Leading OTT platforms in Asia are betting big on local originals and distinctive imports to win the battle for a share of viewing time.
Video content budgets in India, Southeast Asia and Korea rose by 12 percent last year to reach about $10 billion, according to Media Partners Asia (MPA). Digital, while a small percentage at the moment, is on the rise, with online video content investments in the surveyed markets up by 60 percent to $858 million in 2018, MPA reports, driven by Amazon, Hotstar and Netflix in India.
While Netflix’s Indian originals have generated the most headlines—notably the big-budget Sacred Games—the platform is deploying original spend across the region. Erika North, director of original content for Netflix in Asia, says the streamer has 30-plus new Asian originals from Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, India and South Korea. “We announced a total of 17 new commissions at the first See What’s Next Asia slate event in Q4 last year, and this year we have announced six Korean originals, three Chinese-language originals, ten Indian films and we will also be launching our first Thai original, The Stranded, later this year.”
For North, who led HBO Asia’s original programming efforts before joining the streaming giant, the broad remit is for “great stories told with a unique vision. The AsiaPac region is rich with creative talent, mythology, history and culture. Our goal is to find authentic stories that can resonate in the home market but with universal elements that allow that story to transcend borders. Asia is a hotbed for creative talent, both behind and in front of the camera. Ultimately, we’re looking for creative teams who have bold and ambitious ideas, a clear vision for creating characters who can connect emotionally with our audience and a strong sense of openness as to how we can help them to bring that vision to life.”
At HOOQ, where the footprint covers Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India, the focus is on local content—acquired and original—in Southeast Asia, while the service in India is positioned as the “home for Hollywood,” says Jennifer Batty, the chief content officer at the platform. “Local does drive more viewing minutes and consumption for us, but easy-viewing Hollywood content still has a following,” Batty reports.
In terms of originals, Indonesia has seen the most activity, Batty notes, given HOOQ’s position in the market and the sheer size of the country.
“We’ve had several series in Indonesia, with different models. We’ve done two seasons of a short-form series, Keluarga Badak (Rhino Family), which came from a YouTube channel. It’s very Indonesian—it’s not something that crosses borders, but that’s OK because people in Indonesia love it. We’ve done a series called Cek Toko Sebelah: The Series, from a very popular existing IP. It was one of the biggest movies in Indonesia and it has performed incredibly well as a movie on HOOQ. We adapted it into a series. We’ve also taken brand-new IPs. We have a crime series, Brata. It stars very popular Indonesian actors. Just like the phenomenon you’re finding in North America and Europe, some big theatrical actors are excited about doing series on OTT. They’re looking to do something a little bit different than what is found on free-to-air. We look to push the boundaries a bit. Our production values are slightly different. We work closely with our production companies on character development. These are all things that the big theatrical actors are saying they want to be involved with.”
Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, HOOQ has a series in development in Thailand, a successful short-form production in the Philippines called Sex Talks with Dr. Holmes and a theatrical film in Singapore, Wet Season, from filmmaker Anthony Chen. “His last movie, Ilo Ilo, was a huge success,” Batty says. “Singapore is a market where we’re looking to do more from an original production point of view. It’s exciting for us to have our first partnership be with somebody with the reputation and vision Anthony has.”
A DIFFERENT VIU
Viu is also commissioning originals across its footprint in both unscripted and scripted. “We have learned about our users’ behaviors and consumption preferences,” says Janice Lee, managing director of PCCW Media Group, on the platform’s local-content journey thus far. “For example, in Malaysia, we’re in season two of The Bridge, which is more of an action, thriller type of story, and we announced Keluarga Baha Don, which is a bit of a dark comedy. In Malaysia, action and dark comedies work. In Indonesia, romantic dramas and romantic comedies do well, and some thriller types of stories. We produced a show called Rewrite and it’s one of the most successful originals we’ve done in Indonesia.”
