A year after he joined Asia-based streamer Viu, Head of Originals, Felix To, talks about creating a production culture, adaptations, content alliances, and why 2022 has been the most critical year.
Viu debuted its latest four Asia originals in August – two from Korea, one from Thailand and Malay drama, AI.5YA. Another eight at least will go to air in the last quarter of this year. The regional streamer also continues to build out its alliances with Asian leaders, such as ABS-CBN Entertainment/Dreamscape out of the Philippines, which brought titles such as the Philippines adaptation of Korean thriller Flower of Evil to the platform in June. And that not even the half of it.
Coming up to the first anniversary of his arrival at Viu in September 2021, head of originals Felix To says 2022 was a “critical year for the development of new original production”, with multiple drama series across multiple countries under multiple teams, some of which are new. The agenda and tasks are“tall”, and, he adds, sharp focus by each team on specific projects is a priority.
To says his own priority list is building a production culture across Viu’s broad Asia/Middle East footprint. “This is the single most important thing that will be invaluable for our future maturation and expansion,” he says.
The projects under way are varied, and To’s expectations are not over-exuberant. “This is the first year we have so many projects in progress at the same time... we aren’t expecting hit after hit... but we’ve done pretty well in gathering production teams together and bringing a good variety to the Viu platform”.
In January this year, Viu said it would have more than 30 original productions in six languages in Asia by the end of 2022. Heading into the final quarter, To says the target is in sight, any release timetable adjustments will be minor, and he predicts an “even more eventful” few months ahead. “Right now, production is speeding ahead at an unprecedented rate,” he adds.
Viu’s new Thai dramas are led by Finding the Rainbow, an ambitious multi-country project spanning three decades, including the 911 attack in New York. The series, starring Nichkhun Horvejkul of K-pop band 2PM, premieres on 9 Nov. Out of Thailand too comes the 12-episode Real Fake, which was announced in January this year and premieres on 10 October. The aim is to “bring a new perspective to Thai drama as we know it,” To says.
From Indonesia, there’s teen school-room drama, Bad Boys Vs Crazy Girls, starring rising idols Devano Danendra and Megan Domani in a Wattpad-based TV show directed by Josephine Lidwani Winardi and Emil Heradi (Pretty Little Liars Indonesia). Bad Boys Vs Crazy Girls dropped on 14 October.
There is also a first of its kind drama out of the Philippines, which To describes as a bold contemporary “eye-opening comedy” backed by internationally trained Filipino filmmakers; the series is inspired by the Philippines’ love of Korean drama.
And from Malaysia, there’s mythology-based supernatural thriller, Hilang, which drops on 17 November.
Under the sprawling, multi-market Viu originals banner is also Hong Kong’s first original, #lovesignal, which debuted on 7 October, kicking off the platform’s Q4 new drama slate. The series, a collaboration with Local Production, is followed on 13 October by Malaysian romcom Ijab Kabut (I Have A Plan) starring Fadlan Hazim and Azira Shafinaz in the story of a woman whose life falls apart when her fiance pulls out of their wedding at the 11th hour.
The wide variety is, of course, deliberate. “We want to expand our scope and... attract a very wide spectrum of audiences to our platform,” To says.
New development areas include unscripted, especially in Viu’s Southeast Asian stronghold, where the population is young, social change is fast, and neighbours share at least a few social and cultural characteristics.
Scripted adaptations – in the tradition of the two seasons of U.S. series Pretty Little Liars that Viu has already made for Indonesia and Korean drama Black in Malaysia – will continue to be part of the mix.
“We need good stories and we have to develop our own IP as well. There is no replacement for that. But at the same time, we want to bring more titles to our audience, local titles, locally relevant production. And adaptation is a very good way to expand the number of titles we can do in a given period of time,” To says.
Navigating sensitivities across Viu’s 16-market footprint, including the Middle East, goes without saying, even if moves such as excluding LGBTQ characters draw heat.
Woke or not, To says that’s exactly what adaptations are all about.
