Taiwanese streaming platform Catchplay has unveiled a new production subsidiary, Screenworks Asia, with six projects already in development by end August and plans to produce 100 hours a year of mini-series, movies and factual entertainment for audiences across Asia and the rest of the world. CEO Daphne Yang talks about the company’s evolution, development and direction.
What is behind Catchplay’s shift into Screenworks Asia? “It is quite a milestone for us, but it’s actually not a sudden decision or shift. If you look at what we’ve done in the past couple of years, we started from distribution and from there was more of a natural evolution. When you’re in distribution and you go to these film markets and you go through a bidding process and you find that the minimum guarantees that you have to pay for certain markets goes crazy... For some projects, just for one country or one territory, it could go up to US$1 million or US$2 million. I started thinking that with that amount of money, wouldn’t it be nice if I could invest in some content that I truly feel I could control from the very beginning. We wanted to try so we went into co-production and financing deals with Hollywood. We did the Revenant, Assassin’s Creed by New Regency and then we did Twenty Once Again with CJ entertainment. And so it’s a very natural evolution.
"A couple of years ago we also found that our film library had not been monetised enough and we wanted to try to see what we could do with the library and with all the rights we’ve acquired – 2,000 titles from 10 years. What could we do after theatrical and then home video? So we decided that we needed to do more in digital, and licensing it to all the digital platforms just doesn’t really do it as well. So we set up our digital platform and then when you have a digital platform, you start to realise you need sticky content and films are not the kind of sticky content that can get people to come back and watch a few hours every day. So we needed drama series and we ventured into drama series last year. We did The World Between Us with WarnerMedia and then we did The Making of An Ordinary Woman.
Last year we talked to TAICCA, the Taiwan Creative Content Agency which was just established by the Ministry of Culture and they really wanted us to explore this.They trust our capabilities to handle projects at these scales. So we proposed the idea to them and then we came to a very good agreement. After nine months, the venture was approved.
At the same time, we were working on six projects, because we didn’t want to wait. Finally, in late July, we were very happy to be able to announce the establishment of Screenworks Asia, which will be focusing 100% on original content production.”
How does your funding work? “When you want to step into production, I think what’s really important is risk management because we don’t want to do it in a style where it’s like a gamble for a lot of people, you believe in something so much that you just invest the money in there without knowing how to recoup. We wanted to do it in a different style. To us partnership is always the best way. So we talked to TAICCA, which is specifically set up to fund content or creative initiatives that can leverage Taiwanese IP or talents. We came to a conclusion of a 51% investment from Catchplay and 49% from TAICCA. Altogether looking to at least kickstart six to 10 projects in the next two years first, and hopefully after that, it’s self-sustaining. The projects have to be able to make money to fund the next projects.”
What’s the best-case scenario? “We hope to be able to establish a self-sustainable platform for good storytelling. It has to be able to create good stories in the sense that it makes people cry, makes people laugh and makes people think. At the minimum, they would appreciate the content because people’s time is the most precious thing now. You have so much to watch... We don’t want to create a number of hours just for the sake of number of hours. It has to be good storytelling to start with and we trust good teams because good stories told or produced by mediocre teams are probably not as good... we believe in execution. So there's that and also we hope that it’s not just a good story, it’s also a commercially sustainable way of doing business. We focus a lot on pre-selling co-production. We want something that can be discussed very early on, even at just the concept. We talked to our partners; co-production partners or potential partners on what they think about a project, whether it will work for their market, especially international partners and also we hope that it will be able to generate profits and in the best-case scenario, hopefully be able to recoup 60% even before the principal photography starts.That’s the discipline or the hope that we have for this company.”
What are the first projects you rolled into Screenworks? “While we were discussing with TAICCA about the incorporation of this joint venture, we were also talking to producers and talent in the market. At the moment it’s mostly from Taiwan, some from China and some from Hong Kong as well.
