Asian Television Market 2013: Singapore and the changing face of distribution

The nature of distribution is truly an international issue, as Dr O'D discovered at the Asian Television Market - where all the trends are playing out in fast motion, by entrepeneurs with not a single
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The nature of distribution is truly an international issue, as Dr O’D discovered at the Asian Television Market – where all the trends are playing out in fast motion, by entrepeneurs with not a single trace of sentiment.

The screen industries once rested on three great pillar, production, distribution and exhibition. Each believed that their’s was the crucial pillar.

Now exhibition has ecaped the hergemony of the cinema and television screens, to inhabit every screen devised by technology. Not even digital watch screens are safe from invasion.

Production has been radically reshaped by technology. Cinefilm cameras hve been largely replaced by video cameras, and post production is largely electronic. While top end skills are still required for top end results, affordable video cameras and post production have opened the way for user generated content (UGC). There, the strength of content claims attention over technical deficiencies, at least in the eyes of a forgiving audience.

And dealing with a trade in UGC is just one issues that is changing the face of distribution.

Nowhere is that more evident than at the Asian Television Market, just concluded in Singapore.

Not even the cultural flagship of the screen industry, the feature film, is safe. Distributor are telling producers ‘love the 90 min concept but can we also have the story as thirty, three minutes grabs for ‘phones?’ There were a few foreign shell shocked screen artists around, dealing with offended sensitivities, at the Media Development Authority of Singapore’s nightly libations.

Sunrise Films of Singapore has been in distribution for more than 15 years. MD Chris Batson esplained that they were originally a production company that was finding difficulty in marketing their content outside Singapore. The company first had deals with a couple of distributors, but the results were poor so they took on the job themselves.

According to Batson, 15 years ago there was a fairly clear distinction between theatrical distribution, product for cinema and television, and non-theatrical, basically all the rest. That distinction has largely disappeared. Most content on offer, from kids television to web series just one product placement short of an out-and-out commercial,are finding buyers across the spectrum of exhibition platforms.

Sunrise, a company that now handles largely factual content, has seen a conservative shift in the purchasing priorities of its clients. They are going for the tried and true, even re-purchasing rights to earlier acquisitions, to serve new exhibition opportunities. With limited budgets they have lost their taste for risky content, even within the traditionally innotive field of life style programs.

‘In the last two years the VOD (video on demand) and IP (internet protocol TV) players have come up in leaps and bounds, and a a pace we can’t keep up with’, Batson said. ‘These buyers don’t go to traditional markets’ he continued ‘ quite often often it’s an email, and a web site… and if its a ‘phone call, it’s a Skype call. They are hard to find, there is so much out there’.

To keep their market share, the tradional exhibitors like Media Corp., (Singapore’s television and radio broadcaster) are setting up VOD, platforms like Toggle. And they are running content on Toggle that Media Corp. would formerly not run.

Fishing program series were a staple for Sunrise. Such programs moved from FTA to cable, and are now almost exclusively run on dedicated IP stations. The start-up IP broadcasters are very much niche operations, tight program selection and tightly targeted marketing.

What Sunrise likes about VOD and IP is financial. The channels will rarely pay a licence fee and only occasionally do minimum guarantees, but they will do revenue share deals. Five years ago such deals were frowned on as they were hard to monitor. ‘These days with technology you can usually get access to the account and see how your program is tracking’, Batson said. ‘We have an agreement with Beatbox in the UK, owned by the supermarket chain Tesco. Beatbox was acquired to provide content for Tesco own channel, which just happens to carry advertisment for all the products Tesco sells.’

A program that is popular on Beatbox will return more than Sunrise could expect under the term licenses and minimum guarantee arrangements.

And Batson sees the day, not too far removed, when Tesco would commission content, very branded content that suited their marketing. ‘Netflick are doing it, and so does Coles in Australia. They are doing it on Coles radio and the Coles channel is available on Bigpond, not just FaceBook, with the face of Coles, Curtis Stone.’

Another big change is a move away from exclusive license agreement. Understandably, a tradition broadcaster setting up a VOD service will want the additional VOD right for content purchased esclusively. ‘But if you’ve already sold the VOD right to another broadcaster with a foot print in that (other broadcaster’s) territory’ according to Batson, ‘it can get very messy. The only way we can get around it is, very reluctently, give away exclusive rights. The tradition broadcaster don’t like it but the VOD (broadcasters) don’t care’.

The take home messagefor producers from this year’s Asian Television Market is planned flexibility. ‘When producers come to us with a concept there a half a dozen producers we work with regularily they say ‘Is it going to sell? We say if we are to cover all the bases , say its a commercial half hour concept… we say also give us the best of the 24 minutes at about 17 minutes for VOD, they won’t care if its 14 minutes, a12 minuter for someone else, and a 3 minute filler, for each episode.

We also need an M & E track (music and effcsts) and a full narrative trabscript so we can dubb into other languages, and every video delivery format you can give it to us on.

The deliver format area is a real mess it seems. Once delivery standards for programs were set by the SMPTE (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) in the US. Now every one wants something different: mp4, ADI, PCM, a Fast Start (no buffering, starts from first frame), not even audio levels are standardised.

There is an urgent need for standardisation, Batson says, if for no better reason than for the producer to know that if the program is finished in this format, it can meet any industry demand. It all comes back to having money in the budget to service these demands for different formats. Some times it is forgotten in planning.

For Batson the role of the distributor as intermediatory is largely unchanged. ‘My gut feeling is producers just want to get out there and produce (content), and don’t want to bother with this side of the business.’ We can spend days just meeting a clients needs, and theer’s just 24 hours in the day for everyone. We chase payments, monitor performance and audit returns. But they, the producers, have to trust us.’

‘And we have to stay ahead of the technology. It’s OK for the Warners or MGM of the world. They have great content and can sit and wait for the technology to come to them. For small distributors we have to chase technology. We have to deliver content very quickly.

‘But the VOD and IP sector is evolving quickly. There is no stabilised business model and it’s not generating enough revenue at present, so it’s a wait and see time.’

So for Chris Batson’s Sunrise Films and dozens, if not hundreds of small and middel sized distributors, it is another year to navigate a rapidly changing business environment.

Dr Vincent O'Donnell
About the Author
Once a film editor, Dr Vincent O’Donnell is a historian of Australian film agencies. He is an honorary fellow in RMIT University’s School of Media and Communication, a past president of the Producers and Directors Guild of Victoria and former executive producer at Film Victoria.