Seen & heard at the ContentAsia Summit 2019

Lots was said and done at the 11th ContentAsia Summit on 28/29 August, from production, co-production and funding to telcos behaving like production studios and driving serious content creation and the rise of premium original LGBTQ+ content in Asia. Our key takeaways from two days are:

MORE POWER TO ASIAN STORIES

The focus on premium Asian content and original IP has never been higher, driven by streaming platforms but also by free-TV broadcasters fighting back against erosion on multiple fronts.Producers from China, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Taiwan talked about bigger, better and their best yet with a wider range of funding models, more diverse subjects combined with a bigger appetite for pushing storytelling beyond current boundaries, and a drive for global scale. The conversation also covered shortcomings in systems and processes and the workarounds that local producers and platforms are implementing as they upskill across all functions.

STREAMERS DRIVE AN ASIAN PRODUCTION BOOM

Across Southeast Asia, streaming platforms are becoming a powerful force in original content creation. That much we knew, but the agenda over the two days shone a light on details and new shows that have been greenlit or are about to hit screens. PCCW's Viu announced a slate of new series, including Thai original "My Bubble Tea" out of Viu Thailand and two format adaptations for Viu Malaysia, including season two of "The Bridge" with HBO Asia and the first version of scripted format "Pretty Little Liars" with Viu Indonesia. Netflix used two new series – Ekachai Uekrongtham's "The Stranded" out of Thailand and Zainir Aminullah's "Ghost Bride" out of Malaysia and Taiwan – as part of a conversation on building up the production ecosystem. Regional streamer iflix talked about “Rise to Power” – a movie spinoff of “KL Gangster Underworld” – that fills the gap in the release schedule between season one, which aired in August last year, and season two, which goes into production in November and premieres in Q2 2020. iflix's five coming-soon titles also included four-part romance series, “Ombak Rindu”, based on Fauziah Ansari’s novels about a naive woman sold into prostitution by her uncle and later marries her rapist; its first horror original – “Kisah Tanah Jawa” with Indonesia's Rapi Films (“Pengabdi Setan”) – a six-part series based on books about an ill-fated quest to find a hiker on the mystical Mount Merapi. “Kisah Tanah Jawa” premieres in October this year, and will be followed by the release of teen drama “Conversation with Ghosts” (working title), with Indonesian production house Screenplay Films.

FREE-TV POWERHOUSES UP THEIR GAME

"There's no point being average." – Loke Kheng Tham, CEO, Mediacorp

Powerful free-TV broadcasters are redirecting their efforts every which way against a backdrop of fragmented over-served audiences and challenged ad spend. Out of Singapore, Mediacorp chief executive Loke Kheng Tham outlined her "no point being average" approach, which, among other things, drove the corporation's involvement in ambitious high-end Taiwan-Singapore co-pro, "All Is Well". Among other things, Tham spoke about breaking the "tyranny of the programming grid", Mediacorp's early experiences with its YouTube services, as well as the unexpected results from a public-service dialect drama series aimed at seniors. She said no content was allowed to live on just one platform anymore. From Thailand, Ariya Banomyong, president/director of BEC World, which operates Channel 3 among other platforms, talked about the company's transformed future as a content entertainment platform from its past as a TV broadcaster, and leveraging core assets – 49 years of drama production, top producers and 200 artists – in a new space. Like Mediacorp, BEC World is working on connecting TV and online audiences, expanding its global footprint, and looking at scaling its tech platforms "knowing that we have very big platforms to compete against in Thailand". Critically, he added, TV broadcasters needed to unite to transform the ratings environment from just TV into TV+OTT. "Unfortunately, the tech is there but the commercial agreements behind it [are not]. TV broadcasters need to push together to make this happen. The survival of the industry is at stake".

INDIA. UNSTOPPABLE.

"There's a huge opportunity still waiting to be unlocked, with much better focus on writing and a lot of originality." – Gaurav Banerjee, President, Hindi Entertainment, Star India

India. An unstoppable force. As expected. Gargantuan demand being satisfied by a new breed of producers – led by Sameer Nair from Applause Entertainment and Deepak Dhar from Banijay Asia – that has evolved from the previous breed of producers – like Sameer Nair and Deepak Dhar – who cut their content teeth in an earlier video revolution and are now embracing the streaming environment in a major way. They may have changed the way they produce and expanded what they produce, but their unshakeable belief in storytelling and commitment to audience engagement in a market of breathtaking scale is the same as it always was, they told delegates. Star India's Hindi entertainment president, Gaurav Banerjee, spoke about the opportunity emerging from the billion-screen landscape forecast in a couple of years. Star India's streaming platform, Hotstar, today has 300 million monthly active users. "That's the scale of a TV network," he said. Among many others, Star India's latest initiatives include the first bilingual Hindi/English TED.com India series, which rolls out on Hotstar as well as on Star linear services Star World (English) and Star Plus (Hindi). "When we think about content, our definition of entertainment has not been just the traditional one. We don't only want to be offering you escape. We want to be offering you inspiration first," he said. Banerjee also said the newly launched Hotstar Specials original slate aimed to be "edgy and conversational but we want also to have a lot of variety". The big focus now was to figure out "how we work more deeply with writers and create newer worlds with deeper authenticity. So there's a huge opportunity still waiting to be unlocked with much better focus on writing and getting a lot of originality going and that's what I see as some of the big things that we need to do."

