Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Japanese Aussie

Silas Hickey (Cartoon Network) at the studio earlier this week.

I’ll always remember the first time I met Silas Hickey. July 2008. It was a smoldering summer evening in Tokyo. Choon Meng, Bernard and myself have just spent a good part of the day running around Tokyo meeting studios and people, and were going to meet this development executive from Cartoon Network in the evening for dinner. Call came in, and he was going to meet us at the hotel (the excellently placed Tokyu Stay Shibuya Shin-minamiguchi). Next thing we knew, a tall Caucasian bloke (in T-shirt, bermudas and skateboard shoes) pulled up at the driveway in a white Vespa scooter that seemed too small for him.

As we walked, Silas started to talk – and transit with frightening ease into an argument in Japanese with a traffic officer who was giving him some grief over the parking of his scooter. Turned out one of the officer’s colleague had given Silas a ticket earlier in the day for parking his ride outside his office for 5 minutes.

It was just a little bizarre seeing a white guy decked out in skateboard clothing arguing with a Japanese traffic officer who’s a head shorter than him and seemingly deaf to any reasoning or plea for common sense. My first impression of Silas was understandably: “What an angry Aussie.”

Of course it’s far from the truth. I should have know better – after all I lived 4 years among Aussies, and for the most part they’re laid-back, straight talkers with a wry sense of humour. Silas brought us to local restaurant where we ate and downed what must have been half a dozen of fizzy, lime-flavoured drinks that we only found out had alcohol in them much later. Then it’s some proper beer at a local joint near his place.

That was it – nothing more than a ice-breaker and intro session. We showed him some of our stuff, but mostly we talked about everything else that has nothing to do with work. A couple more meetings later at Tokyo Anime Fair and Seoul (SICAF), and we’re now working on a project with him and his team.

It just reminds me that this business is about people. Often we know what the other party does, and that’s out of the way in 15 minutes tops. The rest is mostly about whether we feel we could work with each other without becoming homicidal; whether we laugh at the same stuff; what do we differ in and how we talked about those differences etc. And just getting that feeling of trust – which clearly will take time to develop and validate, but even so you usually have a definite feeling about people after the first couple of meetings.


The Little Arts Academy

An overdue update – earlier this month Amelie and Siying took time out to conduct drawing classes for 60 students of Montford Primary as part of an Arts Discovery Programme by the friendly folks at The Little Arts Academy. The half-day programme was specially organised for children under the Financial Assistance Scheme, which supports needy pupils in Government or Government-Aided schools.


Asia TV Awards Nomination

The excitement was palpable – Milly, Molly receiving a Best Animation nomination for the Asian Television Awards – the Emmys of Asia. Imagine then the shocker that hit like a meteor – we have to pay to attend the awards ceremony.

$280 per head or $2,500 per table of 10 – that’s the entrance fee (they throw in a meal) to attend the event as a nominee. If by some divine stroke of luck we win it, we’d have paid to be present to receive an award that the award panel decided that we are deserving of. However you look at it, it just doesn’t make sense.

But enough about that. The honour and kudos go to the Milly, Molly team for producing what’s not only a representative work of the studio, but also a much-loved show that no doubt will be missed as production on the second season comes to an end.

Milly, Molly official series website


MIPCOM Wrap VI

We’ve been attending the Cannes market for several years now, often twice a year. From oblivion as a little studio based in Singapore that no one’s heard of, the company has emerged through strong partnerships and creative to become…well, just another out of hundreds of companies trying to make and sell cartoons.

It’s not quite self-derogatory. Neither is it modesty. It’s just the truth – that it’s an incredibly tough business to be in. Many studios and creatives labour for years and are still waiting for their shows to become reality. Yet they march on, believing in their ideas, and perhaps more importantly, knowing that the process in itself should be a big part of the joy – almost as much as the result, if any, is. Perseverance is the power storage in the animation business.

Asia is an incredibly layered and fragmented animation industry. Most outside of Japan and Korea (and possibly India) have little experience in making shows for an international market, and just as crucially, getting shows made. Even the Japanese producers have been struggling to arrest the shrinking anime market, and many find the international arena a wholly different ball game. The Koreans have been marketing themselves for many years now as an international player, and today has largely rid itself of the ‘outsource post’ label it has carried for so many years. That position has to some extent been taken over by many Indian studios, while Chinese studios are trying to internationalise faster than any of its regional neighbours, yet face cultural and regulatory realities that seemingly demands it to soar yet forces it to the ground.

