Hope for a better Asian film/television industry

Filed in TVB (H.K.) 香港無線電視, WorkTags: ,

I've been filming 刑事情報科 at TVB over the last four weeks or so. Before we began filming the series, there was much enthusiasm and a meeting with the head script writer to ensure that we all knew what direction the series was taking and how we were to act our parts. The idea for the series was relatively new and we were pretty excited about it.

Unfortunately, one of TVB's annoyances popped up for this series; late scripts. For almost every shooting so far, we've received our scripts via fax on the day before shooting. For me personally, this is just enough time to get familiar with the dialog and be able to play the part reasonably ok. It is not enough time to fully understand what might be going on within the scene and within the dialog, and then being able to make decisions about alternate methods of acting the scene.

Luckily for TVB, they have a lot of talented people working for them including directors and assistant directors who have to work out what people and props they need for each scene with only just a little more time than we the actors have available to study the scripts. TVB also has capable actors and actresses who have learnt to deal with the stressful schedule and produce extremely good performances under the circumstances. The result is television series which are acceptable and occasionally exceptional.

The truth though is that many of us; actors, actresses, directors and the script writers; would like to be producing higher quality content. We are limited in our efforts though by a corporation whose goal is to make as much money as possible, producing audience-acceptable content for as little money as possible. TVB can afford to do this because in the world that we live in, TVB is pretty much the only mass producer of Cantonese-language television content. For all I know, they might even be the only mass producer of Chinese-language content for audiences outside of China. That makes them a powerful corporation and so far, no other corporation has been able to compete with them.

In Hong Kong, piracy and monopolies have almost killed the film and television industry. There are loads of talented people who could produce quality content but there are limited options for the distribution and sale of that content. I truly believe though that there is still hope for the industry.

The key is to loosen the stranglehold that the monopolists have on the distribution of video content. When there are more places to buy and view Hong Kong-made video content, there will be a higher demand for that content and there will be more opportunities and work for the people in the industry. The internet is the key.

We need one or more (preferably more) internet companies similar to NetFlix, iTunes and Amazon that allow people to purchase, download and view television and movie content. We need internet companies that accept content from independent producers, who fairly compensate the producers for their work, and most importantly allow access to that content from anywhere in the world; i.e., no virtual geographical boundaries to protect the old regime of distributors.

iTunes is already selling Hollywood-made television content in the U.S.A. It can be done. Unfortunately, iTunes is not available in any Asian country except Japan because the markets are relatively small and because Apple cannot establish reasonable terms with the record companies and distributors in these countries. Without access to audio content, Apple is not likely to open up iTunes stores in Asia simply to provide video content.

You might ask why we need iTunes to distribute our television content. Part of the answer is protection of the content. Let's be frank. If we in the industry work hard to produce a great television series only to sell one copy and see it get pirated throughout China and Asia, what's the point? The content would definitely have to be protected. For the moment, that means either Apple's FairPlay DRM system or Microsoft's Windows Media DRM system. Apple's FairPlay is the only one that runs on Apple's iPods. Apple's FairPlay also runs on all Apple Mac computers and most of today's Windows computers. In contrast, the Windows Media system only runs on Windows computers and non-iPod portable devices designed specifically to be compatible with the Windows Media system. It doesn't run on Mac computers or iPods. FairPlay would therefore be the logical and ideal choice of DRM systems. The problem is that Apple doesn't license its FairPlay system to anyone else to use. If you want to produce anything in FairPlay format, you have to sell it through Apple's iTunes stores, but since iTunes is not available in much of Asia, there's no point in using the FairPlay system. Sigh!

For the moment then, it would be very difficult to find or set up an ideal online store for television and movie content available to anyone in Asia or the rest of the world interested in Asian video content.

However, let's assume just for the moment that it is indeed possible to set up such an online store and somebody actually does it. What might happen as a result?

First, there would be incentive to write and produce quality content because presumably, the better the quality, the larger the audience. You would also be competing with other content producers so you'd try to make your content better than theirs to compete for the audience's money.

Second, because the market would no longer be controlled by big corporations like TVB and the film distributors, all content producers would have an opportunity to sell their content. It would be a fair and open market (although the larger corporations would assuredly have much more marketing money to spend). Consequently, there'd be more work for everyone in the industry.