“We can’t just use a foreign script and shoot it exactly... we do a lot of creative work to make sure it becomes a locally relevant drama,” he says in response to a question about changing the Emily/Alison roles from the U.S. version of Pretty Little Liars.
An example he offers is Viu original, She Was Pretty, out of Malaysia. “We made culturally relevant adjustments to the character and expressions to make sure that it fit Malaysian society better. It follows the same storyline, but the characterisation is very different," he says.
Viu also participated in ABS-CBN’s Philippines adaptation of Korean drama, Flower of Evil, earlier this year, followed by The Broken Marriage Vow (the local adaptation of U.K. drama, Doctor Foster).
Part of the streaming world’s elastic interpretation of originals, the Flower of Evil rights acquisition (and the right to call the show an original) gave Viu a streaming window 48 hours ahead of the domestic TV broadcast.
In the same vein, Viu won original naming rights to JTBC’s Reborn Rich, starring Song Joong-ki (Descendants of The Sun), as part of a global rights deal (excl. Korea).
The logic behind every project is the same – an interesting story, To says.
Flower of Evil Philippines was a go because “we know from the storyline, from the relationship depicted in the story, we know there is a wow factor”.
Is he concerned at all that Viu’s huge Korean drama audience in the Philippines is already familiar with the story line? No.
The reasons go beyond just story. “When we do the story in Philippines, we make sure that it is actually Filipino, but also recognisable as the same storyline. That will allow audiences to have all these discussions about the changes and how characters are depicted,” he says.
At the same time, he acknowledges the danger of familiarity, particularly with how stories end.
“People watch dramas to be surprised. If we do nothing but IP adaptation, of course we are pretty much in this kind of danger... we are trying to bring good stories with surprising new elements to the audience. So, be it an adaptation or original IP, this will be the test... That’s why, whenever we decide on an adaptation, we have to make sure that we have added enough twists in the characters... that will make the story resonate better in that local market on top of the original.”
Co-production is high on his radar, “not only just because of sharing the cost, but also because it means we are doing something more ambitious than just doing it alone”.
More important right now is establishing Viu’s credentials and market position as a producer.
“The better we perform and the more productions we release means the market will be able to understand us better as a producer. That will become a basis for co-production and we look forward to working with some prestigious parties in the region or beyond. But first, we have to show the world that we are able to do very decent production, with good storytelling”.
A Hong Kong production veteran who spent decades at free-TV giant Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB) and debuted more than a dozen successful Hong Kong dramas in mainland China, To says the emergence of streaming platforms has changed the game for a domestic industry that has, in recent years, been accused of having lost its creativity.
"The real game changer over the past decade is the arrival and development of these streaming platforms. There is a growing cultural and linguistic diversity... every country can have their own productions accepted onto those platforms and can find their own audience," he says.
Chinese productions are no exception. And To says there is no reason why Hong Kong originals will be excluded as the tide rises.
"We are investing into local Cantonese production as well as Chinese productions in the hope that eventually we will be able to come to a threshold when all these projects find their own audiences in the region, maybe in the world."
He's not viewing the opportunity or Viu's progress on a project-by-project basis, talking instead about a cumulative impact in terms of quality, style, look and feel, as well as storytelling that touches people.
"We are trying to turn the tide, we are trying to make our statement in those markets... but more importantly first of all we need to create projects worth the attention of audiences. This will be our foremost task right now."
To says throughout filmmaking and drama production history, success has hinged upon setting up infrastructure to deal with change as – or before – the dust settles.
"It will be those markets that manage to transform their talent, resources and creative infrastructure that stand out... brilliant people, brilliant producers, brilliant artists, they happen once in a while. Every country will have that kind of brilliance appearing on its own landscape," he says.
Whether or not these feed into a broader success depends largely on the infrastructure and environment in place.
"There's a momentum you need to make a national production industry really take and countries that manage to do it will survive."
An edited version of this feature appeared in ContentAsia's October magazine for Mipcom