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Monday, December 14, 2015

The Future of Cinema and TV

Note: Just sharing what I have learned in media forums like SGIFF, ATF and All-That-Matters; and from what I have read and experienced. Hope you find this article useful.

The Internet.
The future is in the Internet. That is the mother of all motherhood statements! We all know that, but how is that going to happen? The Internet has changed most businesses, from banking to how crops are picked. Likewise, it has a major influence in the film industry from content creation, casting, production, marketing to distribution. The current revolution concentrates at the distribution end, which until very recently, has been dominated by those with the financial capabilities. Big production studios make films and own theatres, leaving very little room for upstarts and independents. However, the change has begun and more of it is in the horizon.

There are now successful film distribution models via the Internet, like Netflix. In 2015, Netflix video traffic forms an impressive 37% of all Internet traffic during peak hours in the US. It is a subscription video-on-demand service and now also produces tele-movies like "House of Cards" and "Marco Polo"; with some of them, like "Marco Polo", shot at Pinewood Studios Malaysia with some of the cast from Singapore and Malaysia. Netflix is offering its services to Singapore in 2016, which I think will cause a major shake up in the local market.

There are now other giants in the bandwagon, like Google/Yahoo!, Amazon, Ali Baba and Vimeo. All of them, except Vimeo, produces content. Vimeo offers a very attractive option for film makers to screen movies and keep 90% of the takings.

Meanwhile home theatres and TV sets are getting more and more advance and affordable.

Apart from that, going on the Internet allows lots of data to be collected and analysed, to determine exactly when to show what type of content in which countries.  "Content is King" has shifted to "Content in Context is King", and now finally rests with data analytics as, "Content in Context in Immaculate Timing, is King".

However, despite the strength of big data analytics, the conception of the nature and type of content to produce is still based on human judgment and inspiration, virtually plugged out from thin air. After that, these concepts are verified and optimised by analytics.

For more about "Data Analytics and How We Think", click here.

Youtube Stars
Youtube stars that garner millions of subscribers and hits per day are great influencers in their spheres of interests. They are wooed by TV stations to appear in their programmes and to act in feature films. Ironically, the lure of new media stars to old media broadcast and screening still has its seductive aura at the time of writing. In five years time when on-line markets dwarf traditional broadcast ratings or box-offices, then these Youtube stars will finally sober up to the reality that they are already sitting on an enviable golden throne.

Some mainstream TV actors are now contractually required to maintain a presence in social media and answer to fan mails directly. TV drama plots are also rapidly tweaked and synchronised closer to real time events.

These days, youth below 21 years old rarely watches TV. If they do, they watch it via the Internet and prefer content that is closer to reality. Traditional TV ads talking down to them will not work, as they buy through peer recommendations in real life or via the web. Prevailing trends point to a risk among TV stations to continue to produce content that are no longer relevant, oblivious to the harsh reality that there will be lesser and lesser people watching TV.

Online trends are forming to solve problems and satisfy hobby group interest every few months. "Play-It" has emerged as a form of expression for gamers. "UnBox" a new trend barely imaginable just 18 months ago is now all a rage for new product launches.

There is also a trend towards short form videos, as their average duration has shortened to a mere 3.8 minutes, as of September 2015,  from 5.1 minutes two years ago. The Vine 6-Second video competition hosted by Tribeca, now brings shortness to a challenging new threshold.

Traditional film studios and TV stations are slower to leverage on the Internet, as they are burdened by their 'brick-and-mortar' legacy systems. Much akin to how 'brick-and-mortar' bookshops struggled against Amazon online bookstore during the go-go dotcom days. However, they are doing something about it and have now adopted "OTT " (Over-The-Top) broadcasts over the Internet.

Traditional TV
During the early days of TV in the 1960s, there was only one business model. Then, businesses pay to advertise on TV, the station gets the money and used it to create or acquire content to be broadcast. Fast forward to 2015, we now have at least 49 TV business models and growing. It grew from free-to-air, to paid cable, premium cable, subscription video-on-demand, pay-per-view, branded-TV,...etc.

Inevitably content are now influenced not only by the business models that they are to be sold in, but also the display screen - whether it is going to be on a theatre projected screen, a large 90 inch HD TV, a 10 inch tablet or a 4 inch mobile phone. Cinematography and screen play styles will have to adapt accordingly.

For instance, content creators may like to consider more facial closeups and shorter episodes, as more and more people are viewing videos on devices and smart phones during their daily commute on public transport. Actors will have to deliver subtle and precise actions and emotions (as they are now more often on extreme closeups) within tight time frames, such that they are editable into short episodes.

There are examples of successful TV stations making the transition to the Internet, among them the Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation (JSBC), which grew its revenue from an already high GBP 90 million in 2004 to a staggering GBP 1.5 billion in 2014. The latter achieved partly by going OTT. The revenue of this one station is more than the entire Singapore media market. Much of JSBC viewers are still domestic and JSBC is now looking at creating content that can travel internationally. I had the good fortune of meeting the president of JSBC and suggested to her that she may like to look at making international content in Singapore, since it is a natural multi-system system. Such content can be shaped to be international, but yet retaining the Chinese language and look-and-feel. In other words, it is akin to a cuisine retaining its unique flavours as a Fusion food, instead of slipping into the blandness of International food.