Furthermore, I'd like to others in the industry to consider this for a moment. What does it take to record television content in terms of equipment? Today, filming and editing in DV video is relatively inexpensive.

I'd therefore suggest to enthusiastic members of the film and television industry that they work together to produce the new content and reward themselves accordingly with dividends similar to those used in Hollywood. Currently, people who work on Hollywood television series get paid when the series goes to air, get paid again when it gets re-aired, get dividends when the series gets released on VCD and DVD and so on and so on. If the series is a good one, people involved in the production of that series can expect a decent income from that series for years to come. In Hong Kong, it's a completely different story. There are no unions and no dividend systems. We as actors get a small payment for our work in the television or movie production and then never see another dime even if the product sells a million DVD copies and gets re-aired on cable and satellite television 100 times.

With guaranteed access to one or more online content distribution stores, a group of like-minded enthusiastic people could work together and produce a television series with very little immediate budget. In exchange for their "work now, earn later" agreement, they could establish a dividend system similar to the one used in the states where they each get a piece of the online sales of the television series. With such incentive and the promise of unlimited markets, these people would work hard to produce the best content they can and over time create a reliable source of income for them as they do the work they love.

In time, established leaders in the industry including well-paid actors, actresses, directors and writers, would see the incomes being made by the people using these dividend systems and insist on getting the same treatment in their own productions. Given a few more years, the whole industry would finally be in a situation where the quality of most video production is high and the profits of those productions are fairly distributed among the people involved in making them. (Noting of course that there will always be the low quality cheap productions and there will always be actors and actresses willing to trade their dividend rights for what might be their lucky break.)

How much time would this take? I'd guess approximately ten years would be required before almost all essential people in the industry demand shared profits. There would be hiccups along the way, and there would probably also be pressure; both legal and illegal; from the large corporations to limit the progress of such an industry trend. Marketing costs would also make it difficult for new companies to make their productions known and successful. That said, the overall result would be well worth it for everyone involved including the audience who gets a much larger selection of content to choose from, and a much higher quality of content.

Everything depends on the availability of online stores able and willing to resell the video content, and on the availability of one or more DRM protection systems, able to produce protected content that can be played by most people. For my money, that's Apple's FairPlay; playable on Apple Mac computers, Microsoft Windows computers and iPods.

(By the way, if France succeeds in forcing the legalising of reverse engineering DRM systems like FairPlay, many content producers are going to reconsider selling their content on the internet. It will eventually be a big loss to television and movie audiences the world over.)

I wonder what Apple has planned for the future? Licensing FairPlay would be nice ;-)

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16 Responses to “Hope for a better Asian film/television industry”
  1. sapphire says:

    >>Unfortunately, one of TVB's annoyances popped up for this series; late scripts.>>

    Just for curiosity. Why are there so many last-minute scripts in TVB? It’s a bad tradition/habit of the industry or something else……
    Don’t tell me TVB “一屋兩家三姓人” was based on a true story. 宣萱 played the role of a TV producer (drama) in that series. She always got this "late scripts" problem just because the scriptwriter was so busy with his part-time jobs “秘撈” from outside the company.

  2. Jean says:

    Applause to actors/actresses and people behind the scene of TVB who could manage so well in times of late scripts. I was very impressed by the different themes and meticulous plots for HK drama, Such as the 隨時候命. A pity that the movie/TV industry is very much facing the threats of piracy. Neverthless, 加油!

  3. Johnson says:

    G'day Greg...being reading your blog for a while, it's really interesting and insightful. Yep! I totally agree with what you've said about TVB, they are really lucky to have professional and talented people like you working for them as well as having no competitors at all in the cantonese-series market. They are even showing more and more series bought from mainland or overseas rather than producing quality home-production...that to me is really disappointing because a lot of local talents are not being shown. Unfortunately with many things, when profit and revenue is a priority, consumer benefits are always last on the list....~sigh~
    Anyway, keep up the good work and blogs.

  4. John says:

    Greg, I want to know how your fellow colleagues or for that matter, those with some power/influence feel about your blog; like all employers, they obviously won't appreciate negativity from a employee.