With the exception of China, no other Asian countries can rely on its domestic market anymore (some, like Singapore, never could). The only way is overseas – and that can be scary. It’s why  markets and events like MIPCOM are so important for Asian producers to understand and feel for themselves who they’re up against, and the audiences they now need to address. It’s not about making a show that simply looks or feels like a western show, but how to bring a uniquely Asian concept or a fresh perspective to new ideas, and in the process create something that is compelling and stands apart from other offerings.

One of the most apparent problems with the closed, Chinese broadcast market is that it puts a lid on quality of the overall animation, as far as original content goes. No doubt, it’s a complex political situation and reality, and one might argue that quality is relative, but the fact is that much of Chinese animation on television will not find an international audience. Of course China, in many sense, is a self-contained market. But animation continues to be promoted by the Chinese authorities as a ‘Priority Industry’. Whether that means it should be genuinely exportable is still not clear.

So to sum it up, it’s been a very good market, and while not much has changed in terms of buying and selling (except everyone’s got less money, but that’s hardly news), it’s great just to be in the thick of it again – pitching shows, talking deals, meeting new people, catching up with old friends, and just seeing the amount of good stuff being done. Asia continues to make its presence felt, and will for many years. The Asian country pavilions are growing in size and stature, and definitely getting a lot of attention.

Asia is the fastest growing animation industry worldwide, and I firmly believe the best talents are here. It’s a matter of having a progressive outlook, global sensibilities and connecting beyond domestic audiences. It is also important to monitor Asia itself as a mega-territory for animation content. As infrastructure rolls out, digital switchovers happen and the developing economies mature, the key blocs of Southeast Asia, Korea, India, Japan, Australiasia, and China present immense potential that could see a significant shift in market focus (both broadcast and licensing), which hopefully starts to puts Asian producers in a position of advantage for the first time.

Finally, some more images of the market that was. Till next year!

Jeong’s new hair gel was working wonders. And he knows it.

Choon Meng tries to keep his composure as his imaginary friend Ping Ping catches him by surprise.

Ervin shows Jeong that a ‘right hook’ doesn’t just apply to pitching a concept.

Our friends from the MDA. Will refrain from smart-ass captions.

Nathan and Frédéric from Planet Nemo – our partner on two shows about furry animals with different psychological issues.

Irene Weibel of Nelvana and random Asian studio boss.

Nice.

Old Town, where it’s impossible to find a bad meal and restaurant bills are a bigger cause of heart attacks than cholesterol.

Last espresso before heading to the airport.


MIPCOM Wrap V

The market officially ended on Friday afternoon. But it’s fair to say most of the folks you’d want to meet would be gone by then. Generally meetings wrap up on Thursday (some buyers leave on Wed, or even earlier). Friday is really the teardown day (for exhibitors), while queues at the freight counter are a mix of weariness and relief that it’s all over – for another 6 months or a year at least.

4 quick take-aways about the market this time round:

1. Comedy, Comedy, Comedy

If it’s funny, you’ve got a leg in. The hard part, of course, is being funny. Comedies are the most difficult to do, and more so than other genres, are creator-driven. It’s a problem if, as an Asian studio, you’re targeting the US and/or European markets – where hundreds of creators with closer access to buyers and top writers as well as more entrenched relationships are themselves finding it hard to get a development deal. Cultural sensibility is understandably a hurdle, more often than not. Buyers are generally happy to look ideas and concepts from anywhere, but the key to it all is writing – and that, they demand the tried and tested. The obvious options for Asian producers – hire them or more commonly, work with co-producers who’ll look after the writing. It’s a long way just getting there though, but I’ll touch on co-productions another time.

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There really hasn’t been a bona fide worldwide hit since Spongebob.

2. Boys comedies and/or action shows still in demand

Boys watch more cartoons than girls. It’s not uncommon to see a 13-year-old girl today already on to Desperate Housewives (which is a bit frightening), while younger girls continue to bow to High School Musical, Hannah Montana. Jonas, Zoey 101 and a dozen other derivative live-action teen series. And so the battle for boys’ eyeballs is fiercer than ever across the major networks. How to have a funny show that speaks to the boys? The less profound question, although just as difficult to answer and execute, is how to find a cool toy that could make a cool boys’ show? Asian creations have historically been stronger in the space of toy-driven shows. Japanese and to a lesser extent, Korean properties in particular have made their mark. Could be a niche for creators in the region to develop. The Chinese producers are doing an  impressive job at this, albeit their primary market is still China with little effort in export (lot of their latest stuff look exactly like Japanese actually). 90% of toys in the world are made in China after all.

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Exploding balls – literally. Brittle toys that are just cheap enough so that it won’t hurt to buy new ones when they break.

