For some of Southeast Asia’s independent producers, life has never seemed better. Others, not so much. We contacted 100 indies in six countries to talk about hopes, challenges, talent, budgets...
The good news is that more than half of indie producers in Southeast Asia are looking at Covid through their rear-view mirrors, juggling just as many projects as they were in 2019 and early 2020, setting their sights on a larger share of global commissions, and celebrating gains (however small) in pushing story-telling boundaries in the region. The rest? Not so much.
That said, the same independent producers we spoke to ahead of this year’s ContentAsia Summit have one common and overwhelming concern – budgets – and a shared basket of hopes: to be more involved in developing shows with international producers and streaming platforms; for regulation mandating a local production quota on streaming services; and to stop being treated like “body shops”.
ContentAsia’s survey* of independent producers shows that 48% of producers feel budgets are still too low for the premium content creation task at hand.
At the same time, asked about what they were most hoping for, only 10% put more time and money for TV series development at the top of their lists, behind greater involvement in the creation and development with international streamers and regulations that mandate a percentage of local production on streaming services in their countries.
A bit of context. Average drama production budgets in Southeast Asia are now between US$180,000 to US$300,000 per episode. At the very lowest end, drama is still being produced for US$20,000 per episode. At the higher end, Indonesia has taken the lead, primarily because of competition among streaming/OTT platforms.
Variety/entertainment shows are being produced in Southeast Asia for up to US$80,000-US$100,000 per episode.
Money being spent on TV series in Southeast Asia remains well behind Korea, where US$900,000 per episode is considered low budget. As has been widely reported, Squid Game is said to have cost US$21 million to make – about US$2.4 million per episode – a fraction of the reported US$12-million spent on each episode of Stranger Things.
There is no expectation that budgets in Southeast Asia will match anything being signed off in Korea. On the contrary, fears about even smaller budgets and fewer commissions are rife, fuelled by changes in the streaming environment and the impact of the economic downturn on advertising with knock-on pressure on production and acquisition budgets.
33% of respondents say their greatest fear for the rest 2022 is having budget cuts by global streaming platforms and the likelihood of fewer commissions. 29% say they most fear cuts by local broadcasters impacted by an economic downturn.
At the same time, asked what they are most optimistic about, 38% say they expect the ongoing competition between global streamers will keep demand for local content high, and that will flow down to producers on the ground in Southeast Asia.
Talent costs in the region have soared along with demand. 29% of respondents in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines say their biggest challenge is a shortage of production/creative skills in their markets.
The lack of available skills combined with rising fears about inflation will impact the cost of productions, says Mee Fung Lee, managing director of Kuala Lumpur-based PIK Film, which produces docu series, HER Women in Asia, for Germany’s DW.
Against this backdrop, smaller indies and startups are putting their hands up for a chance to show what they’re made of – and sometimes, but not always, getting the attention they would like.
Many indies say their top challenge is persuading platforms and broadcasters to give smaller indies, with fewer years in the game and less of a track record, a chance. Others say attitudes have shifted a lot, and that the environment is more open and flexible than it used to be.
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT, REBATES & INCENTIVES
A small group of indies – 14% – say that one of the challenges is insufficient support and understanding from government agencies in their markets.
This may not be a bad thing, says veteran producer, Juan Foo. In Singapore, he says, “government stakeholders are very well-intentioned, providing public service broadcasting grants to support the national broadcaster and new platforms”. This, he adds, trickles down to independent producers, but may, over time, “have created an over-reliance on government hand-outs... There is a strange comfort zone set up and independent production companies are caught in a mouse wheel”.
Another impact – and not necessarily a positive one – is that in adapting to smaller budgets and thin margins and constantly being forced to make a little go a very long way, the ability to develop skills and specialist knowledge is being diluted.
“By no fault of theirs, producers may be so adept at tightening belts that they seem lost if funding is increased. Productions cannot seem to evolve,” Foo adds.
At the same time, Jerry Koedding, Singapore-based producer and founder of Wave Films, says he is hoping for “more incentive schemes or grants that help not only arthouse films but also commercially viable feature films get made”.
In Malaysia, optimism and realism see-saw over various film-in-Malaysia incentives, with sentiment on the rise for now over the current 35% rebate. Insiders say this makes Malaysia the most competitive market in the region from a % rebate perspective.
Government-driven support schemes and incentives have been a lifeline for some indies, especially during Covid. Talking about what they most fear, 24% of respondents say a smaller slice of government-funded schemes.
In ranking the things they are most optimistic about, 10% say increased support from government agencies that will enhance local content creation.
What Foo would like to see official bodies do is create more viable solutions for freelancers. “While freelancing is promoted via the ‘gig economy’, systemic problems of project pitching, transparency, copyrights, and safety processes seem to be prevalent. These need some attention,” he says.
Only 5% of respondents say their challenges include content regulations and censorship that make it difficult to compete regionally/internationally.
With full acknowledgement that censorship is a tough-to-say-the-least battle to fight, hopes centre around regulation that will establish local content quotas so that domestic industries can participate in the streaming boom.
What indies may care about, but are not necessarily prioritising right now, is allocating resources to push for regulations that will enforce industry standards and practises. They’re not saying they don’t want standards, just that on the list of things that need to be done, this particular fight is not something they want to take on alone.
