April 2007


Exports of UK television programming increased 20 percent in 2006 according to the UK trade association PACT.

Data referred to in the PACT press release, as does the reporting in World Screen News, indicates that this has been driven by a dramatic increase in revenue earned from sales of program formats.

The 87 percent leap in format sales is certainly notable, but it’s important also to look at the relatively small proportion of total export sales it accounts for.

Format trade was worth 56 million pounds in 2006 according to the “Sales by Type” disaggregated figures. If you do the math, this is about 9.5 percent of the total – an sizeable increase from 6 percent in the previous year, but can one say that it is driving export growth?

Sales of formats has received considerable attention in recent years and it is being looked at increasingly by producers as a way to increase exports by breaking into markets less receptive to foreign content, or similarly making headway into genres that tend to be locally produced.

“We make great shows that audiences throughout the world are watching and the UK distribution industry has benefited from the fact that, as rights owners, production companies are increasingly conscious of the international marketplace when they are developing ideas.”

Louise Pedersen
(managing director, All3Media International /
chair, PACT Exports Policy Group)

Exporting the intellectual property or idea of content for reproduction overseas also has governments all around the world excited, particularly those nations whose balance of payments are characterised by a significant deficit in trade in services, such as Japan for example.

Focusing on the international market is bound to make domestic industries more competitive, yet as an increasing number of production companies look to export their content via formats, several problems may well be on the horizon. I will leave addressing these issues to another post.

Figures released by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (‘Eiren’) indicate that box office takings for Japanese films have exceeded those for foreign films for the first time since 1985.

The flailing film industry has been a constant concern for producers and industry stakeholders as they faced both a declining popularity in films, and a decreasing share of box office takings due to the popularity of Hollywood movies from the US.

Speaking to MPPA in 1998, they expressed considerable distress about the miserable outlook for Japanese films, but held onto animated feature films such as Studio Ghibli’s Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) as a potential saviour for the industry both at home and abroad.

Looking at the breakdown of the figures, 2006 saw a dramatic increase in the number of Japanese films (or ‘hoga‘) from 2005. The positive sign for the local industry is that average revenue per film also increased to 258 million yen (according to my calculations), which is also above the average earning for foreign films by about 24 million yen.

While the top 3 Hollywood films (Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Da Vinci Code) outsold top local films such as ゲド戦記, LIMIT OF LOVE 海猿, and THE 有頂天ホテル, a large number of high-performing Japanese films helped push them to scrape just over 53 percent of boxoffice takings.

Notably, 8 of the top 10 Japanese films were produced by Toho – an indicator of their dominant position in the local market – figures for 2004 and 2005 tell a similar story.

While the competitiveness of Japan’s animation sector has seen considerable emphasis placed on the importance of exports, it is interesting to see that feature films – at least for 2006 – have proved more successful at home than have imported ‘blockbusters’.

This Channel News Asia article, ‘Singapore film-makers take documentaries to whole new level‘ tells the ‘story’ of Singapore coming of age as a documentary film-making nation.

It tells of recent news that Martyn See’s new documentary has been banned by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA). The doco consists of an interview with former opposition leader Said Zahari, who was held for 17 years without trial for alleged subversive activities.

The incident raises an interesting dilemma of having the same statutory body that both regulates the media industry (including broadcast licenses and film classification) and is responsible for it’s promotion and development. Given, there are certain synergies in combining the two activities. But while the developmental arm of the MDA needs to be encouraging creativity, skills, and story-telling techniques that can sell, the regulatory arm appears to be sending a clear message about the limits of how ‘expressive’ filmmakers are able to be.

The article quickly jumps into the accomplishments of Singaporean filmmakers at international shows, and explains to readers that banning politically sensitive films does not necessarily curtail creativity. Quoting filmmaker Harry Chew (who made a doco for S$600 about skydivers promoting their sport in Singapore), the article reveals,

“I guess as film-makers, we can make calculated creative choices or compromise, like employing subtlety, irony, metaphors and humour in portraying sensitive or political topics”

And while Chew’s comments seem to be urging filmmakers to pursue more subtle and sophisiticated instruments to convey sensitive subjects, the article concluded with an all-too-neat summary for readers:

In other words: You don’t have to rant and rave to be heard. And that’s what growing up is all about.

As justified as the government’s attitude towards political freedom may have been in the past, Singapore runs into problems when trying to reconcile this approach with the new objective of developing and nurturing a vibrant creative industries sector. This link between freedom of expression and creativity remind me of the words of Tomo Sugiyama, Founding President of Digital Hollywood University in Tokyo.

At the launch of the International Anime Research Lab (国際アニメ研究所) in February this year, Dr Sugiyama suggested that Japan’s unparalleled strength in animation had come from an absence of political and religious taboos that gave animators complete freedom to not only criticise but also exploit religious and political institutions as a source of ideas. While Dr Sugiyama made these comments in comparison to Europe and North America, the environment during the development of Japan’s animation and creative industries stands in stark contrast to the situation in Singapore.

As for documentaries, Singaporean filmmakers in search of compelling subject-matter are destined to have to look outside Singapore, which ultimately is probably not such a bad thing.

Some of the opinion offered on this blog may tend to question the relevancy, if not the sometimes overzealous protection of copyrights by publishers, and those companies who control the rights to the creative work of artists.

Yet copyrights do have an essential role in the business, and the way that studios recoup their own costs before paying royalties to artists, for example, have emerged as a way for studios to reduce their risk. Given the low probability of a new musician’s music becoming a hit, for example, the studio will naturally want to protect their investment first before passing on rents to the artists (described in Richard Cave’s Creative Industries as the “nobody knows” phenomenon).

