Biz's growth curve in Asia eclipsed only by its learning curve

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"HIt's all predicated on forecasts of enormous growth for the entertainment and media sectors throughout the region. But navigating the often uncertain legal and cultural waterways of nations as diverse as India and China, or catering to myriad languages within just a few thousand square miles, are just a few of the challenges facing the executives charged with carrying out these missions.

Even one of the world's undisputed experts on Asia remarks casually, "I've only been in Asia for 20 years, so I'm still learning."

That would be Marcel Fenez, global managing partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers' entertainment and media practice. He was speaking at a presentation last week at CAA's Century City headquarters about a PwC report on India flush with facts and forecasts about the region.

Later, he spoke at length with The Hollywood Reporter about his many years in Asia, the changes he has seen and the still-fluid market environment into which the world's entertainment players are busy plunging flags.

The reality, he says, is that Asia and its multiplicity of cultures, languages, regulations and business practices represents a constant learning curve for even the most sophisticated.

"I arrived in Hong Kong for PwC in 1987, and I guess I've been working the media beat for most of that period," Fenez says. "And what amazes me is the fact that it's as challenging today to understand what's going on as it was 15 or 20 years ago. The regulations are very different market to market, and the consumer and the business environments are very different market to market."

At least the major Western companies have become sophisticated enough to appreciate that each territory has different needs and values. "The big media companies used to look at Asia as one region, but now they are separating it," the dapper U.K.-born exec says. "You can't compare the Japanese consumer with say the Indian consumer; how could you possibly compare those?"

Now the bigger players are beginning to operate through regional hubs responsible for their own particular areas — as opposed to single Asian headquarters.

The number of countries and cultures entering the media mix will continue to escalate, Fenez says. "The talk over the past 18 months has been about the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but coming behind that will be Vietnam, Indonesia, and we may see the Philippines and Pakistan emerging," he says.

And then there's China, a "sensitive" environment that presents unique challenges all its own but offers huge business potential.

Culturally, it can be strewn with hazards.

"One of the worst things is to make a big deal out of the fact that you are in China because we have seen that having a major presence can sometimes backfire," Fenez says. "It's better just to keep it lower key. If the Chinese want to make a big deal about a business launch, they will."

India also is offering investment opportunities as its broadcast sector continues to explode — and with direct-to-home delivery growing faster than any other sector, Fenez says, the future for investment in broadcast is bright.

On the film side, though only about 4% of movies seen are Western, there are opportunities for co-productions to make movies for local consumption. One such example was "Amal," the opening film at the recent Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. It was a Canadian production lensed in New Delhi. Warner Bros Pictures India's second Bollywood co-production, "Saas Bahu Aur Sensex," will premiere in September.

But is the road to Asia going to be all sweetness and light? Hardly, Fenez says. "Anyone who has been in Asia for 20 years realizes that there are many bumps in the road, many detours and many hiccups on the journey."

Steve Brennan can be reached at steve.brennan@THR.com.
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