Box-office to AI-based data: How OTT is changing ideas on target audience – The News Minute

Earlier, filmmakers and producers were conscious of the ABC centres, and even made content that they believed would work for certain places. But has OTT changed the game?
When it comes to theatrical releases, especially in the case of commercial entertainers that are backed by stars, the reach of the film is more often than not determined by the film’s performance in Tier II and Tier III cities and towns in the country. Also known as the ABC classification of centres, filmmakers and actors even come up with specific content to win over audiences at these centres. At the same time, films are also exclusively made for the A centre or the metropolitan audience. But following the exponential growth of Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, is this system still relevant?

While it is difficult to get a unanimous answer on the subject, many filmmakers now believe that the content takes precedence over stars or the market in the case of digital releases. Speaking to TNM, director of hit Malayalam films such as Malik and CU Soon among others, Mahesh Narayanan, shares: “The Great Indian Kitchen is the best example from recent times that shows how content takes center-stage. The film’s reach was not just limited to the Malayalam speaking audience.”  
Producer SR Prabhu of Dream Warrior Pictures notes that the practice of targeting audiences in A, B and C centres in the country is no longer popular. “Nowadays, even with theatrical releases, filmmakers only plan when the film is releasing — that is, whether it is going to be released during a festival, on a weekday or on weekends, or as a release that’d serve as the highlight of the month,” he says. “Infrastructure played a key role in this model involving demarcation between different centres. Earlier, the theatres and even the print of the movies that reached B and C centres would be different from Tier I cities or towns but that has changed now,” he adds. SR Prabhu also points out that OTT has reduced the gap between the creator, producer and audience, thus widening the market. 
Do filmmakers think about the target audience (TA) of a film during its conceptualisation or factor them in while making creative decisions pertaining to the project? While the answer might have been a straightforward yes a few years ago, that is no longer the case.  

“I’ve never thought about the target audience but only about the budget. Malik, for instance, was a big-budget film, hence it is important for producers to recover the money, which is possible only if it reaches the maximum number of people. The theatrical system is the best living example of a distribution model where the producers can recover the money they have poured into a project. But given the situation, when we switch to digital mediums, the next thing we can do is to ensure that the logistics and the numbers match if the film is premiering on OTT,” says Mahesh Narayanan.  
The hesitancy to go solely by data on films’ performances in different centres kicked in way before the pandemic. Instances of formula films failing miserably at the box-office as well as content-driven films unexpectedly performing well in theatres, are aplenty. Actors like Madhavan have spoken extensively about interpreting and understanding performance-related data thoroughly before letting that dictate an actor’s choices. However, the spike in OTT releases has especially made filmmakers rethink the market for remakes, which are made to cater specifically to a particular regional audience. The release of Telugu movie Narappa, for instance, stirred conversations around whether the remake was needed, or if audiences are expected to watch the movie for the stars since both the movies, the original Tamil film Asuran and the Telugu remake, are streaming on the same platform.  
“I am personally not a huge fan of remakes. We always want to watch a movie in its original language. The language that is spoken in the film, how it has been thought and produced constitute the essence and only the original can promise that experience. Even if a filmmaker adapts and rewrites it to suit the audiences from a different region, it turns into a new film,” Mahesh Narayanan says. Speaking on similar lines, Madhumita says, “Remakes cannot be an exact copy of the original. A director might be under scrutiny from the industry and press for trying to remake a film, so they might as well remake the film the way they want to, rather than copying the entire film as it was. Even from an OTT perspective, if the director adds their own spin to the story without compromising with the original idea, the audience can compare the two films and weigh in.”  

Theatre openings and box-office collections have been conventionally used to determine the success of a film but with OTTs entering the fray, filmmakers’ ability to track the reception of a film has become limited. “Platforms don’t share such details that only a few teams within the organisation are privy to. We get to know whether it is performing well or if the reception has been average. But the information they provide is conversational,” Madhumita shares. However, when asked if she thinks filmmakers should be getting access to the exact data, she observes that she personally prefers not to read too much into the data. “Creators cannot work purely based on numbers. It will turn out as a restriction and added baggage for me if I start doing that. Having been a producer myself, I’m quite conscious and aware about the possible market value of my film and the approximate return it can make. Having said that, I’d never let that overwhelm / compromise my filmmaking. The idea is to make a good film within the said committed budget. Beyond that, the film goes where it is meant to go,” the director observes.
On the other hand, producer SR Prabhu firmly believes that much like box-office collections, the data about performance of films on OTT will also be available in the public domain. “Information about box-office collections is publicly available but is not always unerring. With OTT releases, the information is very accurate since it is AI (Artificial Intelligence) generated data, but it remains confidential. Like data about TRPs, information about performance of OTT releases will also be publicly available down the line,” the producer says.  
Social media was abuzz with discussions on the reception that movies on OTT received, sparked especially after some of the most-anticipated south Indian movies such as Malik, Jagame Thandhiram, Soorarai Pottru and Sarpatta Parambarai  (films that were initially slated for theatrical release), ended up on streaming platforms since the producers could no longer wait for the theatres to reopen with 100% occupancy. 
“Films like Soorarai Pottru or Sarpatta Parambarai might have done magic in theatres but at the same time, digital streaming is not meant for movie-buffs alone. I think streaming is becoming democratic too and its reach is increasing. Our job as filmmakers is to entertain people and do it through the best medium that’s available. If digital platforms are working better now, we will naturally have an inclination towards the best platforms,” Mahesh Narayanan remarks.  
Contrary to popular belief, some of the OTT platforms also use the Tier I, II, III classification of audiences or ABC classification to devise content strategy catering to the sensibilities of those audiences in particular. Explaining how OTT platforms have shifted their attention to audiences in Tier II and III cities in recent times, Madhumita, who has worked as a content consultant for OTT platforms, explains: “Filmmakers want to see their films on the platforms which have a better reach. But similarly, platforms which are all mostly new in the Indian market, want to increase their subscription base. And in order to do that, they believe the best way is to commission / license star studded content and  to supplement that with story driven content. The ratios will eventually change once the platforms have settled into the indian market.”
The director explains how the strategy used by these platforms needs to be in compliance with their brand image and their core idea. “Even within OTT platforms, some are open to experimenting, some want a mix of content-driven and commercial movies, while a few want to reach out to more subscribers through commercial entertainers,” she points out.  

Mahesh Narayanan, whose OTT releases CU Soon and Malik got a positive reception from the audience, notes that the marketing done by streaming platforms opens films to a bigger audience in many cases. “When it comes to digital platforms, they are corporate players and the bigger platforms don’t cater to a specific region in particular. So, they don’t consider Malayalam, Bengali, Tamil or Marathi films as regional language films, and market it to a pan-Indian audience. With Malik, we got responses from north India, which hasn’t happened with my films earlier, so this is also great,” the director tells TNM.   
It does not come as a surprise that digital platforms also come up with customised features based on viewers’ watch history and preferences. Citing one such instance, Madhumita shares, “Even in recent times, an anthology that was released in an OTT platform had customised the order based on the user’s viewing experience.  For example, if you have been watching thrillers, the segment that’s a thriller would pop up first in your list. The idea is to ensure that the audience gets hooked to the content.” 
The reopening of theatres comes as a sigh of relief to exhibitors, distributors and a section of producers and filmmakers, but the industry predominantly believes in the co-existence of theatrical and OTT releases. Sharing his insights on the plethora of opportunities that lie ahead of the road, Mahesh Narayanan quips, “Theatres will also move to livestreaming in future. When that happens the distribution system will also change.” He adds that India moving to 5G will also lead to reinvention of the existing models.  
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