This an article I did that ran in the August 31, 2007 issue of India Abroad. (Update: Saavn’s most recent promotion is Summer of Love, running through the end of October. In it, they are highlighting Umrao Jaan, Jaan-e-mann and Mixed Doubles. Meanwhile, at Rajshri, their latest promotion is Manorama Six Feet Under.)
When a large multiplex in North Bergen, New Jersey – long famous in the area for offering several Hindi movies as well as the latest Telugu and Tamil hits on its six screens – closed recently, a victim of the highly competitive commercial real estate market, a lot of movie fans were disappointed. The news led to individual speculation about the impact illegal online downloads and $2 pirated DVD rentals were having on the profits anyone running a cinema could hope to make screening Bollywood movies.
Now, thanks to new initiatives by some people in the business, there may be added competition for warm bodies in those theater seats, though to talk to Rajjat Barjatya, he wouldn’t classify it as competition per se, but rather, his way of meeting the different needs of various consumers.
Barjatya is the 32-year-old managing director at Rajshri Media, an arm of Rajshri Films, responsible for such family-friendly hits as Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? and Vivah. The Mumbai native visited both coasts of the US at the end of July to promote Rajshri.com, launched in November 2006.
The website is a portal offering online access to the entire catalog of 75 Rajshri films, and more. Through deals with content providers like the Zee Group, NDTV, Star, UTV, Mukta Arts, and even some Indian government ministries, visitors can also access other feature films, television shows, music videos and documentaries.
Much of the content can be streamed onto your computer for free, or, in the case of films like recent releases Bheja Fry or Bow Barracks Forever! a download will cost $9.99 and you will be able to watch it over a three-day period. The content is protected, so you can’t burn a copy on DVD. Films can be streamed with English subtitles, and are often available with other language titles too.
As filmgoers in America can attest, we only get a fraction of the releases out any given week in India, and not all of us have the good fortune of legal access to smaller, quirkier films like Bheja Fry until the DVD is released. Even then, that can mean hoping you get one of the few copies at your local DVD rental place or hoping it is a movie Netflix has decided to buy.
Barjatya explains the corporate decision at Rajshri: “There are maybe five audiovisual touchpoints in your life: cinema, television, personal computer, mobile phone, and devices like the Wii/Xbox/PSP. We want to be the company that creates, aggregates and distributes content to all of those. Last year we formed Rajshri Media, our digital entertainment arm, and our aim was to reach out to those third, fourth and fifth screens in your life.”
He speaks of how the company came to a pioneering decision about Vivah last year. After meetings at Nokia in Finland, Barjatya met members of the small Indian community there, and heard they saw the latest movies the day after release, which Barjatya recognized immediately as an example of piracy, as DVDs are only available weeks later. He found himself wondering aloud to the NRI friends he met with on his next stop in the US, “What if we were to offer our next movie, Vivah, for download the same day that it releases in theaters?” and responses were positive.
Barjatya says: “I came back to India and talked to the family. It took me five minutes to convince them that we should release Vivah on the Internet day-and-date of its theatrical release. The logic was very simple: let us reach consumers legally before someone else reaches them illegally.”
In spite of not doing much marketing to promote the Vivah experiment, Rajshri sold over 6,500 downloads to audiences across the globe, from over 60 countries, including Poland, Estonia, Argentina, Chile, South Korea and Taiwan. One consumer in particular caught Barjatya’s attention. “There is one download I’m very proud of,” he explains, “from Togo. It proves Indian cinema has an appeal worldwide and the distribution power of the Internet can help us reach consumers across the globe legally.”
So, what’s in it for Star or ZEE? Why do they give their content to Rajshri’s portal? Barjatya points to two gains: “First,” he says, “˜it’s a new lease on life for that content because they are reaching a new audience, through a new market, through a new distribution platform. Second, additional revenue. Hum Aapke Hain Kaun? has had 408,000 views.”
The portal has caught the eye of India’s Ministry of Tourism, who Barjatya says see the potential for reaching NRIs and non-Indians interested in India, and are making the material from their Incredible !ndia campaign available. India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has already provided a video of Jawarhalal Nehru delivering his historical “Tryst with Destiny” speech.
August 15th, Rajshri launches its Tamil portal, with a film by S. Thanu, perhaps best know as producer of the Rajiv Menon hit Kandukondain Kandukondain. Other languages will follow.
While Rajshri Media in India pursues computer and mobile device consumers, one US-based firm, Saavn, (an acronym for South Asian Audio Visual Network), is making Bollywood movies available to US consumers through cable television’s video-on-demand (VOD) option, as well as online music clips and ringtones for download. Like Barjatya, Saavn’s co-founder and general manager Vin Bhat heard two complaints from consumers: either Hindi movies were only available in far-off theaters or rental stores, or the cinemas were close by, but in very poor condition.
At the same time, cable operators were coming to Saavn, saying that while they weren’t going to launch a South Asian channel themselves, they wanted someone to do a video on demand service on their behalf. Bhat says he was also hearing from producers in India who felt that their content could be better presented to a larger market.