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are the priority markets for iflix’s original content efforts, according to Mark Britt, CEO and co-founder. “We give the people we work with an enormous amount of creative freedom,” he says on fostering ties with the production community. “There are no constraints on episode lengths or number of episodes. We don’t dictate the format. We try to let them push the boundaries as much as possible…. On mass-market free-to-air TV, you want to create something that interests everyone and offends nobody. You don’t want that in the digital world. You want shows that people are passionate about.”
And in order to discover what people are passionate about, local intel is crucial.
“We have very strong local content teams in every one of our territories,” says HOOQ’s Batty. “That’s incredibly important because we need to be tuned in to the local production industry. We need to be the first platform that production companies think of when they’re producing a new show.”
North at Netflix points to the creative support the platform can offer producers and writers. “Our goal when we work with creative talent is to support them and give them the platform to tell stories that they have not had an opportunity to tell elsewhere,” she says. “For our owned originals, Netflix works with creators from script to screen, that is from initial concept to final delivery. We are with our creative partners all the way. We are there to support the execution of their vision. We spend a lot of time listening to them to build the trust that we are as invested in the success of their shows as they are. Creators have the artistic freedom to bring their vision to life. From what we have observed and learned in the past, authenticity is what makes content travel, so staying true to this authenticity in creative intent—the story, the characters, the local culture, in short, the world that these creators are building—is very important to us.”
As for what she looks for, North mentions the “strength and originality of the story and executional capabilities of the creative team,” all of which she found in the creatives behind her first slate of Chinese-language originals: DJ Chen for Nowhere Man, Neal Wu for Triad Princess and Ho Yu-Hang and Quek Shio-Chuan for The Ghost Bride. “These are familiar genres but told with a twist, like very long movies shot in a multi-episodic format,” she says. They are all “infused with universal themes—from gangster-brotherhood to romance to the supernatural—which we believe will resonate with audiences around the world.”
HOOQ’s Batty is also looking out for content that can cross borders. “Ideally, whenever we’re acquiring content, we would like it for all of our territories, including India. We see Thai content resonating well with our Indonesian audience. We also find that there is high consumption of Filipino content in Singapore.”
While discovering content that can travel is a crucial concern for the multi-market operators, local market leaders like Hulu Japan have other considerations. For the platform, which is a division of Japan’s leading broadcaster, Nippon TV, acquired content is a vital part of the lineup. “Besides the major [Hollywood] studios, we source our content from around the globe,” says Kazufumi Nagasawa, chief content officer. And Nagasawa has an eclectic acquisitions remit: recent pickups include the Spanish prison drama Locked Up and the Indian historical epic Porus. “We are keen to acquire representative and distinctive content from each territory,” he says.
The platform is forecast to become profitable this fiscal year, Nagasawa reports, a milestone given what he refers to as an OTT market in Japan that is “too crowded. Consolidation will proceed in the meantime.”
For its originals strategy, co-productions have been essential, with Hulu Japan partnering with HBO Asia on a number of projects. Most recently, the two companies announced a deal for The Head with The Mediapro Studio. “This is the first case of us participating in an English-language drama with Japanese talent,” Nagasawa says.
Even with its international alliances and acquisitions, “domestic content accounts for the vast majority in terms of volume and consumption,” Nagasawa observes.
General-entertainment platforms are leading much of the OTT activity in Asia, but niche services are emerging, among them iwonder. Unveiled at the APOS Summit in Bali in April 2018, the documentary and current-affairs content platform went live as a branded destination across the iflix footprint last summer and then launched on TVNZ’s on-demand offering in New Zealand in December. Earlier this year, a direct-to-consumer SVOD proposition rolled out in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. This September, iwonder launched in a slew of other Southeast Asian markets.
