Asian Academy Creative Awards: Best Drama Panel

Several nominees for best drama at the Asian Academy Creative Awards (AACAs) weighed in on time constraints, co-pro potential and premium storytelling at a panel at the National Winners Conference in Singapore last week.

Moving from daily dramas to premium storytelling, budget constraints and the importance of having ample development time dominated the conversation at the best drama panel at the AACAs National Winners Conference. The session, moderated by Mansha Daswani, editor-in-chief of World Screen and TV Drama, featured an array of national winners ahead of the regional winners being crowned at a gala ceremony in Singapore on December 7. The award for best drama in the region went to Netflix’s Korean entry The Glory. The session at the AACAs’ National Winners ***Image***Conference featured David S. Suwarto, director at PT Surya Citra Media for Broken Heart from Indonesia; Itaru Mizuno, director of Nippon TV’s Rebooting from Japan; Kyle Goonting, representing Astro Malaysia’s One Cent Thief; Damiano Malchiodi, content production director at CANAL+ Myanmar for Crying Forest; Ruel Bayani, head of ABS-CBN International Production, which made the Philippines’ winning entry, Cattleya Killer; Molby Low, founder of Singaporean production outfit Wawa Pictures, which made Oppa, Saranghae! for Mediacorp; Jayde Lin, CEO of DaMou Entertainment, producer of Taiwan’s Wave Makers; and Sophiya, representing Cambodia’s winning entry, Weight of Love.

In a region that has long been dominated by quick-turnaround, daily drama production, moving to more premium storytelling has been a bit of a learning curve.

“Because of our broadcast background, we’re so used to rushing our writers,” said Bayani, representing Cattleya Killer on the panel. The Filipino series was adapted from a 1997 feature film and acquired by Prime Video. “When it came time to produce a premium series like Cattleya, we thought six months on the script would be enough. Looking back, creatives should be given more time to develop their scripts. To achieve a certain quality, you need to be able to get your characters right and balance the different tones and textures. Now, I have mandated that it will be a minimum of a year. That may not be a big thing in the U.S., but it’s not usual here in Southeast Asia. We have teams working on projects for three years from now, five years from now. I think that’s a bold step in respecting the craft of writing and allowing for proper development. It’s not the mindset our corporate bosses would appreciate, but you need to champion this. If we want to compete at the [international] level, writers, showrunners, directors and producers should adjust their timetables to allow greater efficiency and better quality.”

Low discussed the short time frame available for the production of Oppa, Saranghae!, which emerged from a Mediacorp call for pitches last August, with a requirement that the show be ready by March. “The good thing about our short timeline is that we get minimum disturbance from the [commissioner],” Low quipped. “We didn’t have the chance to have a misstep. It takes a lot of experience and coordination with the whole team.” That the series required a show within a show—its main character is obsessed with a Korean drama and winds up pulling its lead out of the TV and into her contemporary life—presented an additional hurdle.

Goonting also discussed the challenges of insufficient time for scripting and production. “One Cent Thief is the story of a bank teller stealing one cent at a time—how do you dramatize that and make it more exciting? The development process was long, but it wasn’t very long. We need more time. We have evolved since five or six years ago, when scripts were written in one or two months. Now we have six months. Writing a series while maintaining that premium quality, elevated from your daily dramas, is challenging. When it goes to production, we have 45 to 50 days to shoot. Netflix shows have 70 to 80 scenes. We want to aspire to that. It’s not just the writing time; it’s the shooting time. We have to keep it within 40 or 50 scenes per episode to finish. If we go above that, we bust our budget or have to split units. We all need time and more money.”

“If you want a longer schedule, you need more money,” noted Mizuno, who scored the best director award for his work on Rebooting. “It’s getting easier [for shows to] travel internationally. I’m exploring more international co-pros. It’s attractive from a creative point of view but also from the point of the budget; I think it’s useful to have a lot of partners.”

Time wasn’t the biggest challenge for the producers of Indonesia’s Broken Heart, which follows four young men “facing their quarter-life crisis,” Suwarto explained. “It’s the first Javanese series. Sixty percent of Indonesians live in Java, and about 40 percent speak Javanese, but there’s never been a Javanese-language series. It was too risky. We did it anyway. It didn’t quite work out on TV. It’s very difficult to read the subtitles; that was a lesson learned. But it did well on OTT. It destroyed every record for Indonesia at the time. We had 1 million views every episode, every day. TV didn’t want to commission a second season. The OTT platform did.”

Crying Forest, meanwhile, was made a year after Myanmar’s coup, in a market that is still maturing when it comes to premium drama production. Malchiodi has been encouraged by the series’ success, noting that it has traveled to markets such as Vietnam, Belgium and Germany. “The horror genre is quite strong everywhere in the world,” Malchiodi noted. “Myanmar is a mix of tradition and modernity. It’s a mix of an old generation and a new generation. Asia is becoming very important in the international market, not only from a trend point of view but also the technique, the quality of production and the premium style. You have to keep the quality and loyalty to your audience and still be premium. We have the ingredients and have to find the right balance.”

Meanwhile, on the importance of recognition from the AACAs, Bayani noted: “It’s always better to have another reason to aspire for more, to work harder, to achieve better quality and improve everything from storytelling to technical quality. And visibility. To use the win, either a national win or a win [regionally], in our longtail marketing and distribution.”

Sophiya made a similar point in discussing the recognition for Cambodia’s Weight of Love, which touches on the themes of family, motherhood, body acceptance and mental health. “We want to bring our film industry around the world.”