Channels and distributors across Asia are looking to up their co-production activities in a bid to deliver content that will resonate in multiple markets.
Online video platforms are giving incumbent free- and pay-TV brands a run for their money when it comes to content investments. Netflix has boarded the big-budget Mandarin-language drama The Rise of Phoenixes alongside Chinese OTT heavyweight iQiyi and made waves with the Indian original Sacred Games. Amazon has been generating headlines with its big-ticket content investments in India and Japan. And then there are all the other local and regional players—Viu, iflix, HOOQ, Tencent and more—eager to raise their profile with signature original productions, while also competing with pay TV for the best imports on the market.
Media Partners Asia (MPA) forecasts that online video content costs will hit $31.5 billion by 2023—much of that in China. Outside of China, online video platforms are set to spend some $5.9 billion on content in Asia in 2023, up from $2.7 billion this year.
Against that backdrop, broadcasters and pay-TV channels are well aware they need to up their ambitions. But making high-quality, defining, signature shows isn’t cheap, so more and more outlets are looking to partnerships as a way to share the risks, and rewards, of original content across a range of genres.
HBO Asia, for one, began its originals strategy a few years ago by partnering with ABC in Australia on Serangoon Road. More recently it has aligned with Astro in Malaysia and Hulu Japan, among others.
“We’re fully supportive of co-productions,” states CEO Jonathan Spink. “They work for interesting stories we may not be doing ourselves, and filming in countries we may not be filming in ourselves. You’re sharing costs and everything else, so you all benefit.”
Cora Yim, senior VP and head of Chinese entertainment at FOX Networks Group (FNG) Asia, reports that co-pros “play a significant role in our overall original programming business, and as our volume of original content increases, we expect co-productions will continue as a core part of FOX’s original Chinese content strategy.”
Over at Turner Asia Pacific, Warner TV and Oh!K have long relied on a steady stream of acquired product and as such, “a lot of times we feel like we are just renters,” says Marianne Lee, VP of content for general entertainment. “It’s not a very secure [pipeline] for us as channel providers. That’s why we need to go and source really good IP that we can own and monetize and at the same time bring great variety to the viewers.”
It’s a slightly different story for Lee’s colleague Mark Eyers, chief content officer and senior VP for kids’ networks. His portfolio, which includes Cartoon Network, has a U.S. pipeline of originals to tap into, but partnerships within the region are still important. “Even though we have owning and controlling original content and creating IP as primary strategies, we are great believers in having more ideas than money,” Eyers quips. “So co-production and co-development remain very important. It’s a stepping stone to getting to 100 percent original productions.”
It’s not just the pan-regional channels that are entering into creative alliances—terrestrial channels are doing it too. NHK in Japan, for instance, has long been a go-to collaborator in the documentary space. “The three main genres in which NHK is traditionally known for co-pros are science, natural history and ancient civilizations,” notes Yuri Sudo, senior producer for international co-production at the Japanese pubcaster.
In the Philippines, Macie Imperial, head of acquisitions and international distribution at ABS-CBN Corporation, says she’s noticed “increased interest from our Asian counterparts in discussing co-production partnerships.”
Likewise at GMA Worldwide, where VP Roxanne Barcelona notes, “at the moment, we are in negotiations with an ASEAN member broadcaster to co-produce a drama.”
Distributors are also getting in on the co-pro action. “In the past year, we have experienced an unprecedented level of interest in global collaborations,” reports Sonia Fleck, CEO of Bomanbridge Media. “We have been contacted more this year than ever by U.S., European and Asian networks, looking for fresh format ideas as well as co-productions with international storylines. We are now getting involved early on in productions, offering deficit financing and searching for IP co-pro opportunities.”
Nippon TV, Japan’s leading media group, is also using co-pro and co-development partnerships in a bid to expand its international business. “We are seeking alliances that will allow us to be more strategic in the global format market,” notes Shigeko “Cindy” Chino, the senior director of international business development at Nippon TV. Co-productions, she says, can “help boost Japanese content” by offering up a “gateway to the global stage.”
At Zee Entertainment Enterprises, meanwhile, the recent co-production The Life of Earth from Space, with award-winning production outfit Talesmith Productions and Smithsonian Networks, has helped the Indian company diversify the portfolio of content it can offer the global market. The documentary is among Zee’s top properties for MIPCOM.
“We have a lot of drama—that’s what we excel at,” says Sunita Uchil, the chief business officer for global syndication, production and international ad sales at the company. “Co-productions give us the opportunity to partner with other big networks to produce something slightly different than what is typically on our own general-entertainment channels.”
