Three ex-bankers win Netflix backing to conquer India's Bollywood

Local studio Pocket Aces offers fresh storylines on mobile phones as global giants try to muscle in.

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    India has become a battleground for global streaming giants but digital startup Pocket Aces has won a deal to stream its best work on Netflix [Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg]
    India has become a battleground for global streaming giants but digital startup Pocket Aces has won a deal to stream its best work on Netflix [Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg]

    A tiny digital studio is making a name for itself in the world’s most prolific movie industry, scoring funding from a marquee Silicon Valley investor right after nailing a deal to stream its most popular show on Netflix.

    Pocket Aces Pvt has raised $14.7 million from Sequoia Capital, DSP Group, 3one4 Capital and others to bankroll content aimed at pushing Indian shows beyond hackneyed Bollywood formulas -- like “saas-bahu” or mother-in-law versus daughter-in-law dramas. It’s one of a band of startups moving away from familiar staples to try and hook an exploding population of mobile viewers. Pocket Aces plans to use the funds to get into gaming content, make strategic acquisitions and boost production to 30 shows a year from the current dozen.

    India has become a battleground for global streaming giants from Netflix Inc. to Amazon.com Inc. and Walt Disney Co.-owned Hotstar. They’re drawn by a market that could hit 829 million smartphone users by 2022, compared with about half a billion now, according to Cisco Systems Inc. estimates, many of them first-time Internet users consuming entertainment via their mobiles.

    Last week, Netflix raised the stakes, announcing one of the world’s cheapest streaming subscriptions: an under-$3 monthly mobile-only plan for India. On Monday, two of its leading homegrown streaming rivals -- ALTBalaji and ZEE5 -- announced they were joining hands to create more than 60 original shows, share audience insights and grow subscriptions.

    The Mumbai-based, 145-person Pocket Aces uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to test genres, actors and plot lines in pilots before spinning them into longer shows for streaming platforms, social media channels and its own apps. "Our shows garner 500 million views per month and we aim to hit 1 billion monthly views by 2020," said co-founder Aditi Shrivastava.

    The business was conceived out of dorm-room conversations between co-founders Anirudh Pandita, 34, and Ashwin Suresh, 35. From engineering undergraduates at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the pair went on to work on Wall Street before starting their company in 2014. They were joined later by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. alum Shrivastava, now married to Suresh. Pocket Aces’ first show was launched in 2015.

    Unlike studios tied to traditional distribution channels, Pocket Aces focuses on mobile consumers and syndicates content to a variety of companies, from Emirates Airline to ride-hailing service Ola and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s video-streaming service Youku Tudou.

    It has several originals lined up for Amazon and Hotstar in India and recently signed a global deal to create several shows for Netflix. It’s negotiating with multiple Hollywood production companies to create content. The firm’s average employee age is 23.

    “Most studios still suffer from the HIPPO effect,” said Suresh, invoking the acronym for highest-paid person’s opinion or a tendency to defer to the most senior decision-maker. “Ours is decentralized and very data-driven.”

    Pranav Pai, managing partner at venture backer 3one4 Capital, calls the startup’s approach a “data-driven, continuous feedback loop” that helps improve stories and production.

    That has allowed Pocket Aces to steer clear of the clubby Bollywood scene populated by the offspring and relatives of established actors, producers and directors. Pocket Aces crunches data to gauge the popularity of actors, who then get cast in bigger shows. “We don’t have people sitting in a room taking decisions,” Pandita added.

    Pocket Aces’ content tends to avoid the hero-always-wins happy-endings favored by big-budget Bollywood films, or the slower-moving plots of Indian television’s family dramas. “Young people have moved on,” Suresh said.

    The startup’s most successful show is Little Things, which follows an unmarried couple as they navigate emotional upheavals, career trauma and personal aspirations in fast-paced Mumbai. It started off as a short video but went on to become a multi-episode series and is now streamed worldwide on Netflix to audiences from Turkey to Latin America.

    Ananya Ivaturi, an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is an ardent fan. "It’s a modern take on a cute relationship," said Ivaturi, 19. "Most of the family dramas on TV are exaggerated and irrelevant to the younger audience. They have regressive portrayals of women."

    Pocket Aces subtly delves into subjects such as homosexuality, cohabiting outside of marriage and divorce. In a show called What the Folks, the protagonists -- a young couple -- debate onscreen whether or not to have children, unheard-of in most Indian families. In Adulting, about two young women traversing relationship and financial crises, the characters discuss what lines can be crossed in an office romance.

    “There is a great hunger for good content,” Pandita said.

    SOURCE: Bloomberg