The Pacific Rim has put down a welcome mat and is reaching out to the international documentary community on an unprecedented level. This is triggering a flurry of activity in the region, as broadcasters and producers hurry to establish potentially lucrative partnerships. Some countries, however, still struggle to keep pace with their neighbors, never mind North America or Europe. Kimberley Brown looks at where the dollars are, who’s buying and who’s not, and finds out where factual films are likely to bubble up next. (With files from Deanna Wong)
Buzz worthy. China’s economic recovery across an array of industries is bringing it into the global economic arena alongside the U.S. Its enormous market potential, as yet unrealized, has TV people weak in the knees.
License fees remain low, but there’s money to be had and distribs report increasing sales. Conversely, locally produced docs are finding foreign screens – even in the U.S. Weijun Chen’s film To Live is Better Than to Die aired on HBO’s ‘Cinemax Reel Life’ strand in December.
International producers are now gaining unprecedented access to this guarded society. Watch out for a 4 x 1-hour, multi-million dollar series from London-based Carlton International, the BBC and PBS on what’s happening in China, the shooting of which was negotiated with Chinese officials.
Small and troubled. Thailand has seen little growth in its doc market. Piracy of TV signals is a major problem that inhibits broadcasters’ revenue potential, thereby stifling funding support. Mark Atkin, a CE with Australian pubcaster SBS, notes most broadcasters are also quite commercial. ‘We have yet to find independent documentaries that fit our model of public broadcasting,’ he explains. Plans to move to digital and set-top boxes are expected to help this mainly Thai-speaking market.
A market on the move. Malaysia boasts about 4 million TV households and Christine Fellowes, head of E! Networks Asia, says there’s still growth potential. ‘This is a newly interesting market for us,’ she explains, noting plans to launch an E! channel. Pay-TV platform Astro enjoys a monopoly and is one of the most successful in Asia. License fees are better here than in The Philippines or Thailand.
Terrestrial channels continue to launch and most buy docs, but not lots. Fast-paced, entertaining programs are preferred over educational fare, as long as they haven’t appeared on a cable competitor’s air. Local content is supported, and independent doc-makers have access to a distribution network.
A country to watch. Initiatives such as the biennial Taiwan International Documentary Festival and the Taiwan Award, created to encourage local doc-makers, indicate growing support for docs. Ruled by martial law until 1987, the Taiwanese doc tradition was formerly one of propaganda. Now, players such as Discovery Asia are working with the Government Information Office (GIO) to develop talent. Last month, NGCI teamed with the GIO to provide US$400,000 to Taiwanese prodcos for production and project development. Also, pubcaster PTS has a long-standing, one-hour doc strand called ‘Point of View’. Says local filmmaker Daw-Ming Lee, ‘They’ll sometimes put up to TWD$1 million [$30,000].’
Not yet on the radar. Most doc industry insiders say there’s probably production talent in Vietnam – and there’s certainly a wealth of stories – but there’s not much happening here yet. Up-and-coming markets such as Korea and India will overshadow Vietnam for some time.
Giving mixed signals. The local doc industry is small, but In-Docs – a program started in 2002 by Yayasan Masyarakat Mandiri Film Indonesia (YMMFI) – is working to develop the production sector, training talent and funding projects. The country is also attracting global partners. Ward Platt, MD of Nat Geo Channel Asia, notes Nat Geo has branded blocks on terrestrial outlets, and produced the three-part series Indonesia: Beyond the Reef, in partnership with the Indonesian government.
E! Networks’ Christine Fellowes says the cable and satellite market is stable (there’s an E! Entertainment cable channel). But, she notes a declining economy and an over saturated terrestrial market; ‘Production costs are still pretty high, and there’s a squeeze in budgets, but they need local programming to survive.’
A model market. Japan offers competitive license fees and a healthy television market. About 127.5 million people live in Japan and TV has enjoyed a near 100% penetration of the market since 1990.
National pubcaster NHK dominates the doc scene with four channels (GTV and ETV, both terrestrial; BS-1 and BS-hi, both satellite) that cumulatively support 22 doc strands a week, or about 22 hours.
Language and style remain hurdles to international collaborations. Says Australian doc-maker Jeremy Hogarth, ‘The Japanese audience tends to like information and facts, more so than story.’ These hiccups will be reconciled as coproductions increase.
Money in numbers. This archipelago offers some of the lowest license fees in Asia – up to 50% less than other countries in the region. That can be as little as US$750 for a one-hour on pay-TV. Yet, due to its large English speaking population, The Philippines remains a mid-priority market with some distributors, because of sales volume. Demand, however, is mostly limited to lighter entertainment fare.
Terrestrial channels offer slightly higher fees, but, says Alicia Hannan, Southern Star’s Asia sales exec, ‘Broadcasters are trying to differentiate themselves from the cable channels such as Discovery and National Geographic, which have the market cornered on docs.’ The exceptions are docs on tech, science and medicine. Prediction: Only when the rampant pirating of cable and satellite signals is stopped will The Philippines be a truly interesting TV market.