Navigating India’s Scripted Formats Sector

With a second season of an Indian adaptation of Ray Donovan in the works, Locomotive Global’s Sunder Aaron talks to TV Formats about getting international scripted hits remade in the country.

The streaming wars have been transformative for producers of scripted content in India. “This industry, of premium scripted drama, is only about five or six years old in India,” says Sunder Aaron, a former Sony Pictures Television executive who co-founded Locomotive Global in 2013 to tap into the healthy appetite for new content from the wealth of streamers, local and international, seeking to grow their businesses in India. “Before that, any writer was trying to write for either Hindi cinema or Indian television. All the writers now have a different outlet for their skills. Film is a director’s medium. Premium scripted drama is a writer’s medium. We saw the writers getting more respect, more attention, more value. A lot of those writers became showrunners.”

While working to develop locally resonant stories that will also appeal globally, Aaron and his team have also been acquiring scripted formats from the international market, turning Showtime’s Ray Donovan into Rana Naidu on Netflix. “It was our foray to working with big South Indian stars,” says Aaron of the show, which rolled out on Netflix last year.

Locomotive, a division of Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment (CSSE) since 2021, has optioned two other scripted formats that it is currently developing for India. “They give you the structure, characters and the story arcs as a beginning point,” Aaron says. “The drawback, obviously, is they’re expensive, especially the premium, blue-chip ones. Platforms are rationalizing their businesses now. Now that they have to look at the economics and that additional cost, format licensing is tough. But studios and IP owners are reasonable and more and more flexible.”

Scripted format licensing deals are a challenge, Aaron concedes, with platforms wanting local shows as well as global rights. IP owners may have to “break a lot of old ideas of rights and restrictions,” Aaron says. “People are up for new, interesting models now.”

As for what he looks for in projects that could be remade in India, Aaron notes that crime thrillers with a family hook continue to be in demand at the streamers, but he’s also keen to pursue other genres, including lighthearted drama and comedies. “Our production values are very high, and our production costs are anywhere from a fifth to a tenth of a similar production in North America or the U.K. Some genres just haven’t landed yet. There is a latent demand for horror, but nobody has tapped it yet. Same with science fiction. It’s chicken and egg. No one has done well with it because nobody’s really gone for it. Nobody’s gone for it because nobody’s done well with it.”

Aaron is also championing breakthrough ideas developed locally, noting that India has the potential to develop stories that can resonate globally, as countries like Turkey, Korea and Israel have done. “Getting to the point where we’re creating our own original content that itself can get licensed or format licensed is exciting,” Aaron says. “When we develop something that’s original, we’re keeping that in mind. And we’re talking to professionals in our industry that have that ability to take something and help us to spread it around the world. That is the game we want to play in.”

India’s production incentives could help the country expand its presence in the international scripted co-production landscape. “If I do a co-production and the financing is coming from abroad, I can get significant rebates—up to 30 to 40 percent. We already have low production costs. When you add this rebate on top of it, it’s pretty significant. Take a show that costs $500,000 an episode to make in India—and that’s a pretty good budget in India—and you do ten episodes. If you can get 30 percent of that back, you’re talking $3 million to $4 million to make this whole series. If you write it and produce it in such a way that it is going to appeal to global audiences, you’ve got a winning formula. We try to work with showrunners that have that capability to deliver something that will appeal to Indian viewers, but also can have that appeal globally.”