Note: This article was commissioned by CMF Trends, an analysis blog curated by the Canada Media Fund, dedicated to the trends shaping the television, digital media, and technology industries.
Asia is well known as a rising land of opportunity for Western television producers. The governments of fast developing East and South-East Asian nations are determinedly building domestic media industries and implementing initiatives to enable coproduction relationships with Western partners.
Media market growth rates in the region are staggering. In 2017, China entertainment and media market value was roughly $200 billion, representing almost a doubling in only five years. Revenues in South Korea’s paid online video market, the largest of its kind in Asia, currently valued at $200m, are expected to double by 2020.
Despite such enticing numbers, fostering collaborative partnerships between territories with different cultures, languages, regulations and business practices presents significant challenges.
Amanda Groom is here to help. A television executive with 20 years of global production experience including senior roles with Sony Pictures Television International, SKY, Fremantle Media and the BBC, in 2014 she founded The Bridge, a London-based coproduction and development consultancy that seeks to cultivate relationships between English-speaking TV broadcasters and producers and their counterparts in Asia. Groom first developed ties with South Korea before recently branching out into Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.
CMF Trends caught up with Groom to discuss the state of play in Asian coproduction.
Korea is a frontrunner in Asia in developing its media industry. What is the mindset there?
The Korean government is stimulating its production industries, eventually aiming to get Korean productions up on Western screens, to promote its cultural ‘soft power’. For a long time Korea struggled to understand why the West has not simply bought its content in the way that Asia has, particularly its dramas. It has begun to realize that the way that tastes might change in the West is to begin with coproduction. Now there are so many pots of funding for the creation of co-productions with Western companies. Supporting fledgling production companies has been proven to be a highly viable way of creating its own media industry and that success is now being emulated across Asia.
What are the strengths of the various territories that you work with?
There are distinct differences with each. For Korea, it’s partly government funding, but actually they are now moving in to format creation involving joint venture partnerships with Western broadcasters where they are sharing development resources and the IP. Animation and VFX work there is cheaper than in the UK or US, but you’re getting reliability and high quality. Korea has a very developed broadcast industry, however there are big language problems and cultural differences.
A big advantage of working with the Asian territories is that you get good value for money on screen, in terms of the cameras, the crews, CG etc. Then there’s programming investment and the increased access to the market. That’s very much the case in Thailand. By working with Thai companies you have access to many more locations, stories and people than you would if you simply dropped a crew in from Toronto.
Malaysia is generating its own international media business and has some interesting initiatives in terms of IP protection and investment. Now you have the huge Pinewood Studios setup, wonderful location filming and highly developed digital corridors.
What kinds of IP ownership deals are being done between the Western and Eastern parties?
Generally the movement is toward equal partnership status. We are moving from a position where the Asian nations were taking the lesser percentage to it now being much more a joint venture cooperative partnership. 10 years ago the Koreans would ask for 10 or 20 percent of IP ownership when they were putting in 50 percent of the money. Now they want IP ownership commensurate with investment. Sometimes it’s difficult to do the IP and distribution deals in terms of how you break up the world, who gets rights for which territory and so on, because valuing the market is so different.
What is your process for taking a new show idea to Asian producers? At what stage in the creative development process do your clients come to you?
Projects have to have relevance to that country. Then it’s a matter of sending an email with a paragraph outlining the program idea and asking, “Do we have a chance?” If the program is well developed there is no point in me going to an Asian broadcaster because it will be a sale and most of them have made it clear that they already have too much Western content. They don’t want to put their energy in to developing your IP. The days of the West having the perfect product and telling Asia to make it have gone. They want it to be a shared development from the ground up. The time to talk is when the idea is a kernel and the Asian side can contribute to development and creation of the program.
What kind of programs travel well between West and East?
Factual programming travels well because there are more areas of commonality. It’s where most of these coproductions start. When you’re talking science or exploration you have a much easier chance of securing yourself an Asian partner. We are now moving in to formatted entertainment and to drama too. The cultural differences mean that something like comedy is almost impossible.
One of the first coproductions with Korea was with Wales on “Tears of Blood”. Can you outline how that worked?
It was a story of Welsh soldiers fighting in the Korean War in Welsh and Korean language. The budget was so small that on both sides neither producer could hope to get international filming except when they brought their budgets together and the Korean side did Korea and the Welsh side did the UK. Suddenly they both ended up with a program with a much greater international appeal and with much more international content. It left me thinking that from next to nothing we can create something. From there we discovered it was a Welsh missionary who founded Christianity in Korea. Sometimes you only discover the stories when you explore the subject matter. Now the budgets are going up because everyone wants to secure as much money and create the best program that they can.
Where does production need to be done to qualify for state funding?
It isn’t the same as for some of the tax benefits that come with coproductions, like “60% of this must be done in here, or 20% of this must be done there”. It is more a case of breaking the production up into blocks according to what works best, namely which parts should most obviously be done in Asia, and which should be done in the West. Obviously if there are big tranches of Asia government funding, there needs to be a considerable investment in Asia in terms of shooting, crews, using facilities and so on. Shooting and online will primarily be done in Asia, whereas the storytelling hub remains in the West. Western storytellers are revered across Asia so it’s a golden opportunity now to jump in and provide valuable input. It’s not so much development – although that is a part of it – but the actual offline edit coming out through London, New York or Toronto.
What should Western producers bear in mind as they consider embarking on a project with Asian partners?
Coproduction with Asia is a challenge. We’re talking about very different cultural practices, different levels of transparency, different understandings about decision-making and management. It takes years to build up the knowledge and the relationships. You have to come to the whole process with an open mind. There can be an extraordinary arrogance among Western producers who just want to access the money with no contribution from the other side. Asians can see those old colonial attitudes coming a mile off.
What are the Western misconceptions about working with an Asian partner?
Western people often don’t understand the importance of the relationship. They come with a mindset of “here’s my great program idea, where can I position it?” But that is not how the Asian market works. In fact, the project is almost irrelevant. It’s about whether you have the structure in place to work as partners, and then the project becomes one of many that you’ll do together. The functioning relationships are the ongoing ones formed with various goals on a “you help me and I’ll help you” basis. Sometimes the Asian mindset is such that the Western company has to take a financial and/or work sweat-equity investment where they will actually come out the loser as proof of the strength of the relationship. The idea is that it doesn’t matter if you lose money on the first or second project because there is a much greater goal down the track. Of course, Western producers find that one difficult to comprehend.
What do you say to those that have had bad experiences working with Asia?
People have been burned. Certainly there are concerns about discrepancy in budget and about a different understanding of distribution advances and programming rights. Documents and contracts often come under very different laws. There are very few legal houses that do a global television rights and by the time you’ve employed them you’ve lost all your money anyway, so your potential to sue, frankly, isn’t strong. That said, besides China, things are beginning to be ironed out across Asia. There is a lot of work being done on both sides to try to make things manageable. In Korea, the government agencies are squeaky clean about ensuring the money is spent in the right ways with the right accountability. The more business that people do, the more that an international standard is accepted.