Having heard Hollywood’s side of the story (Just Do It – Part #1: Filmmaking the Hollywood Way) I sought out Southeast Asia’s advice at the Creative Content Production Conference in Singapore and uncovered a thriving industry full of optimism and opportunity.
Running alongside technology show Broadcast Asia this event addressed many of the same topics as the Produced By Conference I recently attended in Hollywood but with a refreshingly Southeast Asian point of view. I say refreshingly because, firstly, the speaker line-up largely consisted of locals as opposed to ang mohs (white folk) and secondly because Southeast Asia is a very distinct part of the overall Asia-Pacific region, which is usually addressed as a homogenous whole. This is problematic because “APAC” encompasses such vastly different cultures and economies that it’s almost impossible to apply any common principles to them all, (Tokyo and Jakarta, for example, are further apart than London and New York!), but Southeast Asia, as a collection of eleven co-operative countries is marginally more manageable. And what a creative hub SEA is; just recently we’ve seen the success of Singapore’s Ilo Ilo, Malaysia’s The Journey and Indonesia’s The Act of Killing, The Raid AND The Raid 2 so why have you/me/us not heard more about it?
Well, despite having a population twice as large as the USA, South East Asia’s 600million people are spread over four time zones, speak 13 official languages and literally hundreds of dialects, which makes it difficult to create a splash with a mass audience. Then there’s the fact that the average Southeast Asian makes under US$11,000 per year (without Singapore and Brunei, the two richest but least populous nations, that average drops to just over S$3,200), so local box office numbers pail in comparison to the price of an American or European cinema ticket. Finally there’s the issue of censorship, which means getting a film into theatres, never mind on state-controlled television, is no easy task. But it is for all these reasons that Southeast Asian producers, unlike their American counterparts, are embracing the new era of film distribution a.k.a. Video on Demand.
In 2011 the UN declared that Internet access is a basic human right and so, one way or another, every country in SEA will eventually come online. For many it will be via the mobile phone and the snobbishness exhibited by US producers and directors about the mobile-as-movie-screen is non-existent here as it provides the first truly democratized means to a mass audience and that’s got everyone excited. Among the most excited are CHAN Kin Gai, TEO Yi-Ling and Justin Diemen who last year founded the Southeast Asian Audio Visual Association (SAAVA), a non-profit association that seeks to unify media producers across the region. Kin Gai and Justin spoke on a panel about the first Singaporean-Cambodian co-production, brokered by SAAVA, called 3.50. 3.50 is a scripted drama about Cambodia’s sex trade that received the government’s approval to be made but has yet to be screened in the country of its setting. You can watch the trailer and decide for yourself why…
3.50 was just one of many new productions I learnt about at the conference. Erika North, Head of Programming & Executive Producer for HBO Asia introduced her latest offering, a co-production with InFocus Asia supported by Singapore’s Media Development Authority, entitled Grace. The four-part horror series also stars Click2View regular Vivienne Tseng, which was a thrill to see!
Horror was a consistent theme throughout the event because it’s cheap and it travels which, according to Erika, are important assets in a market that still doesn’t command the same production budgets as the West. It was also noted that action travels but comedy does not and that small stories with big themes have a better chance of success e.g. 3.50 which is ostensibly the story of one Cambodian girl but addresses the global problem of human trafficking.
Michael McKay, President of Active TV Asia backed Erika’s point on budgets stating, “Production budgets are really tight, even for marquee titles. We’re expected to do a lot more with a lot less in Asia than elsewhere although that’s starting to happen around the world.”
To help with the shortfalls governments are getting competitive with incentives, specifically Malaysia who are offering a 30% cash rebate on qualifying productions, which in turn has led Pinewood Studios to make a massive investment in a 20-hectare state-of-the-art studio complex just over the Straits in Nusajaya. The first production off the lot will be Marco Polo, co-produced by Netflix and The Weinstein Company for a reported US$90million. I confess I drove up there the other day for a nosy around and was blown away by the scale as well as the amount of livestock they’re keeping on-set!
Just like in the States producers are looking to brands to bridge the funding gap but that means more compromise and begs the question, who is the “customer” for your content – the investor or the audience? The TV producers were pretty clear about this with Michele Schofield, SVP of Programming & Marketing for A&E Networks Asia stating unequivocally, “Our method is now to craft shows around client briefs.” Adding, “We cannot greenlight a show until we have buy-in from ad-sales.” (Independent producers note that you have an infinitely higher chance of a commission if you already have brand budget attached to your project.) However organisations like HBO, ActiveTV and A&E Networks have significant long-term overheads that don’t apply to a short-term film production.
So, back to film and it seems Southeast Asia is full of interesting stories, emerging talent, increasing infrastructure (visit Viddsee if you need more proof) and one additional thing I found missing in Hollywood – optimism. In America there was a sense of trying to recapture past glories but in Southeast Asia, our glory days are yet to come, we just need to heed the advice I heard repeated over and over and over again in both locations; don’t wait, just do it!