Redefining the content space: Anand and Amritpal from Still and Still Media Collective
Bang Baaja Baaraat, Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa, Girl in the City; these web series took the Internet by storm reassuring Indian audiences that homegrown content could be as entertaining and engaging as the West. Behind this success is the duo Anand Tiwari and Amritpal Singh Bindra who founded Still and Still Media Collective, a leading content house in 2013. Within four years of inception, the company has expanded and now operates under five verticals – Still and Still Moving Pictures for film production; Still and Still Out of the Box involved in television production, Still and Still Net producing digital content, The Tweakers, a boutique VFX studio and Still and Still Brand Solutions.
Amritpal, a postgraduate in Fine Arts from New York Film Academy, started his journey in the entertainment industry with 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles and worked on popular Hollywood movies like Avatar, Chronicles of Narnia & Love and Other Drugs. It was his love for the Indian film industry that brought Amritpal back to the country where he started working as an Assistant Director with UTV Motion Pictures on projects like No One Killed Jessica and Barfi.
Whereas Anand Tiwari has proved his mettle in the entertainment industry through his acting, be it in movies like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, Go Goa Gone and Udaan, commercials or theatre, where he’s been active since the past 14 years. Tiwari also co-wrote and directed Still and Still Media Collective’s debut web series Bang Baaja Baaraat, which got him the Best Director nomination at the Indian Telly Awards and French Series Mania awards. His debut directorial feature, Love Per Square Foot produced by Amrit in association with Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP will soon hit cinema halls.
To know more about the inception and growth of their brand, Pandolin chats with Anand and Amritpal where they talk about the challenges of competing with international content, the kind of content that drives them personally and how they back their talent.
What led to the inception of Still and Still Media Collective?
Anand: It was Amrit who put the idea of Still and Still Media Collective in my head. We were working as Assistant Directors on Barfi and learning a lot from Anurag Basu. We were clear that we wanted to be filmmakers and not just work as freelance writers and directors. Our learning from the industry was that in order to find a creative voice and have the liberty to work on the content we feel passionate about, we had to start something of our own. It was Amrit who initiated that conversation and got on with the whole concept of Still and Still Media Collective.
Amrit: The ability to have a certain level of autonomy, and be able to tell the kind of stories we wanted to, was only possible if we took charge of our own destiny. Although we were learning under the guidance of Anurag, and the corporate experience of working at UTV was great, but the early learning was that if one really wanted to do content at a scalable level, it had to be done under a more entrepreneurial journey. Anand was the obvious choice as we really got along well on the sets of Barfi and had a strong aesthetic connect in terms of our sensibilities, an important aspect for a partnership. Post that, the journey has been natural and organic where we have grown together, learned together and made mistakes together. It has been a fun ride.
Both of you had worked behind the camera and Anand, you have worked in front of it as well, how has that experience helped when you’ll combined forces?
Anand: Amrit’s experience of working at Fox Studios in L.A. helped us in terms of how to go about formulating a company in an organized and corporate way. We did not look at this as a side business; we went in with all our heart.
Amrit: Since I had come from abroad and had limited work experience in India before starting this company, I didn’t have too many contacts. The resource pool that Anand brought with him was of immense value to begin with. He brought in a lot of our early work.
However, more than two people individually bringing in their strengths to form a company, the synergy multiplied into a couple of folds when we came in together. At the core of it, we are passionate storytellers and everything else is an additional skill-set that one has either learnt or developed. For instance, neither Anand nor me had come from a production background but today we are producing content, that’s something we learnt along the way.
Anand: Initially, it was just Amrit and I sitting in our living rooms, working off our laptops but today we work with writers, directors, a production team, a web team, that develop ideas on a daily basis. We have learnt how to manage a workforce. When we started, our content revolved around what we wanted to say but today we proudly have a team of people and Still and Still Media Collective has become a platform for their voices as well.
In order to find a creative voice and have the liberty to work on the content we feel passionate about, we had to start something of our own
What would you say is the vision of Still and Still Media Collective? How do you plan to stand out of the clutter?
