Team ScriptBox talks about the jigsaw puzzle of writing for the OTT space

While it is widely publicised that only content matters and OTT is encouraging fresh talent, it is not usually the case and there's more to it!

ByY Sunita

Published May 16, 2023 | 1:00 PM Updated May 16, 2023 | 1:00 PM

Sheetal Mahesh Sai Chaitanya of ScriptBox on OTT writing

The growth of digital channels, between 2020-2022, has created a huge demand for content writers, screenwriters, and “script doctors”, those hired to rewrite or otherwise improve an existing script.

This, in turn, has given rise to agencies representing screenwriters who can contribute to story-led smaller films, without them having to rely on big names. These agencies represent writers and freelance script doctors for a decent remuneration.

Studios like Vyjayanthi Movies, Suresh Productions, and Dil Raju’s Sri Venkateswara Creations are known to hire consultants, from time to time.

ScriptBox, led by Sai Chaitanya, Sheetal and Mahesh, is one such agency.

“We hear a lot of ideas. When we find good ones, we help writers understand the potential of their stories and pitch the good ones to producers,” Sai Chaitanya told South First.

The ScriptBox also offers consulting and is willing to be part of a writers’ group or work individually.

“New production houses are yet to realise the value of someone who can oversee screenwriting. We hope to change that,” he said.

This aspiration seems a timely necessity, considering how the credit for the soulful screenplay of a film like Mahanati (2018) deservingly goes to its writer-director Nag Ashwin, along with Samar, the script consultant at Vyjayanthi Movies.

Films Vs web series

But can script consultants contribute to web series?

“Absolute yes,” says Sheetal who earlier worked with Sony LIV.

Poster of Rocket Boys web series

A poster of ‘Rocket Boys’ web series. (Twitter)

“Fundamentally, the approach to visual storytelling is always the same. But when it comes to writing for a film and web series, the approach varies from how you understand the structure and use it to narrate a story. A script doctor contributes a lot to series writing.”

In films, one can conventionally take some time to get to the crux of the story. But in a web series, it almost seems like one landed right in the middle of it.

This means writers need to establish characters’ goals, motives, conflicts and contradictions as early as possible before audiences grab their remote controls to skip to the next scene, or worse, another show.

“Since many writers still approach a series like a film, we don’t have a successful show from South India. That’s why, we believe we have a lot to learn and grasp from the industry-best practices that shaped the success of national and international shows,” Sheetal told South First.

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Structure of web series varies

In Hollywood TV, the oft-used tenet is “write as if you are writing for the next commercial break”. This, along with the five-act structure, has been instrumental in the success of many shows we all know.

But how does that help writing for OTT series and how can we create better shows?

“Structure is just one of the many ways. It is not the twists or fake hooks, but the organic turns in the story that shape a good show. And you get that by creating well-etched characters, exploring various themes, and finding ways to express unique viewpoints and a general understanding of your target audience. All of these can be helpful factors. But there is a lot more to it”, Chaitanya explained.

More writers’ groups

Writing for OTT platforms, a different ball game

Rise in OTT platforms created a huge demand for scriptwriters. (iStock)

Perhaps that’s one reason why more writers are coming together to collaborate and write a series — writers’ groups as they are called.

While writers’ groups have always existed across film industries, only one or two lead writers would get the credit.

OTT platforms ensure that all key writing contributors get their due credits. And platforms like Prime Video and Sony LIV encourage such groups to include at least one woman.

These are all welcome signs, as the small teams in OTT platforms wade through thousands of ideas and pitch decks every month to find mountable shows.

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No solid OTT show from South!

Meanwhile, despite their efforts, OTT platforms from the South face flak, too, for the amount of time they take to approve a show and the quality of their shows, or rather the lack of it.

The Family Man web series

A poster of ‘The Family Man’ web series. (Twitter)

A platform’s need for time is perhaps understandable. After all, even a film approved by a bigshot production house waits for many things to fall in place before it goes to shoot. But the concern about the quality of shows is genuine.

There are hardly any shows from the South where key characters are played by absolute newcomers. And with every other show failing, the decision-makers play safe by returning to established names as writers or showrunners.

Sadly, digital platforms from all across the South can hardly claim a show like Family Man (2019), Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020) or Panchayat (2020), despite having loads of talent, now sought after by the country.

With the easy availability of international shows, the creators of regional series have as little as a few seconds to capture audiences’ attention. Well, it is a tough business!

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Safe game

“When a show fails, the burden shouldn’t necessarily fall on the creators alone. It is the collaborative effort of writers, filmmakers, producers, and platforms,” Sai Chaitanya from ScriptBox explained.

If platforms believe that famous writers or showrunners will magically create great shows with an old-fashioned approach, they need to change their outlook, he felt.

Sheetal concurred with him saying that very few decision-makers in the OTT platforms understand how writing a web show differs from a web series.

A women watching online content on a mobile phone

A woman watching online content on a mobile phone (iStock)

“Either they pick shows because famous production houses present them or famous writers are involved, or they pick an intriguing idea from budding writers, offer superficial feedback and hope that the writers will figure it out,” he pointed out.

In the first case, platforms are worried about targets, deadlines and quantity. And in the second case, either the writers lose patience and run away, or the platforms have had enough and take the show forward anyway.

“In both scenarios, quality takes a severe beating. Ultimately, OTTs must form guidelines, and give useful and implementable feedback that helps writers. Very few platforms can genuinely claim to do that,” Sheetal elucidated.

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Key factors to measure success

The quality of a web series is measured by the number of new subscribers it obtains. This method is random and unhelpful.

Also, some platforms down South publicise web shows using the number of streaming minutes. This again doesn’t guarantee an entertaining show.

delhi crime poster scriptbox

A poster of ‘Delhi Crime’ web series. (Twitter)

“OTT platforms should realise that the falling percentage after the first episode, and the number of viewers retained after every episode are some of the key factors to judge the quality of a show. If 70 percent of those who watched an episode don’t watch the next one, there’s something to ponder about,” Sai Chaitanya quipped.

Perhaps the entire OTT industry, especially from the South, needs a workshop in writing a series. But that’s asking too much from them.

Meanwhile, writers and show producers are left to fend for themselves with their limitations and fears. Script Consultants, perhaps, can be one solution to this jigsaw puzzle of writing for a web show.

And all through this, South audiences, having paid their subscription fees, wait for that one show that stands tall with the likes of Delhi Crime (2019) or Rocket Boys (2022), Pitchers (2015) or Flames (2018).