    What you have said in this post is possibly the first time I have ever heard someone say it like it is about TVB. I appreciate your honesty and the insight you provide for all of us.

  5. wcoco says:

    it amazes me how a big organization like tvb does late scripts. i mean, they shoot way before the series go on air, don't they have enough preparation? or is it just typical working style in hk? can't do things until the last minute.

    btw, i just watched 'always ready' on vdo - you don't look older than bowie and you're his 'see fu'? lol.

  6. Stephen says:

    Greg...couldn't say more, but have to completely agree with you. On the contrary...I do hereby sincerely encourage you start your own production company and setup an online company to distribute all the contents the company produced. I'm most definitely sure that most of community in this blog could contribute scripts and other provide other assistance. I could start writing these scripts for you...

    Btw John, I don't believe this is the first time Greg's rant over the attitudes of his employer publicly in this blog. Search the blog and you'll find other annoyances of TVB.

  7. Richard says:

    Hi Ho Kwok Wing

    Just reading this from my wife
    s subscription to your blog again :)

    A few thoughts

    Yes agree TVB are monopolistic and some stuff looks very rushed - I do prefer Japanese and Korean dramas as they look more deliberate. My wife is watching some Mongol v Ming costume drama at the moment but I just don't get the feeling of the drama of the historical period.

    But it is good to see mainland settings for these now, not just some old quarry at the back of Sai Kung or wherever they film them normally.

    Just a thought from a fellow Aussie: There are micro stock exchanges at Bendigo and Newcastle where you can raise very small amounts of money by issuing shares. This may be a good way to start your production company. Many Singapore firms have done just that on these exchanges.

    Yes Ipods are the way to go. The great edifice of TV studios, production companies, broadcaasting and so on is on the way out - the next generation will happily watch new-style programs on micro devices with content supplied by smaller companies or new players.

  8. MY says:

    So TVB series production is just like any other industries (i.e. building, machinery, food, etc.) All work based on last minute contracts; last minute hiring; last minute designs; last minute production; and last minute delivery. Heard these all too many times: "We need these... now...in 5 minutes... ASAP... in a rush ... yesterday... etc."

    (Don't shoot me, I'm going to play devil's advocate here...)

    You see, nowadays, fast money is the road to success. Companies are doing everything they can to get products out in less time using less money even if it means sacrificing quality. One of my bosses once said to me, "You can only have 2 out of 3 of the following choices: fast, cheap or good." And unfortunately, all companies are leaning for "fast" and "cheap". Look at the quality of cars, computers, electronics, clothes, shoes, music and even food we get now. Forget about repairs. If it breaks down, just throw if away and buy a new one. So why would you think TV series and movies should be any different? People are only going to spend their 1 or 2 hours in front of the TV watching those series or movies every day. If they don't like it, then they watch another series or movie. What some people don't like, others like. There are just so many people out there that companies and owners don't have to worry about not getting enough business. Take for instance, a restaurant with great advertising but with terrible dishes and bad service. Their customers may never return but new people, attracted by the eye-catching advertisement, will always come to try.

    Here is another comment. TV series are made to adhere to the taste of the majority of the viewers. You have to realize that not all viewers are highly educated who can understand complicated and meaningful plots and scripts. Or maybe they are but because they already work at a very stressful job that requires a lot of brain power that they don't want to think too much when they come home to relax and watch TV or go out to a movie. A lot of people cannot tell the difference between a good performer and a mediocre one. Or maybe they can but don't care because a performer with good looks and are likeable are all they want to see. We all don't want to admit it but majority wins no matter what.

  9. Stephen says:

    MY, I don't quite agree and please don't take this as an offence. Btw, you're right, but we're talking about the entertainment industry. Maybe the consumers of the part where these entertainment originated prefers this low quality entertainment. In life, we're already slammed with numerous low quality products (I don't like to use this example, but...) that are mainly made in Ch*&@. Unfrotunately, it's a different culture for the entertainment industry. Quality television series/Films is what we consume here in North America. Why is it so hard for this to be avaliable in Asia and in particular Hong Kong? I understand and know for a fact that there are also lots of garbage out here in North American television and film wise. However, there is more than a handfull of good stuff. At least what is being placed in prime time is acceptable for the majority. I would classify the TVB series as the daytime soaps we get here in North America: different actors and actresses acting the same story in a different time line. Go figure.

