In 2012, back when this writer was still in college, to be a movie buff meant flaunting multiple external hard drives, all chock-full of Hollywood and world cinema classics (Bollywood was infra dig, of course), downloaded either from the Internet or the college’s internal file-sharing network. The golden era of television meant, however, that these hard drives would also be stuffed with season after season of American TV shows — everything from prestige fare like The Sopranos and The Wire , high school stuff like Gossip Girl or wisecracking, dialogue-driven dramas like Boston Legal and The West Wing .
The running joke in my hostel was that one guy, a bit of a jerk who kept mostly to himself, had been watching The West Wing nonstop for years (we would hear the show’s opening credit music literally every day from his room).
Customised for you
Much before we started using that word, therefore, we were binge-watching. I remain convinced that the ‘external hard drive era’ (that arrived in the late 2000s, mostly) contributed to the speed with which Indian millennials took to streaming platforms.
By then, most of us had heard of Netflix. But we couldn’t understand why someone would pay money to watch old films when there was a vast and wonderful world of Torrents and free downloads, right there for the taking. Eventually, of course, we understood just what Netflix was selling — a curatorial service that would customise user experience, ensuring it has something in the bag for every presumable kind of consumer.
Then in 2015, Hotstar and Eros Now started operations in India and just like that, millions across the country discovered the pleasures of the streaming era. It wasn’t a whole lot to begin with — from the beginning, Hotstar was more focused on cornering the sports market than anything else. It would take Netflix another year to set up shop in India, one of 100-plus countries around the world where the company expanded. Circa 2016, Netflix was a bona fide global giant, and it had now entered what could be its biggest-ever market.
The streaming wars had begun in real earnest. By 2018, the Indian consumer had Netflix, Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video, Eros Now, Alt Balaji, Voot, Zee5 and others to choose from — a $300 million-plus market, by most estimates, a figure expected to triple over the next 4-5 years. And even this might be a conservative valuation, given the rate at which both Netflix and Prime Video are investing in India. The folks at Disney+ are surely licking their lips ahead of their India launch — given the blockbuster appeal of MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) films in this country, they have a readymade foothold in India. Besides, Disney+ content will be distributed via Hotstar, which already has over 300 million subscribers in India (Netflix and Prime combined have approximately 100 million).
It’s a dent
But this decade of streaming proliferation has brought its own set of problems. In October, a number of media outlets reported on how Disney is putting hundreds of vintage Fox movies (like Alien , The Princess Bride , The Omen and so on) out of circulation, denying small-theatre owners the chance to spice up their programming with the odd classic. Disney has not responded to media queries on this, but it’s anybody’s guess what’s happening to these films — they are part of a giant stockpile that will service Disney+ in the years to come.
Similarly, networks like NBC are withdrawing their bestselling products — for NBC, that’s stuff like The Office — from Netflix et al , with a view towards launching their own streaming platform. Very soon, if most other networks follow suit, they will essentially be asking people to go back to 1999 and the TV model, when we flipped channels endlessly (a move sure to backfire, for most consumers will prefer buying only two or three services, as opposed to 10 or 12). This each-man-for-himself model is not compatible with the ethos of a good streaming platform — namely the Netflix-pioneered system of ‘we have something for everyone’. Sooner rather than later, the big players are going to have to settle this among themselves, or risk losing the market consolidation they have collectively achieved in the 2010s.
On the whole, however, this decade of streaming has done a world of good for pop culture buffs. Unconventional or even avant-garde films and shows are being financed much more readily than before. Films and shows from other languages and regions have never been this accessible to so many. More importantly, Netflix & Co. have made a dent in the hitherto unchallenged supremacy of the feudal, nepotistic movie studios of the world, whether Hollywood or Bollywood. It’s not fatal damage, to be honest, but it’s a dent and that counts for something.
And as we usher in a new decade, film and TV buffs have a lot to look forward to, whichever way you slice it.
The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.