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Tolly’s global connect

You started your business with a credit card loan and in 12 years you are heading one of the leading e-commerce companies in the world. So why this turn to distributing movies worldwide? Is it worth your money, time and effort?

Well, you are to blame for it for a large part! During the making of your film Dwando, I realised that there existed this gap between production cost and revenue for most Bengali films. And yet there was this huge untapped market of Non-resident Bengalis worldwide who were hungry to watch the latest and the best. Databazaar Media was conceived to bridge that gap and be an additional source of revenue for producers. I have reached a stage in my business career where I don’t think in terms of ‘worth my money and effort’ as long as I can see a business model come to fruition.

What is your vision for Databazaar Media Ventures?

There is a tectonic shift taking place worldwide in how people watch movies and TV. Consumers want viewing to be more convenient. People want movies and TV shows to start at a time that is convenient to their schedules. People also want the freedom to be able to watch on whatever screen is most convenient for them, be it a smartphone, a tablet, a PC or a TV. IPTV channels like Databazaar Media are providing exactly that — ‘TV anywhere’. My hope is to see Databazaar Media continue being the dominant player in providing the best of Bengali and other content to Indians worldwide — anytime, any device, anywhere.

Bengali is the most spoken language in the world. There are more than half a million Bengalis in the US and Canada. I am leaving aside the UK and Australia where Databazaar has recently launched. Even if you can capture 5 per cent of the market, it will end the resource constraint in Bengal.

You are absolutely on the mark with that calculation. And the day is not far away when that will come true. And not just feature films, short films, indie films and non-film content will also find a great and universal monetisation platform.

Ever since I started my career in Tollywood, people would ask me why I couldn’t help create a market for Bengali movies in the US as I live there. Well, I have very little business sense but now I know who I can point to. How do you think the Tollywood industry has cooperated with you?

I have been extremely fortunate to have the friendship and support of many key figures of the Bengali film industry. Their passion to see Bengali cinema spread overseas has played a key part in our success. I have had my share of naysayers and critics too. But to those who still are not convinced of our model, I take great pains to explain that it is not about me or Databazaar Media, it is about adapting their business to future trends that are inevitable.

Bengalis in the US always say that Bengali movies are not as good as they used to be... that irks me a lot. They seem to be stuck in the Uttam-Soumitra days. I wish to ask them if they have watched Autograph or Bhooter Bhobishyot. They are equally path-breaking and such new talent is a fresh infusion in Bengali films. Do you think you can break into that mindset?

I think we already have. I think one of the biggest things Databazaar Media has achieved is to get overseas Bengalis involved and enthused about Bengali movies again. By simply making it available for viewing easily and inexpensively. Without having to wait for months to see the latest movies and without resorting to piracy. I think they are connected once again and are beginning to appreciate the good work being done in Tollywood.

But you see there is hardly any quality control over the films you acquire. Isn’t there a possibility that they see some very bad films and form their opinion on the quality of current films? It might permanently turn them away from Bengali films.

We realised early on from customer reaction that it is hard for us to decide which movie is good and which is bad. It is totally subjective. More importantly, IPTV channels such as Netflix and ours are akin to a library — come and watch what you want and decide for yourself. Unlike broadcast channels, we are not pushing anything down your throat. It is a very democratic platform. Every producer gets a fair shot at having his content available globally.

A section of producers in Bengal allege that the money they get is not enough. What do you have to say to that?

I want to ask them if they remember about the evolution of satellite rights as a source of revenue — from paltry sums to crores today. It is the same with any new viewing source, the revenue grows as the base increases. In about 18 months, 60-plus content owners have earned over 200,000 USD. We have already started incorporating substantial minimum guarantees in our contracts. Frankly, it is now up to the producers how fast they want to see this medium grow. Holding back movies from this medium certainly will not help that growth.

Also, there is an allegation that if you give your movie to Databazaar it will be pirated easily. Is it true?

Our business model strikes piracy at its root — by taking away the motivation to pirate. Let me ask you Suman, would you bother to watch a Bengali movie in 10 parts in poor quality on Torrent if you could watch it in HD as part of an unlimited subscription on a device of your choice? As a producer, would you rather have a rights owner fighting and protecting your IP in foreign territories by spending huge sums, or would you let your product get pirated freely? These are the first two questions I would ask of those who accuse without reason. Many producers have experienced first-hand how we proactively prevented or stopped piracy of their films.

What if other competitors emerge to distribute Bengali films? Do you use unfair practices to preserve monopoly?

I am yet to see unfair practices be a sustainable solution. Ideas and technology are going to define dominance. I have been an early-stage investor in the technology companies behind these IPTV channels. That and our first-mover advantage certainly give us an edge. The fact that we are based out of Miami gives us a geographical vantage point. For example, we are taking an active part in the film festivals at the North American Banga Sammelan in Toronto in 2013 and Orlando in 2014. Plans are on for a Bengali film festival in Miami next year. This helps us market to thousands of Bengalis at one go. What gives me great satisfaction is that whether we win or lose, Bengali cinema and its consumers will surely win with the advent of this new media.