LGBTQ+ CONTENT COMES OUT

"Deep inside I'm just a story teller... and I know how to tell a love story. This one just happened to be between two men. I wasn't thinking about telling a gay love story. – Dominic Zapata Director, "My Husband's Lover" & "Rich Man's Daughter"

The changing face of LGBTQ+ content in mass-market Asia, led by free-TV broadcaster GMA Network in the Philippines, and Taiwan-based regional streaming platform, GagaOOlala, which was founded by Portico Media's Jay Lin. Lin talked about the changing environment in Asia for LGBTQ content around the world and quoted Ryan Murphy: "If you are not writing about women or gender or race, you're not writing". In Asia, Lin highlighted trends in Japan, Thailand, India and Taiwan, all markets where filmmakers and platforms were embracing LGBTQ themes. From the Philippines, GMA's drama VP, Redgie Magno, talked about the journey of landmark series, "My Husband's Lover" from the network's rejection of the show in 2011 ("We didn't feel audiences and advertisers at the time were ready for a gay-themed drama") to when it was resurrected in 2013 "because it's a beautiful love story and it deserves to be told". Magno pitched to top management and, "surprisingly they liked it". And the rest is Asian drama history, in the Philippines and around the world. At the same time, Magno stressed that story came first and that diversity was not confined to LGBTQ themes. "In every drama we produce, we make sure there is diversity," she said. "My Husband's Lover" and "Rich Man's Daughter" director, Dominic Zapata, said "deep inside I'm just a story teller... and I know how to tell a love story. This one just happened to be between two men. I wasn't thinking about telling a gay love story," he said. Star India, under News Corp, also has a relatively long heritage of tacking gender diversity and social issues such as domestic violence and child sexual abuse. Gaurav Banerjee spoke about the impact social dramas had had on women in India, including women being far more likely these days to take a stand against domestic violence and the decrease in preference for male children. "Really significant movements have happened because of these social dramas because this was the only entertainment in our country that was putting women first – and continues to do that," he said.

MALAYSIA RETOOLS

Malaysia's media industry is emerging from behind political upheaval and economic woes with a new story, new people driving the agenda and a set of fresh promises that, if they work out, could reshape the country's production industry as well as re-set the studio hub concept that Iskandar Malaysia Studios (IMS) was always meant to be (and has been in fits and starts). One of the challenges is batting off the stink of 1MDB and persuading the international industry that Jho Loh and Red Granite Pictures do not define Malaysia's creative ethos and environment. The other is telling a better and more public story about what Finas actually does... and then making sure filming-in-Malaysia rebates are distributed quickly and easily so that word of mouth endorsements can kick in.

ALL ABOUT IP: INDIES (& others) GET BOLDER AND CAST NETS WIDER

Indie producers and distributors are being bolder and casting their nets wider. Or they are being forced to by changing times. As are studios attached to broadcasters, which seem to be thinking that it might be good to start acting a bit more entrepreneurial instead of relying solely on the mothership. Out of Indonesia, Fremantle's production arm is driving a new scripted agenda, debuting its first scripted series "The Sacred Riana: Bedtime Stories" during the ContentAsia Summit. The English-language Asian horror anthology series, currently in development, is the first project from the partnership between Fremantle and Jakarta-based indie production house, Wahana Kreator Nusantara. The series is expected to head to market later this year. A second Fremantle-Wahana Kreator Nusantara partnership project, also in development, is “Ex Addicts”, a romantic comedy series based on the "Klub Kecanduan Mantan" podcast. Turner is also turning up the heat on originals with its biggest Mandarin production ever; Turner Asia Pacific's VP of general entertainment content, Marianne Lee, and Taiwanese writer/director Li-ju Xie, went behind the thinking on coming-soon series, "The Haunted Heart", a youth-focused love story with supernatural elements. Meanwhile, Falcon Pictures' boss, HB Naveen, talked about leveraging his IP and his box office experience to upsize his streaming ambitions; and all3media international chief executive, Louise Pedersen, went inside the heart and mind of a super-indie, as did Endemol Shine International's EVP for distribution, Matt Creasey.

FORMATS NUMBERS FALL. THE GOOD NEWS IS...

Asia’s formats market has shrunk in pure numbers over the past three years. But not every market in the region is in decline, a few key players are driving unprecedented levels of activity in, for instance, scripted development, co-development is trending, and a watchful eye is being kept on regional/global streamers appetite for unscripted IP acquisitions. Asia’s formats are about 11% down overall on last year to 223 titles/seasons either or air or commissioned by broadcasters or platforms, according to ContentAsia’s latest Formats Outlook. And last year’s 251 were 12% down on the same six months in 2017, for a total drop of 22% over the past two years. That’s 62 fewer series this year than we counted two years ago. What’s going on? A lot of things, including a shift towards home-grown originals that might, like the Zense Entertainment/NBCUniversal co-developed "Singer Auction" in Vietnam, begin to travel (and to be counted). The new breed of formats blends the power of social platforms and linear TV; the poster-production for this trend is "The Social Icon Thailand", a collaboration between Workpoint and Facebook. Big-budget regional formats (actually, make that even medium-budget) have fallen off a cliff, victims of a range of ills, some self-inflicted. The good/best news is that the interest in drama adaptation in Asia is at a record high; and China, whatever its regulatory issues, looks like it tops budgets with shows like "Miss S", an adaptation of Australian series "Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries" distributed by all3media international, and "Humans China", driven by Endemol Shine's China MD, William Tan. Both were at the ContentAsia Summit, testament to grit, determination and the nerves of steel required to get a show over the line. And long may it last.

More from the 2019 ContentAsia Summit in our MIPCOM 2019 issue. Contact [email protected] for details