There are two projects I want to mention; both have already started shooting.The first one is a Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production, Mystify in Dust, a 15-part crime thriller brought to us by ViuTV in Hong Kong. The entire production is shot in Taiwan, with a producer and director from Taiwan, and a top cast from Taiwan.We like how it’s structured, we think the production budget is sensible. We like the crew and so we just said 'let’s start with this’.
The second one, a co-production with CTS in Taiwan, is the second season of The Making of An Ordinary Woman. Season one was rated probably the second strongest Mandarin-language show last year. Catchplay was very proud to be able to present it as an exclusive content on our platform in Taiwan in 2019. The show won eight Golden Bell nominations... we’re very glad to be able to convince the director and the producer and all the cast to come back and do the second season.
There are four other projects in earlier stages. We probably will start shooting in 2021. One is a sci-fi project, which is quite a big adventure. And then some factual entertainment as well, in English and also Mandarin. We want to try and see what we can do in the field of high-quality premium factual entertainment for the new generation, Millennials or Generation Z.
We also have two films in the scripting stage. One is a crime drama and another is a love story for Generation Z.
So that’s about all the six projects. It’s quite a big variety of genres ranges from budget of about US$100,000 per hour to about US$300,000 per hour for drama series and factual entertainment. But for films we are looking specifically at the moment at between US$1 million and US$5 million as the total production budget.”
Taiwan is not known for being able to produce premium sci-fi. So what gives you the confidence to be a trailblazer in the space? “I’m a sci-fi fan. I know what a good sci-fi looks like but that’s not the main reason. The main reason is we found a team that has done something similar. We think they are the closest to be able to pull it off and the story is fantastic. The script is now being written and hopefully we’ll be able to find co-production partners who can come in and add value to it and try to bring it to a bigger scale if possible and it’s not specifically for the Taiwanese audience. It is something that we think will be able to travel and that’s why we think we need bigger partners.”
You mentioned co-production partners, like HBO Asia, ViuTV in Hong Kong. How broadly are you looking for co-production partners and will most of your productions be made in Taiwan? “We are looking at co-production partners from everywhere in the world. There’s one IP from France; it’s a great story that we would be able to remake in Mandarin and try to find a co-production partner somewhere in Southeast Asia. The projects that we’re doing don’t necessarily have to be shot in Taiwan, but because of our JV with TAICCA, we want to have some leverage of Taiwanese talent or Taiwanese IP if possible.
"If project don't work for Screenworks Asia, we can still do them through Catchplay... For example at the moment, we have a co-production film project with CJ in Thailand and for the market of Thailand to start with and Southeast Asia. It doesn’t use any Taiwanese talents or Taiwanese money, it’s a Catchplay project rather than a Screenworks project.”
Would you be willing to invest in somebody else’s production as a pure investment partner? “We would, but I think we would look at the strategic value for us. We don’t do just pure financial investments. We would look at the story and see if there’s an opportunity where we can either bring to Taiwan to distribute, you know, theatrically or on the platform or take it to our platform across Southeast Asia if possible. And so there’s that and also see if that IP is worth a remake in different versions. That’s something that we are looking for as well. But probably not pure financial investments.”
How does Screenworks operate in relation to Catchplay the platform? Is everything Screenworks makes headed for Catchplay first? “Obviously we set up Screenworks so that we can somehow leverage or try to create some synergy. Otherwise, we don’t need to do it but we’ll be glad if Screenworks can produce enough hours of quality content that can premiere on Catchplay the platform first. If it’s a movie. then of course the Catchplay distribution team would handle it and try to distribute it in theatres in Taiwan or in Asia or work with partners in Asia and try to maximise the value of it. We probably would keep it for certain exclusive window, but it doesn’t mean that there is no license fee involved. Catchplay still needs to pay Screenworks Asia a certain amount of reasonable licence fee in order to secure the, say the first window, but if you look at what we’ve done before even with HBO Asia, for example, we welcome co-premieres in order to create more success or a bigger scale of impact for the content. So I would say in comparison we’re not Netflix. We don’t just keep everything to ourselves and use content as a tool just to create a success of the platform. It’s not the case for us. We want the content to be successful first. Although at the moment, our platform is probably not as big so that’s why we would look into even working with other platforms at the same time to do co premieres. So more people get to watch it or get to be able to see even on TV.”
