The spotlight is on the Kannada film industry after many decades. The blockbuster success of the KGF franchise and the recently released Kantara beyond the State even as Bollywood has failed to cater to the audience tastes today has positioned Kannada content in a unique place in the market today. Though there has been much enthusiasm for Kannada films across the country, it seems to have not translated into space for Kannada content on streaming platforms.
A host of filmmakers, who have been pitching web series to streaming platforms, said the common response they get was to appreciate their pitch and ask them if they could make the series in Hindi, Telugu or Tamil and are not open to Kannada content.
“When we pitch for original web series or films to various streaming platforms, many times, we have been asked to produce the same content in Hindi or other languages with actors from those languages. They are not even ready to accept an offer to produce the content in Kannada and dub it in other languages. This has not changed,” said B. Suresha, filmmaker and leading producer of Kannada films and television content.
Kannada still remains a largely unexplored and untested market for streaming platforms, which, over the last two years, have become more risk averse after their investments on content backfired and failed to earn returns during the boom period of the pandemic, said a senior content curator in a leading multinational streaming platform.
“Streaming platforms are like e-commerce ventures; nobody is making money. Everybody is investing hundreds or thousands of crores with a hope that the model will break even some day. But wrong decisions on which content to bet has backfired on many of these streaming platforms and amidst an economic slowdown, they have become extremely risk averse,” said a senior marketing executive at another streaming platform.
Industry insiders also said most of the paid subscribers of streaming platforms in Karnataka come from Bengaluru. Bengaluru is a multilingual market where Kannadigas are in fact a minority.“There is no great demand for exclusive Kannada content from Bengaluru, where most subscribers of all streaming platforms presently are. Subscribers here are so diverse, they see content in many other languages. So platforms think in the given circumstance, it doesn’t make sense to invest on a diverse portfolio of Kannada content,” an executive from a streaming platform said.
With the streaming platforms in expansionist mode but risk averse, it has created a new problem for original independent Kannada content to make their way to these platforms. “Today, the ‘number guys’ are sitting to decide on content at most platforms. The sole criteria guiding investment on content in the Kannada market today is to see whether this product will get the platform new paid subscribers. Platforms are not looking to populate their catalogue with diverse content. Already under financial pressure, they need new subscribers and a film or a series needs to bring them that,” said a marketing executive at a streaming platform.
This has almost replicated the box-office on streaming platforms too. “Today, streaming platforms are only open for content starring matinee idols and superstars, mega budget blockbusters and not for smaller films that do not boast of any stars. It is the KGF that they are interested in,” said Srinivas Sribhakta, producer and content curator for streaming platforms. This has soured the hope and promise streaming platforms once held that independent content would finally be able to overcome the punishing economics of theatrical releases and scale, making them unviable.
Badava Rascal, a film starring Dhananjaya, Neerdose, starring Jaggesh, and an exclusive OTT season of Sudeep-led Big Boss, brought in many new subscribers to a Kannada platform, sources said. So did, Puneeth Rajkumar starrer Yuvarathna and the KGF franchise for Amazon Prime, said industry sources. Rakshith Shetty starrer Charlie 777 and Raj B. Shetty directorial Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana, which had successful theatrical runs, have also done well on streaming platforms across the country, sources said.
“The platforms are not ready to bet on any content which doesn’t have a marquee name or has already had a successful theatrical run at the box office like films Love Mocktail or Dia,” an industry insider said. This has also created unofficial monopolies over the space, many rue. “Today, anything coming out of the stables of Hombale Films that produced KGF franchise and Kantara, and from the Rakshith - Rishab - Raj Shetty stables are easily lapped up and others are not able to break in,” a filmmaker said.
“What KGF and Kantara have done to Kannada cinema is immense. But we need more production houses to produce good content and for the people, streaming platforms to embrace it for the industry to grow. We need to keep up this momentum, like Malayalam cinema has been doing since 2012-13. For instance, we got Adarsh Eshwarappa’s Bhinna sold as a Zee5 original in 2019, the first Kannada cinema to do so. But till date no other Kannada film has gone as an original on that platform in three years, despite Bhinna doing well for them even now,” said Mr. Sribhakta.
“In Telugu and Tamil, most of the star actors have begun production houses and they are producing content-oriented small budget films and selling them to streaming platforms by the force of the market they command. There have been deals between the stars and these production houses to buy these films, and the stars will also sell blockbuster films they star in, to the same platforms. There was one such attempt in Kannada by Puneeth Rajkumar, whose productions French Biriyani, Law and One Cut Two Cut were sold as Amazon Originals. But it is sad that he passed away and this project seems to have been aborted. We hope other stars will take over his mantle,” said a content curator who did not wish to be named.
Meanwhile, a senior executive at one of the streaming platforms said the industry was now in a state of flux as Voot and Jio Cinema, Zee5 and SonyLiv are expected to be merged into single apps and these platforms were now looking at regional markets for the next big expansion of their subscriber base.
“Streaming platforms are looking for more subscribers to cut their losses and that can only come from moving beyond the saturated markets and cities. 2023-24 will begin the exploration of regional markets and Kannada is definitely on everyone’s mind especially after the pan Indian success of KGF and Kantara. Some projects that were already in the pipeline have also been put on hold for 2023-24,” said a senior marketing executive at a leading streaming platform in Karnataka.