This opinion piece offers a very alternative view to the established studio system. And while one does have to question the extent to which the author is actually making a living from his music, he does make some interesting points. Particularly worthy of consideration is his take on providing copyrighed content for free distribution.

Yet to what extent can an artist (or a studio) earn a living from giving away their works? While the implementation is somewhat tricky, it comes down to a few points.

  1. The ability to provide different versions of their work. Providing a low bit-rate mp3 file for free gives users a taste of the music and may encourage purists to pay for the higher quality version
  2. As much value as exclusivity has, there is also value in familiarity. Having your work known may be more profitable than keeping it locked up or available only through certain channels. That of course depends on the branding strategy. As a case in point, I turned down buying a box set of The Blue Bar CD compilations in Singapore (mainly because of the S$90 price tag!!) but now can’t find it anywhere. Yet, that fits with the exclusive image of the swanky bar at the Berkeley Hotel in London.
  3. Providing users with something that can’t be replicated. Or at least charging for that which can only be delivered by the artists themselves. For musicians, concerts are a classic example. The more your music has been distributed, the more likely you are to have more interest generated in your music. A live performance is something that can’t be digitally reproduced (yet?).

The UK Intellectual Property Office issued a press release on 6 April announcing new powers to help tackle counterfeiting and piracy, effective immediately.

£5 million of government funding will make enforcement of copyright infringement the responsibility of Trading Standards and give officers the power to make test purchases, enter premises and inspect and seize goods and documents.

Malcolm Wicks, MP, the Minister for Science and Innovation, said:

“The UK film, music and game industries are among the most creative and innovative in the world, but peddlers of counterfeits are costing those industries up to £9 billion a year. The taxpayer is also losing out to the tune of £300 million. It’s a serious offence, whether committed by small-scale hawkers or international crime organisations.

While the actual amount that the industries lose due to piracy and counterfeiting is debatable (do they compare to previous sales figures, or use an estimate of piracy activities? And in the latter case, piracy does not always mean a loss of sale: there is undoubtably a significant number of people who would be more discriminate about the goods they consumed if they did indeed have to pay (full price) for them), it could also be said that while piracy costs taxpayers 300 million pounds, they may also be saving the difference between the 9 billion and the amount that they paid for the goods. In sum, the “it is costing you money” argument is less likely to convince users of pirated and conterfeit goods of their “loss” than it is likely to persuade “honest consumers” to see the benefits of the new laws.

What is more striking about the announcement however, is the UK’s clear labelling of piracy and counterfeiting as a source of revenue and money laundering for international crime organisations.

Japan’s Intellectual Property Strategy Headquarters has made the same move in recent years, both to educate consumers about whom the money from their purchases of counterfeit goods is likely to flow to, and at the same time cracking down on IP-related crime including copyright and patent infringements.

The UK announcement also shows that, at least at face value, the new measures are aimed at bolstering the Britain’s creative industries.

The UK Policy shift appears to be acting on recommendations in the Gower Report (here in PDF), which urged the government to “take tough action against those who infringe IP rights at a cost to the UK’s most creative industries”.

An article in the Bernama on April 5th announces that Malaysia Debt Ventures Bhd (MDV) has organised a one-day session on “Developing Digital Content Industry” (run today) to facilitate the growth of digital content and development in Malaysia. The forum includes two sessions: “Addressing the Issues and Challenges” and “Building the Roadmap”.

An MDV spokesman indicates the support the Malaysian Government is giving to the industry:

“The government has committed to the industry and it has identified as one of the high growth areas in the MyICMS 886 (Malaysian Information, Communication and Multimedia Services 886) strategy.”

This brings Malaysia in line with many other government in the region that are viewing the ‘digital content industry’ as a high growth sector and that are designing specific policies to develop the ’emerging’ sector.

“However, as the sector is nascent, strong government support and more frequent open dialogue sessions such as this would ensure the strategy and implementation plans are carried through to ensure the success of this sector.”

‘Strong government support’ however, tends to be somewhat of an ambiguous term, and could feasibly range from promotional activities to subsidies, and from providing a conducive regulatory environment to the provision of wholesale tax concessions.

The 886 Implementation Plan (here in PDF format) targets 8 ICT sectors, 8 key infrastructures, and 6 growth areas, of which “Content Development” is one. While the plan is only a superficial summary of policies that are being implemented, on the content front at least the focus appears to be firmly on the development of local content and the potential for this Malaysian content to become a “sizeable export revenue contribution”.

The trade in television formats has been increasing in recent years, with shows such as Big Brother and American Idol being picked up by broadcasters and production companies around the world, localised with home-grown talent, and re-broadcast to domestic audiences.

Yet in China, authorities are now seeing this boom of popular, ‘low-brow’ entertainment as a threat to the cultural fabric of Chinese society. An AFP news feed article China gives thumbs down to ‘American Idol’ imitators picked up by several sources (ChannelNewsAsia, BrisbaneTimes) indicates that with the launch of a new talent show Happy Boy, a sequel to the wildly successful Super Girl the central government has given strict instructions to broadcaster Hunan Satellite TV.

“No weirdness, no vulgarity, no low taste,” it told Hunan Satellite as it listed 11 restrictions for this year’s series.

Contestants must only sing “healthy and ethically inspiring” songs, while the show must not indulge in “gossip”.

Relate this back to a previous post about Korean Nationalism and the response from imports of Japanese formats. Unlike the Korean case, the negative reaction to the influx of foreign ideas or culture in China is predictably coming from the government rather than concerned private interests.

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