Uchil says that she and her team weren’t necessarily actively seeking co-pro opportunities, but Talesmith’s pitch was a compelling one. The project, she says, “was of huge interest because it was using satellites to give a completely new, unique perspective into how the Earth was formed and how mankind is what we see today. And Smithsonian was going to be a part of it. The timing for co-productions is always very important. It has to be at the right time, with the right theme and the right talent coming on board. We were looking at doing a global project at that time. We were keen on projects that have an impact across geographies, across cultures. This was a theme that fit perfectly.”
At HBO Asia, Spink says his programming team is staying open-minded about potential collaboration opportunities. “If it’s a good idea and we think it makes sense and we have the money for it, then we’ll look at it.”
One of HBO Asia’s current high-profile co-pros is The Garden of Evening Mists with Astro. “Astro is a very important partner of ours in Malaysia,” says Spink. “We liked the idea and we knew the personnel involved with it, so we had an early-ish conversation and went in. It’s mainly an Astro project—we are a smaller part of it— but we’ve been very involved in every element, from scripts to casting and everything else.”
It’s been a different level of involvement on The Bridge, which was commissioned by OTT service Viu based on the acclaimed scripted format from Endemol Shine Group. “We came into it very late,” Spink notes. “We know the companies involved well. Now TV [sister company to Viu] has been a great partner of ours for many years. We know the production company. They were looking for a little bit extra [of financing] at the end, so we thought, Why not? It’s a story we all know. It’s traveled. It’s an interesting topic for us. And it’s very local.”
Going forward, Spink says there are quite a few territories that he is keen to source projects from. “We have a couple of things going in Taiwan. We’ve done one in Indonesia. We’re talking [to producers] in Malaysia and the Philippines. We’re spreading the net fairly wide. We’ve concluded that language is not crucial. We used to agonize about whether things should be in English or not. We did a couple of Chinese films and they rated incredibly well. So we got over that hurdle. The Teenage Psychic ran everywhere in its original language and it worked incredibly well. People are watching big Chinese dramas and Korean dramas, subtitled. That makes the opportunity that much greater. Working with local talent in the local language is going to be far easier than finding talent who needs to act in English.”
For Astro, “Nusantara” content that can resonate in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia is the primary focus for its co-pro activities. “Growing our reach takes us from Malaysia’s 30 million [viewers] to the 600 million ASEAN population,” says Agnes Rozario, VP of content. “To do this, we need to broaden our network of alliances with renowned local and regional content producers and filmmakers.”
Astro has a raft of co-pros happening across the region covering both films and television series. Working with HBO Asia on the adaptation of Tan Twan Eng’s book The Garden of Evening Mists, Rozario says, “enables us to feature a stellar local and international cast and crew and signals our commitment to push Asian content for international exposure.”
MADE IN MANDARIN
At FNG, meanwhile, “China is a key market for co-productions,” says Yim. The channels group recently entered a multiyear pact with Endeavor China. “We are joining forces to create quality, original, local-language Asian content,” she says. That includes Go Princess Go, a 20-episode Korean remake of a viral Chinese internet comedy, made in association with YG Studio Plex and LYD Networks. “By combining FNG Asia’s production experience with Endeavor’s access to talent, financing and infrastructure, we can establish an all-round cooperation partnership.”
Turner’s scripted co-pro efforts so far have primarily been with Singapore-headquartered mm2 Entertainment, Lee says. “We have a five-movie deal with them over a stretch of four to five years. The first movie that came out of the deal was Wonder Boy by Dick Lee, a famous songwriter and singer from the ’60s and ’70s. That was a biopic on his life, in English. The second movie that I’m quite excited about is an action pic, Killer Not Stupid, from the multimillion-dollar box-office director Jack Neo. It’s in Mandarin, shot in Taiwan, the stars are from Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore. So you get a very pan-regional collaboration between different countries. As it’s pan-regional, it makes it easier to market the content in different countries.”
Turner is also looking at scripted drama series, with discussions underway with a Taiwanese producer. On the kids’ side, meanwhile, collaborations are progressing in a number of markets.
“We just did a co-production with Synergy Media and Studio Goindol in Korea, together with Turner in Europe, to launch Beat Monsters,” Eyers says. “We continue to do a lot of co-productions in India. A recent one that we’re really happy with is Andy Pirki, created by AUM Animation Studios. We’re also doing some co-development deals. We’re looking at co-production and development deals in China and Malaysia.”
ABS-CBN is also casting a wide net, Imperial says, across series and feature films. “We have deals in place where we will be producing movies specifically for an OTT platform,” Imperial explains. “While it has been easier to do movie deals, we are also now in the process of creating pitches for television series as well. There are several discussions currently on the table.”
Imperial adds, “We are looking for stories that have universal impact and appeal. For example, the Philippines has a vast treasure chest of ghost stories and folklore that are uniquely Filipino but can be told so that their appeal is universal.”
