still from Four More Shots Please
A still from Four More Shots Please

Given the platform is the same, and already paid for; and story, location, scale and casting top-notch: Does it matter so much if an established star Bachchan is the lead in a series (Breathe 2)? Or Jitendra Kumar (in Panchayat), or Jaideep Ahlawat (in Paatal Lok)? Akshay Kumar is slated for his OTT debut on Amazon. Their forthcoming show Bandish Bandits stars only new faces in main roles.

Farrell argues, "There are only three pieces of data we look at: One, how many people watched the show? Two, how many people signed up [to the platform] to watch it? Three, how many people finished it [watched it till the end]?

"Big stars will incentivise more people to click on the show, and/or sign up for the service. But after that, it's really up to the show, or film. Also, they aren't stars for no reason—they're actors, who've got charisma, and are uniquely suited to some roles." And Amazon's video section is doing well enough to afford them. Fair.

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