One of iwonder’s key differentiators is a news feed on the home page that highlights doc titles exploring related themes. “We don’t see anyone doing this anywhere else,” says James Bridges, iwonder’s co-founder and CEO. “The philosophy came out of this idea that there has to be pretty close overlap between people who are interested in what’s going on in the world and people who are interested in high-quality documentaries. So we thought, let’s have a curated newsfeed—not an open firehose—that comes across your home page presenting you with [documentaries] that are related to or adjacent to what is going on in the news, just to give you deeper context. For example, Trump and Kim meet in Vietnam and the associated docs are on Vietnam’s tech boom, Trump’s relationships in Indonesia and the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Kuala Lumpur. A Harvey Weinstein story can be associated with a documentary about the underrepresentation of women in positions of power. You can do it with climate change, gun control, Russia. These are ongoing themes that we license and curate content around. There are not many household-name documentaries out there, but there are thousands of great, quality documentaries. So [the newsfeed] helps give people a way into discovery of the catalog.”
The platform currently has about 1,000 programs from across the documentary spectrum. “iwonder matches trending news with real-life stories about the people and events shaping current affairs, music, pop culture, religion, sports, nature, war, history, politics, science, technology and much more,” Bridges says. “Our key focus is on quality, so a majority of our feature docs are festival selections or award winners.” Bridges hopes to get the slate up to more than 2,000 titles by the end of 2019.
JUST THE FACTS
Also operating in the factual SVOD space is DocuBay, a service headquartered in India but with global aspirations. “We are looking for one-offs and one-off docu-features,” says COO Akul Tripathi on the content strategy. “We are staying true to [our tagline] of ‘OneTribe’—experiences that unite people from around the world as one tribe in this incredibly connected world. People living in different parts of the world are no longer as different as they perhaps once were. We’re looking for stories with very specific viewpoints or opinions. That is the broad way in which we are looking at picking and curating our movies. And everything is in English. We will go ahead and customize and localize as demand requires.”
Tripathi is confident that DocuBay’s unique perspective will be a draw for telco operators across Asia hungry for content partnerships. “They want something that has a differentiated proposition. There’s a lot of content floating around and it’s becoming increasingly difficult for newer players to be able to find a distinct positioning. I think DocuBay is in a very cozy nook that way. With our concentrated approach to the content we are acquiring, we [expect to be a differentiator] for telco operators and other business partners that we are dealing with, and also for consumers.”
Among DocuBay’s unique propositions, Tripathi explains, is DocuBytes. “It’s short snackable content, usually around 20 seconds, which you can consume on the go. It is great for being able to explore and discover new content. At the same time, it gives you an idea of what it is that you would like to sit down and watch. So within the product, within the kind of content we are rolling out, there is a strong emphasis on mobile consumption. That is not at the expense of a more lean-forward viewing experience on larger screens.”
With the OTT players injecting money into the ecosystem, “the outlook remains healthy across much of Asia for the video content industry,” says Stephen Laslocky, a VP at MPA and principal author of the Asia Video Content Dynamics 2019 report. Budgets across TV, film and online video are scaling up in Southeast Asia, India and Korea, but “there are pockets of pressure in other markets,” Laslocky adds, “especially for incumbent free-to-air broadcasters in Malaysia and the Philippines, where TV budgets were reined in. Falls in TV viewership have been especially pronounced in Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, largely precipitated by digital competition as viewers flee marginal TV channels. Viewing data suggests that popular TV channels are relatively well insulated from online video competition, at least for now.”
TV viewership is being driven by drama and variety, Laslocky notes. “In growing or capacity-constrained markets, variety can be the easier genre to scale, with international format houses playing a key role. Movies, both Hollywood and domestic, are good audience pulls.”
Netflix, for its part, is looking to invest across all genres. “We’re looking for stories that haven’t had the chance yet to be told in the long-form format—and even then we are open as to how this format works to support the story,” North says. “We’re at the start of our journey producing original content in Asia, and there is much to learn. Ultimately, we want our catalog to have something for everyone, so the breadth and diversity of stories and formats is important to us.”