Science and natural history remain core to NHK’s co-production remit, Sudo says. “Outside of these genres, NHK is proactively seeking co-production opportunities that involve 8K-UHD technologies. We believe 8K filming technology will open up new possibilities and bring new ideas to documentary making.”
He adds that while factual is the company’s strong suit when it comes to international collaboration, “We are keen to work on new genres. One good example is Bodipedia, a brand-new educational series created along with our flagship science doc The Body. Developing educational projects is different from that of factual, as educational projects have to reflect specific cultural needs and must also meet the local educational curricula. We have been closely communicating with our co-producers at the early stage of development and during the production, incorporating their creative input to make sure the content works for the audience in the respective territories.”
Bomanbridge is also working on collaboration opportunities in the factual space, Fleck says. One example of her company having taken on a more significant partnership position in a project is Paul Goes to Hollywood, being produced with Denham Productions for UKTV. “This was a great opportunity where some additional financing on our part helped cover the budgets, and the production is now underway,” Fleck says. “We will be managing the global rights for this, and we expect it to be a great success.”
She is also currently looking for partners on Into the Heart of China: Walking the Yangtze, fronted by British adventurer Ash Dykes. “It’s a series that offers riveting editorial and the chance to be part of a historical first. Mandarin Film is putting a lot of creative work into the filming of this complex project. Access to the Chinese landscape is always tricky and having a partner like Mandarin Film is fantastic.”
Finding the right partners to collaborate with can be a challenge, Fleck notes, “as it requires the perfect balance of talent and contribution.”
Indeed, managing multiple relationships on a show is always a balancing act. “It’s important for each partner to leverage their strengths,” says FNG’s Yim.
For Spink at HBO Asia, it helps to “go in with a relaxed attitude. You’re not going to be able to dictate everything, so there’s no point even trying to. That’s where you believe in your partners, you trust your partners. If the content is something you’re interested in, you may want things done slightly differently, but you can’t be too precious if you’re coming into it later. You have to go in with your eyes open.”
Turner’s Eyers stresses the hands-on approach his team takes with co-productions. “The level of attention to detail” is the same as it would be for an original. “We’d still go through a pilot stage, and that remains critical. It’s how you work out how we’re going to work together. We attach a development executive, we do reviews and notes. We calibrate to the experience of the partner and the IP in question. But the key point is, we don’t skip the pilot stage. This is where you test the partner’s capabilities.”
NHK is also heavily involved in the creative aspects of its co-productions, “from script development to actual filming and post-production,” Sudo says. “We keep our production process open to partners because we believe that the more we welcome creative input, the stronger the content becomes and the more appealing to the audience in each territory.”
Also key in the co-pro process is a balanced sharing of expertise.
“We are excited to partner with players with whom we can share our storytelling abilities and who can help us with input on how we can make these stories relevant to the international markets as well,” ABS-CBN’s Imperial says. “A perfect partnership is one where both are invested in the creative as well as the business sides of the partnership.”
Nippon TV is eager to share its expertise gleaned from being Japan’s market-leading broadcaster. “We produce 90 percent of our content in-house, [so we] can constantly offer innovative ideas that are key to format creation,” Chino says.
Dragons’ Den was born at Nippon TV and has since been successfully licensed as a format in multiple markets by Sony Pictures Television. “We have learned that creating fresh new ideas that work in the global market requires not just an innovative spirit but also considerable inspection from a marketing point of view,” Chino adds. “Working together with international partners allows us to widen our perspectives and scrutinize our products from a global standpoint.”
Zee’s Uchil, on the heels of the successful collaboration on The Life of Earth from Space, is also keen to share the company’s extensive expertise in content creation. “We have 22 offices around the world and an infrastructure of 3,000-plus people. We own production studios in India and abroad. We have an active talent pool we continuously add to. So we can bring out the best that is required in this business—commercially, creatively and technically. We’re in discussions with certain European channels on a kind of lifestyle program. We’re trying to figure out what they can bring to the table in terms of production ability, the anchor or the creative. And what can we bring? It is an amalgamation. We have the bandwidth. We have the history, the facilities and the people.”
GMA’s Barcelona is optimistic that collaborations will help to elevate the profile of Asian content globally. “The distribution of more co-pros from Asia will raise awareness and interest worldwide,” she says. “Viewers in other non-Asian countries will be entertained by the myriad of interesting stories and will learn much about Asian culture.”
Bomanbridge’s Fleck stresses the importance of bringing Asian creativity to the global stage—and the opportunities that presents. “We see now the impact of Asia’s dramas globally, most recently with the film Crazy Rich Asians drawing wide interest. That film shows that Asia can take the stage in an impactful way. It’s exciting and we are urging producers to reach out to us with co-production opportunities; we are actively searching for the right stories.”