T-Series Chairman and MD, Bhushan Kumar, has every reason to smile. His latest release Kabir Singh has become the highest grossing film of 2019 with a box office collection of Rs 246 crore so far. A euphoric Kumar has already hosted two parties to celebrate the success. His earlier co-production Salman Khan-starrer Bharat also raked in an impressive Rs 207 crore revenues. Earlier this year, T-series also became the world's largest YouTube channel. Kumar's next move would be to rule the digital space not just through music content, but also by creating web series for various digital entertainment platforms. He plans to make at least three web series a year, which he says will be an extension of the 15-20 odd films he produces every year. The industry, however, cautions that making web series need different sensibilities and will not work if it is treated like a film. "Films are a reflection of one's value system, but on digital platforms, consumers look out for realistic content. They want to see facts, which they know, are real but don't want to accept. The way scenes are framed and shots are taken is different. T-series first needs to create a digital ecosystem by investing in the right kind of writers who will write the right kind of stories, else it will fail," explains entertainment industry specialist and author Ashish Kaul. In an interview with Ajita Shashidhar and Avirat Parekh, Kumar talks about his digital ambitions. Edited excerpts:
Business Today: T-series is the world's largest YouTube channel today. Did you ever expect this kind of a success in the digital space?
Bhushan Kumar: We never imagined digital would become so big. When we forayed into the digital space in 2011, not just me but the entire music industry thought we should try out digital as physical sales of DVDs was dipping. I thought that by being on digital, it will help me grow my physical sales of music. Also, at that time there were lot of sites which were picking up our music and calling it user-generated content. I thought by having a digital presence, I will be able to curtail piracy, I had no idea how the revenue model will work. Physical sales has completely stopped, we are dependent on online platforms like YouTube, Gaana and Spotify. We have revenue sharing deals with all of them. The advantage of digital is that I can release my music instantly across the world. Earlier, it used to take 6-7 days even 10 days for my music to reach all over the world.
Digital is a fairly new business for you. Did you unlearn a lot in order to adapt yourself to the new medium?
Not really. The digital customer has not changed. Even an autowallah is surfing on YouTube and other platforms because data prices are so cheap and you also get unlimited packages for a year. Nothing really has changed as the music that used to be composed then is also being composed now. A song should have good lyrics and good melody. That's what we concentrated on earlier and that's what we are concentrating on now. But, we now get feedback through comments. Earlier, the only indication was the number of cassettes that we sold. That's how we understood whether the song worked or not. Today we get thousands of comments on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. That's how we know whether they are liking the song or not. These comments are helping us make songs as per the taste of the audience. Digital platforms give us immediate response.
Sweedish YouTuber PewDiePie had kicked off a series of campaigns against you when you dethroned him to become the most watched channel on YouTube. Were you perturbed by it?
It was an unnecessary thing, which started from his side. We reacted by not saying anything against him when he was saying many things against our company and our country. We were a little paranoid initially. We launched a campaign 'Bharat Wins' on YouTube. They were hacking Google accounts and were forcing people to subscribe to PewDiePie. We knew it will die out and it did. It is still stuck at 9.7 crore and we are now close to 10.5 crore subscribers roughly on YouTube. Actually, there is no competition between us and PewDiePie. According to me, PewDiePie is the number one independent creator on YouTube and we are a company. Even today we get so many comments that read 'subscribe to PewDiePie' on our channel. You can't stop people on social media.
Are you getting into the web series space also?
Yes, we are.
But, web series creation need a different sense of creative sensibilities ...
I am into two things - music and movie-making. Digital is an extension of music and movies. We are already making films, so the idea is to make web series too. After all, a web series is the same film divided into eight episodes. Today, there is an audience for digital consumption and people are consuming films on digital platforms. The business model here is that it's coming straight on digital platforms. We are doing two-three digital films.
How many web series are you looking at in a year?
I have targeted that I should do maximum of three web series and three web movies in a year.
Are web series/films more profitable than films?
In a web series you get a fixed profit, which a platform gives you. It varies from 10-20 per cent.
How much do you see the digital side of the business contributing to your business?
Almost 60 per cent of our revenues come from music, which is completely digital.
How has life for a content maker changed after all these OTT platforms have come in?
OTT platforms are like a safety net. You know there are platforms, which will buy your content. We also have relationships and partnerships that make our business very comfortable.
Has your dependence on the box-office reduced post the advent of OTT platforms?
No, box office is the key. Today, to make money and to get good numbers you still need box office support. You can't make a film and take everything from a digital platform and just sit at home.
Has the revenue from satellite channels reduced for film-makers?
Satellite revenue is still big. TV isn't growing at that rate but there still exists enough scope for penetration to support the same.
How does the revenue break-up look like when you make the film?
It varies from film to film. We earned 20 per cent revenues from the digital platform for Kabir Singh and 80 per cent from the box-office. For some, the ratio is 50:50, while for others 70:30. There is no thumb rule formula.
Do you have ambitions of owning your own platform?
It's not my business. I don't want to wear a shoe that won't fit me. Many other companies have got into the platform business and failed miserably.