Last week’s Asia TV Forum was my first visit, and my first visit to Singapore.
Plenty of channels, distributors, funding organisations and producers in an airy exhibition floor in the huge Singapore Convention centre. The event was organised by Reed Midem, with support from the impressive Media Development Authority of Singapore.
It was good to be representing SBS at an Asian market – Australia’s nearest neighbours after all. I had to keep reminding myself that these companies represented a population of 4.4 billion people – in countries where media and television were developing fast.
So should more people have been there? The French were by far the biggest European presence, with 20 companies on two stands – thanks to the support of TVFI, very well run by Mathieu Béjot. Other than that, there were a few representatives from Europe and the US, but not as many as I would have thought. Beyond and Flame joined me in the Australian contingent, though there were also distributors selling to the Aussie market. Maybe the cost is simply beyond an independent producer, and it’s best left to the distributors.
The emphasis was on entertainment, lifestyle and drama – though melodrama or telenovela might be a better description for a lot of the fiction on offer. Acquisition rates may be relatively low in some countries, but there are a lot of territories and they’re hungry for content.
I had good conversations with a few channels, and with the MDA, about working together with SBS. I know it isn’t going to be easy, and the SBS audience isn’t particularly used to Asian programming. We show the Chinese dating show If You Are the One on SBS2, and it’s one of the top-rating shows on the channel. Well, the actual title is Fei Cheng Wu Rao), 非誠勿擾, literal translation: ‘If not sincere, then do not disturb.’
The show was based on Take Me Out, remade as Taken Out on Australian Network Ten in 2008 and axed after just a month, only to have its format re-imagined and successfully exported to 19 countries including China. Just goes to show that ideas can have new lives.
Although Aussies are frequent visitors as holiday makers to Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Myanmar and all the rest, it’s hard to find the right way to interest them in content from Asia when they return. I’m pretty convinced that we’ll need young Asian presenting talent to act as a guide to the myriad stories that are clearly waiting to be told. Once I’ve found that it’ll be a question of finding a mainstream audience for them. Anybody know if there’s a blockbuster Indian dating show we could buy?
I’ve now visited Malaysia, China, Singapore, Japan and Korea in the past few months, and know that there are talented and entrepreneurial people to work with. But I also know I’ve only scratched the surface. I think that a lot more ideas need to be generated, and working relationships formed. I’d like to give it a go though.
There’s a national drive in Korea to make documentaries the next Korean international content success. Korea made a national project out of becoming the world’s biggest music producer through K-Pop. Pretty ambitious project for a country of 50 million people. But they’re now the fastest growing music industry in Asia, with a massive presence in Japan and inroads into China too. Psy’s Gangnam Style with its retro and knowing dance routine (2 billion views and counting for the video) was K-Pop’s breakthrough moment, though not really typical of what Korea generally makes – choreographed pop hits, auto tuned to within an inch of their lives.
Now the government has looked at Documentaries and decided that they are another form of international content that can be given a government boost and conquer the international market. So Docs Port Incheon, which ran at the beginning of November, benefited not only from healthy government funding, but also the industry focus that this provides. I was an advisor, with the lovely Karolina Lidin of Sheffield Doc/fest and Nordisk Film and TV Fund fame, and this was the first proper year of the event after a try-out last year. At the public pitching were representatives of investment funds that normally do movies, alongside public agencies, Korean broadcasters, and international commissioners, distributors and funds – all promising cash to some challenging documentaries. Catherine Olsen from CBC, John Lee from Tribeca, Esther van Messel from First Hand Films, Catherine Le Clef from Cat and Docs, Rudy Buttignol from Knowledge Network, Fiona Lawson-Baker from Al Jazeera English, Claire Aguilar from ITVS and Nihotpal Majumdar from DocEdge all attended.
The event was held in the Paradise hotel in the gritty port city of Incheon – enormous cargo ships full of the cars, TVs, microwaves and all manner of stuff that comes from Korea. The hotel TV showed Japanese baseball every morning (another sort of pitching).
There were many winners amongst the 22 Korean and other Asian projects pitched. The money that companies got in cash prizes, as well as post-production support – $500,000 USD – is a very large sum by any standards. It wouldn’t pay for entire productions but would go a long way. Several of the projects were then going to be pitched at a Korean pitching event at IDFA in Amsterdam next week – all paid for by one of the content promotion agencies.
The challenge for content producers and funders though is that the Asian market is pretty fragmented for factual. There’s China, which is huge but somewhat unfathomable for other Asian countries. Japan, which can be quite introverted and dominated by NHK. And then the rest, where independently produced content is something of an unknown quantity.
I’m hoping to do some consultancy in Korea to help the indie production sector. I was on a panel about independent production and international coproduction, (thanks to Wonjung Bae for organising it and IJ for moderating with aplomb. He made us all have a proper stretch after the first hour and a half).
I also gave a lecture to the pitching teams called Changing the Narrative about why documentaries matter to a country like Korea (download the Changing the Narrative presentation if you like). The UK’s indie story is a good one, and the big numbers that UK indies have generated make sense in government circles. Factual and entertainment formats are the driver in Britain, and could be in Korea – feature length docs don’t have the cash-generating potential they’re looking for.
And I’m sure they can come up with the right ideas to make use of all that lovely public development support – as a country they seem to be able to do a lot when they put their mind to it. UK indies as ever have spotted an opportunity in the country. There are already good links between some companies like OSF – their new BBC/Terra Mater series Wild Weather with Richard Hammond is coproduced with Paan Media Holdings of Korea, and goes out in ten days time in the UK. Amanda Groom of The Bridge, part of Argonon, runs a consultancy which specialises in setting up projects with Korea, and is very active there.
The companies I met at Docs Port are quite filmmaker-led – they could all do with spending more time and money on ideas development I’d say. The money is being spent developing a project, rather than helping them come up with ideas in the first place. The mixed ecology of docs and fact ent of many UK companies would be a good model for them – if they can get the scale in factual. For that, they need broadcasters to invest in indie production rather than their own in-house production, and that looks like a long way away. But with a determined government behind them, who knows?
Plus, there’s a channel called SBS in Korea – there’s got to be an SBS-SBS Korean-Australian coproduction, surely?
Korean producers have been active in factual events like Sheffield Doc Fest, IDFA, and will no doubt be present at the Asian Side of the Doc in Xiamen, China, next March. A couple like Ha Sinhae of Boda Media – who’s just brought back a prize from a festival in Sao Paolo for Here Comes Uncle Joe
– and Gary Kam who produced with Min-Jul Kim and director Seungjun Yi the multi-award winning Planet of Snail, are well travelled on the doc circuit. What they might need to do now is to build scale with something more TV-focussed like a factual series, perhaps for the Asian market in the first instance
Thanks to Seokpil Kang, Wooyoung Choi and Gary Kam for bringing me to Docs Port and introducing me to Korea. They were excellent organisers, so friendly and welcoming, and know how to have a good party without spending a fortune. I’ll be back.