And indeed everyone wants to enter the Chinese market, as it is huge and growing at a breathtaking pace. However, the Chinese Government limits the number of imported movies down to thirty-four movies a year and so co-production is almost inevitable to enter the market. From Hollywood's direction, we can already see more Eastern content weaved into their movies.

The other gigantic market India is relatively open, but to date, foreign films barely make 10% of their market. This may be due to the natives' preference for stories that are culturally close to their heart. In India, there are Hindi films and Tamil films, but there are also films produced in regional languages having a captive audience as small as 5 million people.

The Indian film market is so attractive that Western born Indians, and even some Caucasians, have flocked to Bollywood to boost their career. Most of them cannot speak the language and have to rely on dubbing. I was told that non-resident female Indians have the advantage of being more daring when performing intimate scenes or skin flicks, compared to the more conservative natives.

Bollywood has gone international while retaining their character of over the top exaggerated acting, slapstick comedy and energetic dancing - the so-called 'masala films', that make lots of money. Many of these films have snippets of shots in foreign locations with stunning views to add to the fantasy that mesmerises the working class audience in India.

However, there is a growing group of directors that have started making more realistic films catering to the more sophisticated and intellectual crowd. However at the moment, this is still a niche.

South East Asia 
(Data from Wikipedia, click here.)
South East Asia has 11 sovereign states and 2 dependent territories (of Australia and India). It has a population of about 618 million people and an average per capita income of only USD3,538. Each South East Asian nation has its distinct native languages and cultures, some of which has more than one major language.  The largest country Indonesia, has 252 million people, occupies 1.9 million square kilometres of land and a per-capita income of US$4,323. The smallest one is Singapore. It has 5.6 million people, occupies 724 square kilometres and a per-capita income of US$52,049. Though the smallest nation in terms of population is Brunei with 453,000 people.

Most of the nations are governed by a constitutional government elected through the ballot box by the people, with the exception of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos that are one-party governments and Brunei, which is still an absolute monarchy. Myanmar has just had its first fair general elections. Some of the countries were also at war with each other up till the 1970s. This is less than two generations ago and war stories are still within the lifetime of the older generations. Some nations are independent only since the 1970s, with  East Timor's independence happening as recent as March 2011.

South East Asia is geographically, politically, economically, culturally and linguistically diverse. Religious practices ranges from the mainstream of Islam, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity, to native folk religions and animism.

It is difficult to produce content that is native to any one country and acceptable by the other South East Asian audiences. South East Asian co-production is therefore difficult from the point of view of content, bar those genres depicting fantasy cross-border crime thrillers, just like the Cleopatra Wong movies in the 1970s.

Singapore and Malaysia have some successful co-productions in the Mandarin language. Some Jack Neo productions, like the "I Not Stupid" series sold well in Malaysia, Singapore, China and Taiwan.

In the year 2008, a Singapore TV series called "The Little Nyonya" (dubbed in Bahasa Indonesia), managed to cross over to Indonesia. It is a popular series about the early Chinese settlers in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, and the culture and fusion cuisines that had resulted. It was also broadcast in China.

There are also Malaysian Malay language productions that have crossed over to Indonesia, and vice versa.

For more about movies and language use,  go to section 5a of the blog post "200 gigs 200 lessons", click here.

However, successful co-productions or productions with native content, that gain popularity outside their native lands are few and far between.

The economic and infrastructure development of some countries are also lacking. Some are also not well developed with sufficient Internet connectivity. Indonesia for instance, do not have Internet bandwidth high enough to sustain video-on-demand outside their big cities. Budgets to purchase programmes in South East Asia are also much lower. For instance, it was mentioned in one of the forums that a 40 minute animation programme may fetch US$250k in Western developed countries, but only about US$500 in South East Asia.

So, the South East Asian market is a tough one and tougher yet to be considered as one market. Though ironically, it ought to be fertile ground to create interesting and unique content, precisely because of its diversity. The producers that crack the above challenges will set the trailblazer.

Singapore is naturally a crossroad of East and West, not only in commerce but in the natural environment. The tiny land size of 724 square kilometers has a diversity that is not sufficiently leveraged in films and TV. In nature, Singapore has more species of plants and trees than the entire North America. Its tiny territorial waters is home to 200 over species of corals, about half that of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, which is at least 2,000 times the size of Singapore. Also, its short coastline is home to 40 out of the 60 known species of mangrove in the world. So diversity is natural to Singapore. There is even a nature documentary made about it:

Further, Singapore has imported 8,000 plus species of foreign hardwood trees of which 5,000 plus species have survived the local humidity to support the City in the Garden. What the government has done for trees and plants, it has also replicated it in commerce, resulting in Singapore hosting 40.8 percent of Asia Pacific headquarters among 319 global Fortune 500 companies.  The labour policy is also open to foreign talent to supplement its local skilled workforce.