Which is, in Singapore at least, where local association of independent producers, Aipro, says it is stepping in.
The timing is more critical than ever. “With local audiences now accustomed to content from all over the world, independent producers in Singapore face the task of matching global standards,” says Aipro president Khim Loh, who is also the managing director of 24-year old Singapore-based production house, The Moving Visuals Co.
Pointing out the handful of companies producing out of Singapore for global platforms, Loh says a crucial question facing the industry is: “Can (more) Singaporean producers create content and consistently to international acclaim?”
Some say no, citing multiple reasons. Aipro doesn’t agree, listing all the ways it is promoting co-production opportunities with international parties, and says it is in constant dialogue with all stakeholders to upsize skills development and to promote industry growth.
“With realistic timelines and realistic budgets, local companies can then increase the standard of productions and help Singapore gain a stronger foothold in the international marketplace,” Loh says.
Always a thorny issue, rights ownership and regulations that mandate a stake be given to local creators, may also be a battle indies are leaving for another day. Only 19% of respondents put the ability to retain some or all of their rights at the top of their wish lists.
UPSIZED INVOLVEMENT WITH INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS
24% of respondents topped their list of hopes/dreams/wishes with higher involvement in the creation and development of premium TV with international content producers/streamers “and not just as body-shops in productions”.
“Small production houses should be given a chance to participate in producing bigger shows,” says Margie Cabanayan Natividad, president and CEO of Philippines’ Red Crane Studios.
“Credentials of the producers should also be taken into consideration and not the number of years the producers have been in the company/market,” she adds.
Mocha Chai Laboratories’ (MCL) MD, Michelle Chang, is already riding what she describes as the industry’s burgeoning interest in new ideas and says MCL’s serious pivot to content production just before Covid is already bearing fruit.
With Venus On Mars almost done, another show greenlit and a few more in discussion, Chang talks about forging new partnerships in a more open creative environment, and says MCL is taking advantage of an environment where “there are no more formulas and templates... especially now as things are a lot more unpredictable”.
LOCAL VS REGIONAL/INTERNATIONAL
Regional and international platforms, led by streamers, are scooping up a sizeable share of Asia’s production output, but only a few respondents say more than 80% of their 2022 projects are solely for regional and/or international platforms. 33% say that 100% of their 2022 content is produced for regional Asia and/or international platforms. Another 33% say more than 80% of their projects produced this year is for their domestic markets. 19% say their 2022 output will be split evenly between local markets and regional Asia/international platforms.
The co-production environment in Southeast Asia is also split almost evenly. 52% of respondents are co-producing with partners in Asia/other parts of the world. The rest have no production partnerships on their calendars, and, amid other things on their agenda, don’t seem that concerned about it.
POST-COVID: THE RECOVERY & BEYOND
57% of the indie producers say, with more than a little relief, that their production businesses have returned to pre-Covid levels and that they are back on set, where they belong, in person. Others are still adjusting to the disruption. Regardless, all are counting their learnings and integrating the best remote-working practices into their everyday habits.
“We had a lot of realisations during the pandemic,” says Red Crane Studios’ Natividad, who produced two shows at the height of pandemic – URL (Usapang Real Life), shot entirely via Zoom, and My Hometown is G.O.A.T, shot during lockdown for AXN in partnership with the Philippines’ Department of Tourism. The experience, she says, not only kept the team afloat, but stretched skills into uncharted territory.
“The ability to be tech savvy and work remotely during the pandemic has set a new mindset for meetings,” says Revolution Media’s Kuala Lumpur-based CEO, Zainir Aminullah, adding that the efficiency of online is now a permanent feature of the company’s routine.
“However it doesn’t take way the dynamics of face to face, especially for long sessions and creative meetings, for example writers room and brainstorms,” he adds.
“Remote working has made my role as a producer a lot more productive,” Mocha Chai Laboratories’ Chang says.
While celebrating the return of in-person interactions, the majority of respondents say remote processes are here to stay for certain parts of the business.
“This [remote working] provides an avenue to seek remote workers to fulfill resource shortages,” says Andrew Ooi, managing director of Malaysian animation studio, Inspidea. At the same time, he adds, new people and fresh talent still need proper on-premises training and experience.
Infinitus Films’ executive producer, Gayatri Su-Lin Pillai, agrees.
“The remote working skills we needed during Covid were useful in the area of development, when previously we had to have physical writer’s rooms and discussions, we had to learn to do this online,” she says, adding that VFX discussions are still predominantly online. “Again, though, the preference is still in doing it in person,” she says.
Gozde Zehnder, Freestate Productions’ executive producer/director, says Covid-enforced conditions and experience have built high levels of confidence in being able to manage production line disruptions.
“Prior to Covid-19, we had zero skills on how to successfully produce remotely but now I can say we are pretty confident and can do magics as long as we have the right and committed partners,” she says.
Like many others, Heliconia H Group’s CEO, Kitikorn Penrote, loves being back in a physical office. “At the end of the day, he says, “in developing content or creative work, where we need a lot of brainstorming, working remotely doesn’t help much”.
Published in ContentAsia September 2022 magazine