Image: Black Knight, the man who guards me is a Korean television show exported across Asia.
Q: Why should we care about the screen sector in South-East Asia?
A: It has a population of 660m people. 49.2% of those people are urban. Their median age is 28.8 years.
Many South-East Asian production companies attend the Hong Kong International Film and TV Market (FILMART) around February each year. There is a sprinkle of Australians who work for them, and the national agencies of many European countries run stands.
Out in the market halls, visitors can watch production companies battling to market beyond their borders. But they speak local languages, have a capital problem, and strive to compete for stars.
The unifying non-government trade association across the region has been called CASBAA, or the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia. In the last few weeks it rebadged as the Asia Video Industry Association, to recognise streaming and VOD and to encourage producers to join. It has around fifteen employees, mostly based in Hong Kong, though CEO Louis Boswell is based in Singapore.
According to Boswell, 'The traditional producers were not members of CASBAA but we can be relevant to them as well. It is a question of expanding our remit and being conscious as consumer habits change that we as the industry association have to be at the forefront of that change and not bringing up the rear.'
AVIA also covers India, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, with China watching carefully. It broadly resembles Screen Producers Australia with more of a channel emphasis, crossed with the Motion Pictures Distributors Association of Australia.
It has 130 member organisations and is run by a council appointed by key members along elected representatives of the broader membership. The Motion Picture Association, which is the international branch of the Motion Picture Association of America, is a member and AVIA members are also member of the MPA. In that sense, China is out but the United States is in, though we should not assume an ideological battle here. It has more to do with piracy; the MPA is also connected to the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and our own MPDA.
I had a fascinating conversation with Louis Boswell, an Oxford graduate who studied Chinese to escape Europe and headed to Hong Kong as soon as possible after he graduated. He has worked for Nielsen, Discovery Asia, ESPN Star Sports, BBC Worldwide, A&E All Asia Networks and Discovery Japan - everyone it seems except Murdoch. He really knows what he is talking about.
I wanted to start with South East Asia because we know so much more about China and Japan. It became obvious that the regional market is growing, but the key at the moment is South Korea. I have already heard this from Series Mania at ACMI and FILMART in Hong Kong.
The growing industry in South East Asia?
'The South East Asian producers are moving in the direction of export. The scale of local content is getting greater and greater than ever before. Someone like ASTRO in Malaysia is a big domestic pay TV platform which has done a really fantastic job of becoming one of the key powerhouses in Malaysia producing local content. It is now looking at markets like Indonesia with its cultural similarities, and the Philippines. It has developed a streaming service called Tamago to see where that content can cross pollinate.
'They [the channels] are doing a bit of everything but drama is dominant. A lot of the biggest hit shows are drama, which also has the best chance of working for export. Indonesian television has lots of game shows and reality TV but they tend to be a bit more Indonesia specific.
'The biggest challenge reported by all of our members is the rise of OTT services. They are trying to work out where growth comes from. Because they recognise that everything is converging with streaming and VOD and seeing the challenge of companies like pure OTT plays.
'Then you have all the traditional media trying to reinvent themselves. The Disneys and Foxes are coming together. AT&T bought Time Warner. Sony and Discovery are looking at streaming options and how it matter in our particular context. Go-Jek is an Indonesian transport and logistics company now working on studios and online streaming video space. But the business for that streaming world is not mature and not stable. It is very different from the pay TV world which was traditionally subscription with advertising on top.
'People from that background are trying to hold onto their linear assets while trying not to miss the train. And that is the single biggest existential threat.
'Star in India has been very smart. It is the biggest of the integrated linear chains in India. Pay TV in India is robust and strong but they realise it will not be easy. They developed Hotstar, a purely streaming service which can be free with ads or subscription and ad-free. They put a huge amount of content on there including cricket, which is the biggest thing in India. On the streaming service there is a one over delay, so it is three or four minutes behind the linear broadcast. You have to stop your friends from telling you the current score but but it is a really good solution for a lot of people.
The rise and rise of Korean export?
'The game changer for Asian content has to be Korea, which has done by far the best job in creating shows that cut across all ethnic lines.
Korean artists have invested in taking their productions overseas, starting with K-pop. They did tours and concerts and got a following. J-pop [from Japan] was not doing that. So the Koreans got a foot in the door. I think a couple of blockbuster movies started to build on that. The FTA networks in Korea and the OTT companies see big opportunities and were focused on it in a way that Japan did not. Japan was tied up with copyright and clearance problems for overseas markets that involved the Unions while the Koreans were more streamlined. They have been very very effective, and setting up key content partnerships with international companies like Sony Entertainment Television. And ASTRO which has a Korean cable channel in Malaysia, and also big distributors.
For Korean content all over Asia it turns out that dubbing works best. In markets like Malaysia, some channels are entirely dubbed.
One of the unifying campaigns across the region is piracy, which helps to explain why the US originated MPA is involved. I was expecting him to report that piracy is diminishing, because of the death of DVDs and the rise of legislation protecting intellectual property, particularly in China.
'DVDs are far less. You’d walk down a number of roads in Bangkok and they are all set up along the side. Some are still there, but the fact that you can do all of this in a virtual and online world means that market is crumbling.
'We are starting to make a bit of a difference. It is hard to say we are completely on top because the problem is so entrenched and systemic and in some ways it is getting worse at the moment. But the thing for us as an association piracy has always been on the agenda.
'But about a year ago the problem was becoming so bad that a large subset of our members felt we needed to be doing more so we set up a coalition against piracy with two full time staff. We realised we needed to look at it more from an enforcement and mitigation point of view rather than changing the law.
What went wrong?
Set top boxes allowing illegal streaming. We are moving to a world where streaming is becoming more common, and illegal streaming from a consumer’s point of view is the best proposition out there because you can find pretty well everything. You do have issues about security and safety - big problems with malware and viruses on your computer. We are trying to educate people about the dangers of streaming from illegal sources. It can be a backdoor to organised crime to be honest.
'It is about revenue - the boxes are sold and you make a one-time up front payment and the business has very high margins so it generates a large amount of money.
'We have had actions. In Hong Kong during the World Cup we were working with HOK customers. Some markets were notorious for selling set top boxes with a one time feed. We managed to push it underground and accessibility became far harder. We’ve been working very hard in trying to disrupt and work with eCommerce sites to take down posts which advertised illegal boxes. Such a big project takes a long time.
Does he think the illegal market has a material impact? Are producers and services going under?
We’ve seen everybody suffer. I think it is less about going under - it is more about not starting. It really does hinder innovation. Lots of new streaming companies or Indy Asians are struggling to monetise. They are hanging on but if piracy were less of a problem they could really carve out their niche and do well and piracy is stopping them from doing that.
I asked him about a conclusion which hit me in the face at FILMART: that we need the Asian market, but the Asian market does not need us.
'I think that is pretty true, although we do good business in post-production. There are a lot of Australians working across the market in Asia and they have a lot of expertise and skills.
'It is a question of re-inventing ourselves and making sure we are relevant and building on that. We have lost sight of that a little bit in the past but we are back onto this '
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