The result is an interesting mosaic of cultures and languages that Singaporeans are now second nature to. The average Singaporean speaks two languages, and can code switch between the two effortlessly. Among themselves, they speak a unique mix called Singlish.  Singapore is in a constant flux of adjustments to fit into the international arena. Just getting into a taxi in the city, requires the reflex to choose the right language to to speak to the driver. Therefore, adaptability is a norm in Singapore.

Going International
Hollywood movies are the biggest successes in the international market. Now 60% of their revenue comes from outside the United States. Less European movies have gone international. I suspect that it is because they are not in the English language and that they exhibit a different script structure that is less catchy, less tensed, less hurried and less formulaic. In short, more art, less science and and less commercialised. 

Generally, I find non-Hollywood movies to be less cookie-cutter like and less predictable, and therefore more inspiring. So there is place for movies outside Hollywood, we just have to find our niche.

Asia International
There are a few common questions discussed in film forums. Namely:

1. Can Asians produce content that can be sold internationally?

There are successful Asian movies, such as the series of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies. Jackie Chan has also moved into Hollywood and acted successfully in English, albeit usually being the only Asian in the main cast. Also, Jackie Chan's movies could well be popular in whichever language  as audiences buy tickets to watch him fight.


K-Pop is also successful internationally, though Korean dramas successes are more limited to East Asia. Both adopt luxury, styles and beats that the West can relate to, and retain the use of the Korean language.

2. Will the West buy movies with an Asian cast, speaking in accent neutral and intelligible English?

Some Asian distributors and producers have told me that English language movies with an Asian cast may work in Asia, but will not be accepted by the Americans and Europeans. The Western audiences are said to be more used to seeing Caucasians speaking English, than Asians speaking English. Or is it? If it is, then it doesn't make sense as there are millions of Asians, in Europe, America, Australia and other parts of the world that speaks English as their first language.  I suspect it has to do with the lack of fluency in the language and acting style (or standards), than mere ethnicity.

Asian actors in London and Australia, find it difficult to get enough gigs as an Asian. It is hard to convince the casting director to accept them as actors that happen to be Asian, rather than an Asian actor. To add insult to injury, Hollywood had on several occasions, literally taped up Caucasian eyes to look slit-eyed, in order to cast them as a Chinese.

Somehow there is such an insatiable appetite to cast Caucasians that even those of Southern European origins are less preferred to white Anglo-Saxons, in Western English speaking countries. So where does it put Asians actors in international movies? So far, they are stereotyped as scientists, nerds and kungfu fighters.

Wong Fu Productions, a video production company with a cast and crew of largely ethnic East Asians, are tremendously popular with 2.4 million subscribers online and have recently distributed their feature film (in American English) via Vimeo. Once again, the Internet enables niche players to gather numbers and be profitable. However, I heard that most of their viewers are Asians. For a sneak peek of the film, click here.


In the late 1970s to early 1980s, there was the Cleopatra Wong movie series that sold very well in the international market. They cast English speaking Asian actors and were able to have their films sold not only in Western countries, but also the former Eastern European countries, Africa states and the Middle East.

So now we are talking. We do have English language films with Asian cast that sold internationally. This has been done.


If that worked in the 1970s to 1980s, then it ought to work better today with the popularity of social networks and cities getting more racially diverse. Diversity is more interesting than mono-culture. Imagine how boring Facebook would  be if it is only about one-country or one-culture/race. Producers and distributors ought to recognise this opportunity quickly.

More recently in 2013, the seven-minute English short film called "Gift", which I acted in with a Singaporean cast and crew, garnered more than 20 million hits online, and is still growing as we speak. This proves that an engaging script with a strong message and actors that can connect with the audience emotionally, will travel. For more about "Gift", click here.


Format counts too. Format is a growing market in the TV space. It gains momentum with the popularity of reality shows. Besides the successful talent shows like X-Factor, Voice and Britain Got Talent, there are cooking shows, dare devil shows, education shows, parenting shows...etc. Think of a unique idea that can sell to large audiences, have it prototype and sell it to a large network like ITV and you have it made. Leave the legal aspects and IP protection nightmares to them, they have an army of lawyers to deal with that. Even that, I heard  that it is often very difficult to protect a format. However, more often, the copycat succumbs to a lack of know-how to deliver the show to its desired results. So it is not just an idea, but the know-how to nail it down to a fine art.


In summary, the Internet has changed the way TV shows and movies are made and it is now changing the way they are distributed. This will cause major upheavals and upset some market players among the incumbents, while creating new opportunities for newer and nimbler players. Some traditional TV companies have made the transition quickly and have succeeded in increasing their bottom line handsomely.  Those that succeed have mastered the art of applying technology to keep up with new trends, behaviour and content development.

There is a quest among all producers to create content that can travel internationally.

The Chinese market is the most attractive at the time of writing with many parties interested in co-production. This in part to by-pass the official limit of 34 foreign movies allowed into the country per year, with that limit to be re-negotiated in 2017.

Conversely, the Chinese are also interested in extending their products to the international market and with international content. So we may well see the genesis of Asian content with international appeal in the coming years.

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