Production in Asia – building a whole new ecosystem

Asia’s television drama scene can be a bit of a horror show at the moment, and not just because supernatural tales are enjoying unprecedented attention, or because media disruption continues and corporate instability is rife. As demand for premium content soars, great stories are surfacing. But production infrastructure on the ground in Southeast Asia is buckling in all sorts of inconvenient ways, available domestic talent is being spread paper thin, and gaps in skill sets are being exposed all over the place. No one is playing the blame game. Rather, in a world of global streamers, there’s a mad scramble to upskill, plug holes and upgrade systems into fighting-fit condition for streaming wars that are only just beginning.

Netflix has had a lot to do with pulling producers in Asia into an alternative future that blends local reality with global budgets and processes. The aim is an environment that enables production houses to operate at scale and to deliver on time, on budget, rights cleared, properly colour encoded and in line with other tech specs. Plus with all the required paperwork. 

Three and a half years after its global launch, Netflix’s goal is to build a production ecosystem on the ground in Southeast Asia able to cope with volume, says Norman Lockhart, Netflix’s Asia Pacific director of physical production. “It’s not about us imposing U.S. production practices... What we want to do is bring the best of both together, give everybody the skill to do multi-episodic multi-series production all the way through from writers to final post-production.”

“What we’re looking to do with all our original series is to tell local stories and take those to the world. And we want those to be told authentically by people who are based and live and work in the region,” Lockhart adds. “We need to find a way to build that crew base, that talent base, in some of the key territories in Southeast Asia, so that we need to bring in less and less people for the shows we’re making.”

For Gavin Barclay, Netflix’s Asia-Pacific director of post production, the goal is clear: “For us, it’s about management of a larger-scale international production.” Which means dealing with larger-scale issues, like, for instance, creating a large enough community of people able to deal with clearing music for international productions. Or the ability, on a post-production level, to schedule and budget across a much larger multi-episodic series. “It’s a skill set that may not have been as popular or needed in the market before,” he says.  

Barclay says the quest is about “trying to identify those things and figure out where the gap is. It’s not necessarily that there aren’t experienced people in the market. It’s just that sometimes our needs are more unique than what has been in each market.”

Revolution Media’s Zainir Aminullah, who executive produced The Ghost Bride, has first-hand experience of Netflix’s needs, which are indeed unlike anything that has gone before in Southeast Asia, he says. Among other shows, Revolution Media’s previous incarnation, Ideate Media, produced two seasons of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency in the U.S. for BBC America.     

The Ghost Bride, set in 1890’s Malacca, is about a young woman who, in exchange for relieving her family’s debts, must marry a wealthy family’s dead son. The series was filmed in 4K HDR and involved writers and talent from North America, Taiwan and Malaysia. 

“The complexity of dealing with talent and production requirements across the region was by itself understandable. What we quickly realised was that the scale of the production was not something we could deal with in the region on several levels,” Aminullah says. That included plugging into Netflix’s processes and a reporting structure split by functions. “There are a lot of people at Netflix,” he adds, echoing widespread industry sentiment. It’s not a criticism. More like advice to producers who think they can get away with cutting corners. And then there is talent, including crew. “Where do we find them? I mean, it’s really crazy now... especially in Indonesia and Malaysia,” Aminullah says.

One of the bigger learnings was in levels of immediacy and efficiency that could be achieved. “We were shooting in three or four different locations in Malaysia across six weeks... The final day of shooting was on a Saturday... on Sunday I sat down with the two directors and the three editors. We were able to watch all six episodes on Monday. So that was certainly an efficiency that I had not seen before. And that should be the efficiency in the process that going forward we should aspire to”. 

The challenges for Thailand’s Ekachai Uekrongtham, one of the executive producers on The Stranded, are different. Thai companies have long provided on-ground support for Hollywood, which was something of a blessing when it came to rolling out the red carpet for Netflix. “We have very good crew able to handle international technical standards,” Uekrongtham says. The challenge is in creating the stories and in post-production. “What I tried to do was to blend the best people creating original content from the film and advertising industries and marry them with the people used to creating Hollywood-type standards for shows,” he adds. Still, requirements like 24-hour turnaround on dailies was “sometimes tough because we were shooting in like 12 provinces around Thailand”. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge was in reframing the audience because of Netflix. “When you start to think about the entire world as your audience, you put on different filters. When Netflix talked to us about wanting to create an original series from Thailand, we thought about making sure that it’s locally specific but also with universal relevance and universal resonance. So that’s a creative challenge because we blend the myths, we blend all the folklore, but at the same time we close our eyes and we think 190 countries will be watching. Are we able to capitalise on the uniqueness of our culture to say something universal with strong resonance? That’s a challenge.” 

The Stranded, about teens stranded on an island who realise no help is coming, also taught Uekrongtham to “think about universe first”. Thailand’s movie-making strength focuses creative imaginations on one hour and 45 minutes. The Netflix way is about “the universe first, which comprises storylines, characters, themes... that’s something fresh and exciting for me,” he says, adding: “What I hope is that by the end of this process, we have created a group of people who are able to to handle these things in the long run and keep doing it.” He’s not alone. 

Published in ContentAsia Issue Five 2019, 3 October 2019