3. Animation is skewing older

Demographics seem very much like a science, although I’m no sure. Often they feel rather academic, yet it’s usually the first or second thing a buyers asks about. You have your pre-school group, then kids (which generally covers early and late pre-teen), then tweens, then teens. That’s about it. If you have a good idea which of these 4 groups your show is in, you’re on firm ground. There is an evident trend over the last 18-24 months of certain buyers looking for ‘older’ animated shows. That means shows targeted at kids or tweens that have an older, edgier sensibility and humour, play on issues more commonly seen in teen dramas (even reality shows), and generally steer towards prime-time writing but not quite at the same level as say, The Simpsons or Family Guy (which incidentally, continue to be among the highest rated shows watched by kids, even though they’re really for adults).

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Animated Reality TV Show. Seriously. Damn funny too.

4. Live-action rules

The extraordinary market appetite for live-action kids / teen shows continues to impact the industry and business. Spurred by the extraordinary success that Disney (as the prime example) has had, and the amazing transformation of Disney Channel into a juggernaut by its live action offerings, everybody wants a piece of this pie. Even Cartoon Network has gone into producing live-action. CARTOON Network. Asian producers are left helpless here. The very nature of animation is that it travels.  And while many Asian countries have been buying live-action shows for the longest time, one can’t quite imagine a kids show made in Singapore, or Hong Kong, or Korea, or Malaysia, or Thailand, or Japan would work in the mass markets of US or Europe. The one upside of this is that hopefully, as western producers shift resources into live-action, more opportunities would open up for animation content from other parts of the world, namely Asia – which is by far the fastest developing animation industry globally.

AaronStoneposter1_myspacesize

It’s like Knight Rider for the Gen Z, except the hero is a crime-fighting online game character (but of course).

That was more than I expected to write. I’ll leave my erm…final final wrap up for the next post.


Random Studio Toys

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MIPCOM Wrap IV

Continuing on MIPCOM (before it fades any further).

So what’s new this time round? If you ask me, not much. Times are still evidently tough for the market, and while there’s optimism I don’t think anyone’s really thinking that we’ll all be out of this rut any time soon. Over the last decade or so the business, you might say, have generally gotten more and more difficult as license fees free-fell and commissions plummeted. It’s tough enough for producers in the big markets. Imagine studios in the Far East no one’s heard of trying to get a slice of the action.

But this business is nothing without perseverance. That’s why it’s important to be at MIP, pitching, finding out what’s happening, what buyers are looking for (usually vague), exploring new deals and partnership models and just be in touch with the pulse of the industry. Few deals get made at MIP (the real work happens after). It’s more about building relationships, staying in touch and letting others know you’re out there in the thick of action, and you’re ready if something comes up.

Attending MIP is expensive, yes. But you only really feel the pinch if you don’t plan ahead. A packed, back-to-back, full-day meeting schedule for the week could knock you out, but invariably something of value will come out of it. I’ve seen people who attended MIP and just sat there for half a day, or even tried to set up meetings at the market itself. What happens is you end up meeting the same people who didn’t plan ahead, and it just adds up to a waste of precious dollars.

At the market itself this time, it feels like a lot of shows are in development (we’ve got four), and that in itself should be encouraging. At least studios are still investing in new IP. Of course, the business is about getting shows made, and that continues to be extremely challenging for most.

For me, the bread and butter of MIP is still pitching. It’s an art I’m far from perfecting, but the more you do it, the better you get, and the better you can gauge the situation and the mood of every pitch meeting. I’ve had terrible pitches (when the buyer looks at his watch 30 seconds into the pitch), but great ones as well. And every time you see that twinkle in the eye of the person you’re pitching to, or get a genuine chuckle or laughter, it’s like sunlight to Superman. Doesn’t mean I’ll pop a champagne anytime soon, but it does fuel you. And confidence is a tonic at a market like MIP, where it gets really draining at the end of the day and sometimes you don’t even want to hear yourself think the same idea again, much less pitch it.

What’s absolutely true is that one man’s meat is another’s poison. It’s a cliche, and for good reason. It’s all subjective really – whether someone likes your idea or not. And the worst thing one can do is to take it personally. What you should do is to identify your targets early, know who you’re meeting, and (as a producer, not a just a creator), have a plan as to how you intend to get the show made and what you’re looking for in a partnership (whether it’s a co-pro, acquisition, pre-buy etc.). Of course, pitch the hell out of the show. It still needs to be a great idea.

My next post I’ll do a final wrap up and offer some closing thoughts on MIPCOM in an ‘Asian’ context.

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