INTERVIEW: Pocket Films founder, Saameer Mody

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Launched in 2009, Pocket Films has become a leading distributor and aggregator of short films and documentaries in India, pulling in more than 350 million views across its network of channels on YouTube.

The Mumbai-based company, headed by Saameer Mody, also aggregates content for platforms including Dailymotion and Yahoo and has a weekly TV show, Prime Talkies, broadcast on NDTV Prime and hosted by local fimmaker Nagesh Kukunoor.

In addition to its main Pocket Films channel, the company also operates channels that focus on kids content, video tutorials, shorts acquired from the UK and shorts in south Indian languages. Starting with 500 videos in 2009, it now has a library of 6,300 films.

The company has also moved into production with its own short films and a web series, Hankaar, a dark thriller crowd-funded through Wishberry.

Q: Why did you set up Pocket Films?

A: We wanted to create a platform for up-and-coming talented filmmakers. We saw most of them had made a short film but had no medium or exposure for those films. We decided the best way to promote that talent was to give them a platform where their talent would be seen, and which we could monetise for them, so they could keep on making more films.

Q: How do you split revenue with filmmakers?

A: We have an open and transparent revenue-share model. When we started, there was no model for distributing short films, so we took a calculated risk and said if they give us the content, we would take it and place it on as many platforms as we can, in the process generating revenue that we share with them. The filmmakers receive 37.5% of gross revenues, while we cover all the costs of content encoding, uploading and promotion. There are no deductions whatsoever and we share from the top line.

Q: What is the revenue model for online video platforms in India?

A: It’s currently around 95% AVOD [advertising supported and free to the viewer]. You get a huge volume of views in India, but revenue per view is low, so you may not get the revenue that you’re expecting. But it’s improved in the sense that, there used to be no income at all for these short films, and now there is some income. And we’re getting into deals with some platforms where we supply content on a minimum guarantee basis. So it’s a slow start but it has started.

Q: Do you curate the films and, if so, how do you choose what to take and promote?

A: When we started out, our objective was to give filmmakers a platform to showcase their talent and vision without judging the content. But when we’d built up a certain following after three or four years, we started getting comments from viewers about some films saying this is not what we expect from Pocket Films. We realised we do have some responsibility towards our viewers and put a curation process in place.

We have an in-house content team, who look at each and every film in terms of content, documentation and copyright – whether they’re infringing on anything. But having said that, we don’t want to be the gatekeepers for story-telling. If a film ticks all the boxes and the directors have their own vision – then we’ll put it on the platform.

Q: Is the quality of short filmmaking improving in India?

A: We’ve seen substantial improvements in quality since 2010 – in terms of story-telling, production values and the messages being put across. We’ve been tying up with international film festivals to get international content onto the platform, so our filmmakers can see something new, different and challenging. But definitely the availability of better cameras, cheaper editing software and the overall interest and education level has also helped.

Also India is going aggressively mobile – everyone who is on the go has the bandwidth and the willingness to look at a ten-minute short film. And the younger audience is looking for something different to the repackaged TV shows and films that they usually see on their mobiles. So all that has resulted in a lot of discovery and interest in alternative content – there’s been a huge rise in demand.

Q: How do you handle subtitling in a lingustically diverse country like India?

A: The easiest thing to do is to get the content subtitled in English. But English is not the most common language in India, so we explore a range of options, depending on the content and the specific market where we think it will be most popular. We look at dubbing and subbing into multiple languages, but it’s very much on a case-by-case basis.

Q: And how does censorship affect your platform?

A: In theory, it shouldn’t be an issue if you are distributing content on the internet in India, but in reality we need to find a viable way of ensuring that content is suitable for Indian audiences. Ironically, platforms that are not based in India like Netflix and HOOQ can show content in its original form in India, but companies that are more India-focused have to abide by certain limitations of the Indian legal system.

Q: In the long-term, how do you think digital distribution will benefit Indian filmmakers?

A: India is the largest filmmaking nation in the world – and there is so much talent – but theatrical distribution is economically unviable for independent and short films. Digital is the only way to get visibility and exposure.

The problem to some extent is the mindset of Indian filmmakers who still chase the theatrical dream, even though their film is not the kind of content that will ever get a theatrical release. But as mindsets change and platforms develop, there will be a way for filmmakers to get their content out there. It could also help them globally as international audiences are keen to watch Indian content, but their exposure has been limited to Bollywood films.

Q: Will you eventually move into streaming independent features?

A: We want to focus on our strengths, which is short films and documentaries, but we also have plans to acquire and distribute Indian independent feature films, to give them a global audience. At the same time, we also want to explore global independent films that currently do not see India as a market and give them a platform here.