What is your originals plan for Indonesia? And where is Indonesia in terms of priorities as a business for you? “Indonesia is paramount. It’s really important for us. We started the journey four years ago. We are very very thankful for all the partners that we have there who are supporting us and I think we did a good decision a couple of years ago. When everybody was talking about mobile first, we didn’t believe that. Mobile is... not where all the value is, it’s not where people pay for premium content. So we switched very quickly. We tried something on mobile, but then we switched very quickly to big screens. So all our major partners in Indonesia at the moment are mainly big-screen partners and through our deep relationships, we’re now seeing very good take up and very good pay rate from all the sub base that we have in Indonesia mainly from big screens. Because of this, I think Screenworks Asia is something that we would start from maybe focusing on something that’s related to Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean that we exclude the possibilities of working with Indonesia. We did start a few conversations with some Indonesian producers and hopefully this Covid situation doesn’t stop us from talking more and to try to see if we can really embark on some co-production and even production projects in Indonesia. We did acquire the movie Bebas. That was a pure Indonesian production to be exclusive content on Catchplay in Indonesia. Before Bebas, there were a few other films that we acquired exclusive rights to but I think it’s probably time that we go a little bit deeper and look into co-production opportunities.”
Because of all the competition in Indonesia, have you found it’s more difficult to acquire films and IP? “A lot of OTT platforms really believe in local content to the extent that they are giving quite unreasonable offers and creating unnecessary competition... an unhealthy way of running the business for local content. So we try to avoid that. Anything that looks like it is turning into a bubble, we try to avoid... So that’s why we were facing challenges getting content. We may do one exclusive title in Indonesia say once or twice in a quarter or half a year, but we were not able to say ‘hey, I’m going to buy 10, 12 original titles for Indonesia in a year’. We just didn’t think that budget makes sense. So that’s why we avoid it but I think now I hope that things will come back to a more sensible situation where people agree to a more sensible way of doing business and trying to run it on a long-term basis.”
Are you going to acquire any international content this year? And if yes, would it be Korean, Indian, Thai, Japanese or any other? “We do acquire quite a lot of international content. We have a lot of output deals with the studios; Disney, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Sony as well for Indonesia, so there are quite a lot of international partners for us. But we also acquire quite a lot from Korea for Indonesia as well, and some Japanese content as well and I think this year we’re going to keep acquiring quite a lot of a good variety of content, but at the same time start to try a bit more in original content where we weren’t used to that much previously.”
You said you pivoted from mobile to big screen pretty quickly when you realised that the value was in big screen, and you also highlighted a sensible approach to paying for content that’s going to provide value for your platform. What have your other big learnings been from the streaming environment? “I think taking risk is important and for the past years if you compare us to a lot of the other OTT players that are probably not there anymore or are fading, we are quite happy to say that the idea that this is going to be a marathon and the belief that we need to do it in a sustainable way is right. But taking risk is still important. So the risk for us to go abroad, from Taiwan to venture into Singapore to venture into Indonesia, it’s something that we needed to take in order to create or try to create the economy of scale to hopefully make this business make sense. But then to manage the risk is also very important... commitment and perseverance it’s something we’ve learned as well. It’s not always who’s the smartest, it is always who’s there and who’s always there and who’s trying harder and who’s trying to make things work in a healthy way rather than a quick shortcut or something. And integrity I suppose. Being in the content industry, I think it’s very important that we keep that in mind. We are in this business, in a platform business, we want to do good things. We want the audience to be able to get something from it rather than us trying to just make money out of it and nothing else. So I guess at this time of the big environment we do see integrity playing and I hope more and more people pay attention to that.”
This interview took place as part of the ContentAsia Summit at the end of August 2020.