Amrit: We are fundamentally a media company and not a production house. I would attribute our vision to three main things, creating high quality content across media to reach the largest possible audiences. In the next 5 years, we want to become a creative hub, a place where talent wants to work; be it writers, directors, musicians, choreographers. Technology is the third component that we are very excited about. In the near future, purely being a content company won’t be good enough and therefore technology will play an integral part in what we do. We have already taken a small step towards this by starting a small VFX boutique studio in-house called ‘The Tweakers’.
Anand: All the three things that Amrit has spoken about serve the same end, so we are looking at three components that provide a consumer with great content. With the ever-evolving technology, there will be newer formats and media so we don’t want to bottle ourselves as just a film or television or web-series production house. We are looking at the smallest of mediums as far as its reach or limit is concerned to the largest format and treating both with great amount of respect. Fifty years down the line, when we are living in a completely different world, the vision remains the same because Still and Still Media Collective is talking to its audience through whatever medium is available at that particular point of time.
How do you look at promoting fresh talent through your projects?
Amrit: The creativity in our work is showcased through talent whether it is directors, actors, writers. We build a talent pool to sustain and it is at the core of what we do. In fact, we have been contemplating about potentially getting into the talent management space, probably in the near future. We are very grateful to the Mithila Palkars (Girl in the City) and Angira Dhars (Bang Baaja Baaraat) of the world who have come into our lives. We see immense opportunity with these people and really think that talent is a cool and vibrant space to get into.
Anand: We back talent and have even had fights with a lot of platforms we work with in terms of supporting them (the talent) beyond the norms that are out there. We have stuck our neck out for a lot of them and are happy to say that they have come through and become stars in their own right. I feel even actors now are smart enough to understand that some of the greatest content is happening on the web front and they aren’t shying away from it anymore. We are in a good place because we have access to a great amount of talent and we will always be brave with our casting choices.
Five verticals in four years, which vertical did you start with and how did you go about diversifying?
Amrit: It has all evolved over time. Bang Baaja Baaraat was the first big project that Anand directed and we co-wrote and produced. That was like a starting point and then films, television and the boutique VFX studio followed suit. Achieving our vision would not be possible if we weren’t doing all these things. We wanted to dabble across all mediums and create high quality content across the board, so the strategy has evolved according to that. As time goes by, there might be more verticals or some verticals might get consolidated into one and we are open to that. With changing times, we are constantly relooking at the company strategy but in essence, it is an evolution of the vision of the company.
The audience has become very impatient and today’s generation is constantly looking for instant gratification
Today’s audience has access to shows on Netflix, Amazon and the lot. Is it challenging to create engaging content which is at par with the West?
Amrit: It is very challenging. The West has set up high benchmarks that we are always pegged against. The audience has become very impatient and today’s generation is constantly looking for instant gratification. Consumer trends that would earlier change every five years are now changing every five weeks. The challenge of being relevant is not only across a decade or two; it’s across each day and month.
On the digital front, we spend hours talking about what the first 10 seconds of a content piece should be, which is crazy because traditionally, in films, you always said that you have to hook the audience in the first 10 minutes. So it is really challenging but also exciting at the same time and that’s where the opportunity lies. It forces you to constantly innovate, think out of the box, be creative as opposed to trying to rest your laurels on any formula or previously successful show. Girl in the City is an example of this because it came at a time when all the content available digitally in India, homegrown or acquired, was slightly edgy involving sex, drugs or high on concept and then came this show which was very slice of life, a journey of a girl, the first female protagonist show; it defied a lot of trends and worked, so that was a great learning.
Anand: And we realized this pretty early on. When we wrote Bang Baaja Baaraat a lot of people were not confident about audiences watching a show about marriage where the family played about 60 to 80% of the actual drama. It didn’t revolve around youth, college kids or IT employees. We did Official Chukyagiri, a dramedy where drama was more of a focus, when everybody around was just doing comedy. So at no stage did we let the trends of the market determine what we are doing. We have always worked on content that we believe in and if it appealed to us, we were sure that it would appeal to the crowd that we were talking to. We have a great amount of respect for the people who are out there and we don’t see them as sample sizes. We don’t put audiences into age groups and demographic brackets; as long as you concentrate on creating content and be respectful to it, you have the chances of creating something that people will watch.
