Netflix continues to scale up in Southeast Asia, adding Indonesian director Kamila Andini’s TV series, Cigarette Girl, which premieres on 2 November, to Sitisiri (Dome) Mongkolsiri’s Hunger – the #1 film on the global non-English movie top 10 earlier this year – and Timo Tjahjanto’s 2022 chart topper – action-comedy blockbuster, The Big 4 – to name the top few. Originals from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines are expected to flow freely in 2024.
Almost eight years after Netflix launched in Southeast Asia, Malobika Banerji, the streamer’s director of content for the region, talks about the quest to put Southeast Asian content on an entertainment map dominated by Korea and Hollywood.
“As a Southeast Asia local content team, one of the things we have been focused on is figuring out if our members will embrace local content in similar fashion [to Korea and Hollywood] if we programme a great variety and quality of them. We are very happy to see that our efforts are already bearing fruit,” she says.
Original titles are top 10 regulars in their home countries, and licensed films, such as Marla Ancheta’s Doll House (2022) and Seasons (2023) from the Philippines and Indonesia’s Photocopier (2021), have been well received.
All the original titles have been on the top 10 lists in their home countries for a few weeks at least. “So that’s a big testament,” she says.
Doll House, starring Baron Geisler as a man who takes on the job of caring for a little girl, the daughter he left behind years ago, was on Netflix’s global non-English top 10 for two weeks last year and was a top 10 non-English film in 11 countries for at least a week.
Seasons, starring Lovi Poe, went one better, staying on the top 10 globally for three weeks, although it was only on the top 10 in seven countries. Wregas Bhanuteja’s Indonesian thriller, Photocopier, did even better, spending three weeks on the global top 10 non-English films, and earning a place on the top 10 in 26 countries.
“We feel confident that we are on the right path and we will continue investing in both licensing and commissioned projects,” Banerji told delegates at the 2023 ContentAsia Summit.
At the same time, she emphasises that these are early days of local programming. “We are testing and learning as we go. At this point in time, we are programming across a wide range of genres and formats, trying to really get a sense of what members want to watch on Netflix,” she says.
For example, in Thailand, films like The Murderer and Hunger, and series like Delete, sit alongside the latest theatrical releases, with some linear TV programming as well as unscripted titles. “So it’s really a full range... we are trying to get a sense of what resonates with audiences,” she says.
There’s some risk involved. But, Banerji says, “we are taking those bets... trying different things.” Before Hunger, “we absolutely did not have any signal or idea that our members would connect with a strong character drama”. The film premiered on 6 April 2023, making #2 on the non-English global top 10 films for the week of 3-9 April with 11.23 million hours viewed and a place on the top 10 films in 43 countries. The following week, Hunger was at #1 with 43.6 million hours viewed and on the top 10 films list in 91 countries, including the U.S.
Similarly, in Indonesia, Timo Tjahjanto’s The Big 4 was the horror/action director’s first foray into action comedy. “This was the first time he was trying something new,” she adds. “We felt that the material was compelling enough for us to give it a try and see how it resonates with audiences. And we were very happy to see that his base actually expanded beyond his core action and horror fans.”
“Making content is always a risk... The only thing we can do is to make sure that we understand what we are trying to make and the people who are trying to make it, whether they have the ability to pull it off,” Banerji says.
The success of The Big 4, for instance, was by no means a foregone conclusion. “It was not that when we saw it, we knew it would be a hit. To be honest, internally we knew it would be 50/50.... Because core Timo fans might be disappointed that this is not hardcore action, and then comedy fans will be like, ‘why is there action here?’. So it was a risk. But when we looked at the material overall and we saw Timo’s passion for the project, it was clear that it was a bet worth trying. If it didn’t work out, okay, we would then know that he had a niche audience and he should stick to that.”
“If we don’t try new things, we don’t learn, right? And I think the best part of our journey in Southeast Asia has been that as much as we are trying new things, the audience is also trying to open up to this experimentation. They are also giving it a try. Otherwise people may not have watched Hunger the way they did, right? So that’s very heartening to see.”
Wisit Sasanatieng dark comedy, The Murderer, is another example. “People love movies from the Isan region in Thailand, and we have been seeing that for a while,” Banerji says. The Murderer script, with its blend of murder mystery, dark comedy and highly stylised visuals, was different from the regular simple Isan rural comedies. The question, then, was whether the same audiences would be willing to open up to something different. The Murderer topped the Thai film list for two weeks from 24 July to 6 August this year, and stayed on the top 10 in the country for three weeks although, according to Netflix’s published rankings, doesn’t seem to have made an international impact.
Banerji says the response was something of a surprise. “It’s heartening to see that, ok, if we try something, people are willing to give it a chance. The only thing we can do is make the best version of any bet we are taking and then just leave it to the audiences to tell us.”
In a production universe obsessed with ‘being international’, Netflix’s priority is local. “Our local language strategy is local for local,” she says. ”We want to make sure that whatever local titles we make resonate with our members in that country in the biggest way possible... a hit in the home country is the biggest win for us.”
“As a content executive, my aspiration is that every title is seen by the world. That’s why we are making content. But we know from history that there is only a handful of titles that break out in that way. What we have learned from those is that if it is authentically local [and well-made], there is a big chance that it will find audiences outside,” she says.
New TV series include the eight-episode Thai drama, Delete, about two lovers in an extramarital affair who plot a new life together after finding a phone that can erase other people. The series, co-written and directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom (Alone), released on 28 June and spent two weeks on the global non-English TV top 10. The series was on the top 10 TV lists in 29 countries. Banerji points to Wongpoom’s reputation for horror/thrillers. “He’s done a bit of genre blending in this series, so that was a risk for us,” she says.
The Southeast Asia team is making similar bets in television as it has in movies. “We are taking risks with both movies and television. Because series have a longer lead time, in our first slate you see mostly films.” TV titles that have been in the works for the last two years release in 2024.
At the end of the day though, the format is secondary. “What’s really important is that it’s the best format to tell the story, whether it’s a series or film... It’s not trying to be differentiated for the sake of being differentiated, there is a real vision and a story that the storyteller wants to tell... So that’s what we are focused on.”
▶ Published in ContentAsia October 2023 magazine