  10. Yvonne says:

    Hi Greg! ;)

    Found ur website by accident, and l've been reading through sum of ur updates/blog. Sounds u r a really nice guy, actually l've been watching TVB's tv series for numerous of yrs, and always wondered "who's that 'gwei lo'?". Remember my 1st time l "discovered" u on tv, it was from the tv series "天涯歌女" who was acted by Nnadia Chan and Leon Lai, l think u played a photographer....

    Back to the topic, ya l think TVB might appreciate they have so many great and professional actors/actresses, and imagine how hard to not get sleep for many days though u still have to catch up scripts in no time. l wanna ask, who in TVB do u usually hang out with and who r ur best friends? :-)

    Regards, yvonne!

  11. dont says:

    我諗飛紙仔應該係香港拍攝特色, 你咪當係training囉, 到你拍其他國家o既製作時, 你o既轉數實會比其他非香港演員高, 事半功倍。
    btw, 第一集"潮爆大狀"(唔邊鬼個改個咁低俗既劇名)見到你, 你西裝+鬚根look好型仔喎!

  12. alexthemans says:

    Goodday, Greg!

    This blog is a bit long, but it's still worth for me to spend a period of time to read it. I have no point to disagree with your suggestion to TVB for publishing its movies online with DRM.

    Just google some drama names and you shall find tons of BT seeds available. For TVB's (and you, Greg :-) ) money, introduction of DRM is a must. But what's the cause of such a situation? What do the torrents' publishers think? On Internet everything should cost nothing? Or want to help others? I can't make it clear.

    >> If France succeeds in forcing the legalising of reverse engineering DRM systems,...
    Greg, do US, Russia, Chinese law prohibit the reverse engineering of DRM? As you know, all these countries do not lack verterian hackers. Even there is a fail of legalisation, hackers from US, Russia, Chinese can accomplish the task, too. Any encryption technology, however, can be cracked. In my opinion, all things we should do is to reduce the loss due to the widespread of unprotected multimedia files.

    I am sorry to my poor English. DOn't shoot me if my points are really rubbishy.

  13. Rikiro 力郎 says:

    Hi Gregory:

    Born in the 80s & lived in Kowloon for the 1st decade of my life, TVB is a household name for me, I even appeared on 430 Spaceship in 1985 playing piano! Moved to Singapore in the 90s & graduated in Oz in 2004, TVB dramas are still popular regardless where I stay... U are the most noticeble Caucasian actor in TVB dramas, acting Cantonese-speaking roles in different nationalities, be it in modern or Qing Dynesty, thumbs up!

    Relate to your post, I empathise your feelings totally coz I'm also an actor/performer, having a part-time contract with the one & only TV Corporation in SG - MediaCorp. However, there's a saying in SG, "the only stars U see in SG are those in the sky", it's really not an well-rewarded (except for endorsements)& appreciated trade in this island-nation. However threate works are much more widely accepted here compared to HK, perhaps we can exchange some pointers for 2 different markets. I feel sad for HK TV/film industry, gone are the vintage years of Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau & Tony Leong, Stephen Chow... all of whom have their roots in TVB...

    G'day & no worries

    Riki 力郎

    http://rikiro.blogs.friendster.com

  14. dont says:

    hi, greg, 唔知你可唔可以o係有你新劇出既時候開個post俾我地chat下呢?
    有時我想講下你d新劇唔知去邊度講, post個同"潮爆大狀"有關的comment o係依度好似off-topic咁, 大家有冇同感呢?

  15. Phoenix says:

    i think it is nearly impossible to open an media on9 store for hk

    there are too many sources for getting high quality and free video/music on9. i dont think tight hong-kongnese :P will pay for them anymore....

    even the hk govt able to ban all this sources, the store still hav to face their true enemy in mainland china!!=.=

    um......unless consumer can get some benefit, ie. get special feature after purchasing, different remix version of music, different ending for video, etc.( obviously all gotta b exclusive, which means the cost is higher....)

  16. Domestic Helpers says:

    Hi Greg, this is good place. I found there is less celebrity in Hong Kong doing blog and keep in touch with audience like you. It's good CRM to you too. :)

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    Internet Marketing