Bang Baaja Baaraat garnered a good response, how important was its success for the Collective? What do you think worked in its favor?
Anand: Bang Baaja Baaraat was very honest with its storytelling; I don’t think people predicted that kind of entertainment on the Internet. When the trailer came out, a lot of people thought it was a film. At that time, the expectations from a web series and its production value were very less. BBB changed that completely and now we see series with good production value. It was not like we wanted to shine our way through the story; it was the demand of the show.
Amrit: At the base of it, it’s good content. All this data and Google analytics are great to have as guiding forces but the truth is, even if we look at the Netflix or Amazon revolution, the shows that became really iconic defied the analytics and the storytelling method that one thought was the way forward.
You’ll also created India’s first sex education web series, Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa. What was that journey like?
Anand: It has been amazing, we have had sexologists and child psychologists walk up to us at various places and thank us for making this series because they see this problem on a daily basis, where parents find it difficult to talk to their children about sex. The series was dubbed into various languages; it has had a far-reaching effect on the community out there. We used humor so that it was accessible and we didn’t want to make it uncomfortable for parents; it was done with a great amount of responsibility.
Amrit: Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa is also satisfying because it got a conversation started, that is another thing we aim to do with a lot of our content. In spite of trying to make everything entertaining and engaging, one of our core values is to create content that can have an impact. The success measure of that value addition is tough to quantify and put into numbers. It’s a very gratifying experience.
Today good stories are coming back, we are moving away from genre specificity in all formats
Personally, what kind of content are you’ll driven by? Is there any particular genre you enjoy watching?
Anand: We are not genre specific at all and watch everything from musicals to comedy, thrillers, drama, politics et all. We get a little scared of horror but that’s one genre we want to master as makers, so we are slowly trying to watch some horror and get absolutely scared (laughs). That is one genre we would like to explore on the digital platform.
Amrit: Today good stories are coming back, we are moving away from genre specificity in all formats. When we started the digital journey three years ago, whoever we met, including OTT platforms, were very specific about the kind of content they wanted to make, but today the audiences are far more accepting. We are moving into a space where if there is any good story to be told, in any genre or format, it will find its place.
When it comes to a script, for any format, what is the criteria?
Anand: A well told story is the most important criteria; we are not genre or language specific. We have been talking to quiet a few people across languages and formats. So as long as we feel that the story is told well, we are there to back it.
Amrit: We are the best place for people to tell those slightly brave and untold stories and that is really something that excites us. The attempt is to tell stories that are unique, different, potentially high concept in nature and have not found their calling.
Coming to your next film, Love Per Square Foot, how did the association with Ronnie Screwvala’s production house come along?
Amrit: Anand went and narrated the script to Ronnie and his team, they loved the narration and he was very clear that he wanted to sign us on and do the movie with us. Actually it was a pretty smooth, free flowing process.
Anand: Yeah, surprisingly smooth because that is not how every association in this industry pans out. We did not expect a green light right away but we literally got a go ahead in no time from Ronnie and that speaks about his clarity of thought, of how he backs ideas that he likes. There is no procrastination. We are learning everyday from him. Also, we are lucky as we are his first production and are getting to work very closely with him and his team.
We are the best place for people to tell those slightly brave and untold stories
What are the projects lined for the future at Still and Still Media Collective?
Amrit: From a content space, there is a lot of exciting stuff happening, there is an Amazon show, two other movies and they will all get announced at the right time. You will see a lot of interesting content across stories, genres, media; we are working with a lot of people, new young talent. We are trying to make a robust business of this company, these verticals and move towards our dream of becoming a media conglomerate in the near future.
Anand: We are soon going to create content for ourselves. Right now we are working with various partners, learning so much from them but eventually we want to start creating content for ourselves, be it on a digital front or other fronts.