Bhat says Bollywood content isn’t reaching its true potential, not only among South Asians, but also in the secondary market (people from the Middle East, Africa, East Asia) and tertiary market (mass market Americans). Saavn was established with the main goal of acquiring the rights to both movies and music, then packaging the content and setting it up for distribution over a digital media platform (cable video-on-demand, Internet and mobile).
Their catalog contains 600 movies, 200,000 audio tracks, 10,000 music videos, and 3000 ringtones, and is providing unbranded to media companies.
Though today there are 11 million VOD-enabled homes at cable companies Time Warner Cable, Cox, and Rogers (the two latter based in Canada), the start in 2004 was a little bumpy. Bhat says: “TimeWarner Cable knew they had to have a Bollywood offering, but due to technical issues, we’d be up for about 2 months, then down for 2 months, so it wasn’t until November 2006 that you saw a permanent catalog of Bollywood offerings.”
Movies cost $3.95 and can be viewed (but not recorded) for 24 hours. Current offerings on Time Warner Cable include Krrish, Jaan-e-mann, Anthony Kaun Hai, Mixed Doubles, Umrao Jaan, and Bombay to Goa and Khel Khel Mein.
According to Bhat, TimeWarner Cable has told him “we are the second best performing ethnic category behind Hispanic market, which is 50 million people. The South Asian market (not just Indians, but Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, etc) is about 3 million people, an audience that is 1/17th the size of the Spanish-speaking market.”
Currently, Saavn is in 45 different markets, such as New York/New Jersey, Los Angeles, Austin, Raleigh, San Diego and Fairfax, as well as smaller cities like Buffalo, Albany, parts of Minnesota, and Hawaii. As one might suspect, New York/New Jersey is the biggest market, served by three major cable operators: TimeWarner Cable, Cablevision (Saavn expects to launch service with them this Fall), and Comcast (still to come).
If you are not in one of those cities who can receive this video-on-demand, Amazon.com’s Unbox will soon have a Bollywood category, starting with some 30 titles like Rang De Basanti and Bluffmaster. Bhat reports that at Unbox, some movies will be $9.99 to download to own, while some can be rented for $3.95 or $4.95. He estimates this service should be ready in the next two months.
How are Saavn and the Indian content suppliers making money? According to Bhat: “We make it available to the consumer at a certain price and then there’s a revenue split. For example, let’s say Amazon gets 50% of that and we get 50%. For the people who made Rang De Basanti, we’ll pay them a licensing fee of so many thousands for the rights to be able to use their film for VOD and Internet distribution. Depending on what they prefer, we’ll do it on a revenue share basis, we will give a percentage of revenue we get, while others may prefer fixed payments.”
Bhat claims that Yash Raj Films, Adlabs, and Venus are among the companies that have demonstrated interest in working with Saavn.
And just as Naseeruddin Shah may act in Krrish so that he can also afford to act in Parzania, Bhat says that his company is putting together the Saavn Arts VOD package that will include Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt and South Asian diaspora films. “We started with Bollywood because it has a wider reach and will give the cable companies the opportunity to believe in us,” Bhat says, “so we can then try something new and different, like the art house package, with the Bollywood revenue to support it, as it might not generate as much revenue.”
Aside from providing access to movies on your television screen or PC, Saavn also makes music videos available for free on its website Saavn.com, and digital music tracks for download at 99 cents each at iTunes. Bhat says there are approximately 10,000 tracks available right now and by September a full 200,000 should be there for download. In addition to iTunes, Saavn is also providing content to other music services like Napster and Real Network’s Rhapsody.
For many movie fans, beyond the experience of watching the films themselves and the prolonged pleasure of listening to the movie’s songs before and after seeing the film, another progression in the movie experience for many is to have the latest songs as ringtones. Rajjat Barjatya confirms this is another offering Rajshri plans to make in the future.
Meanwhile, through Saavn, Bollywood fans in America can download ringtones from its website. For Verizon subscribers, the company has just signed a deal with Saavn to offer a menu of Bollywood ringtones on a scrollable menu right on your phone itself – a first for any cell phone carrier in this country.
And just as with Rajshri, Bhat says that Saavn was going after the larger content first, and will expand to other offerings, such as Tamil and Telugu, by early 2008.
As Rajjat Barjatya admitted, nothing can replace the cinema-going experience, but these variety of other options, do allow us, devotees of Hindi cinema, to access more of them than before, and in different ways.
As someone based in New York who has seen how spotty cinema releases of the newest movies can be even here, I’m glad to know these choices are available.
Take your pick:
Rajshri.com: Movie, television and documentary downloads to your computer, day-and-date release of new films, exclusive releases online only or first, music videos and clips to watch online.
Saavn: Music videos online, mobile phone downloads, music downloads through iTunes and other sources, video-on-demand available through local cable networks, (coming soon) movies available for download at Amazon Unboxed.
Eros Entertainment: Music and downloads to your computer, mobile phone downloads, subscriptions ($10 per month or $100 per year), music videos and clips to watch online.