Netflix's Strategy for Southeast Asian Originals Begins to Take Shape

Courtesy of Busan International Film Festival; Courtesy of Netflix
'Fly By Night'; inset: Erika North, Netflix’s director of international original programming.

Malaysian ghosts and stranded Thai students are featured in the first originals from the region.

Netflix is hoping a Malaysian ghost story based on a New York Times bestseller and a Thai tale about students stranded after a tsunami will capture the imagination of the world when the streaming giant launches its first original series out of Southeast Asia.

The Ghost Bride (Malaysia) and The Stranded (Thailand) are currently in production and will break new ground for Netflix as the platform looks to tap into the talent and content on offer in a market that boasts a combined population of an estimated 650 million people.

"There’s a huge concentration of film talent in Southeast Asia," said Erika North, Netflix’s director of international original programming. "From a Netflix perspective we really think about content in a holistic way. We’re really thinking about the way we can engage with producers and content creators across the spectrum, from licensing through to originals. For us it’s about finding the best way to access content and to procure that content for the widest possible audience."

The Ghost Bride, the first Chinese-language original to be shot in Malaysia, is directed by locals Quek Shio Chuan and Ho Yuhang and has Hollywood connections in the shape of TV writer Kai Yu Wu (Hannibal, The Flash) and star Ludi Lin (Power Rangers, Aquaman). The story is lifted from the pages of Yangsze Choo’s bestseller from 2013, a ghost-murder mystery set in 19th-century Malaysia.

Sophon Sakdaphisit-directed The Stranded is the platform’s first-ever Thai series and focuses on a group of students who survive after a tsunami devastates an island.

These two series will be joined by two other Chinese-language original series — Nowhere Man and Triad Princess, both produced out of Taiwan — as Netflix continues to expand its work with Asian filmmakers. The productions will be available simultaneously in all of Netflix’s 190 markets with subtitles or in dubbed versions, according to North. No definitive date has been set for their rollout.

"Over the last year and a half we have been identifying some of the great programming that exists in these markets on the TV and film side, and bringing that to a greater audience," North said. "We’re really excited about where we're going. For filmmakers, hopefully what we offer is going to be a bit of a game changer."

The move could prove timely as Netflix prepares for battle with a collection of new players in the streaming market. Disney, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia are all prepared to launch their own platforms over the next 12 months.

While last week’s second-quarter results showed Netflix’s revenue rose 26 percent to $4.9 billion, eyebrows were raised by the fact that subscriber growth fell short of expectations, with 2.7 million more viewers signing on, far less than the 5 million the streaming giant had predicted. Netflix now has 151 million paid members globally.

Southeast Asia not only offers new frontiers for streamers in terms of creators and content, but providers such as Netflix, which was launched across the region in 2015, are still only really taking root across the region.

"Our goal is to really show what kind of quality content can we deliver and how widely can it travel," said North. "It's an exciting proposition. Great stories travel."

While Netflix told The Hollywood Reporter it had no plans to tailor pricing to specific Southeast Asian markets, industry watchers have suggested such initiatives might be another way to grow subscriber bases across countries where the average monthly wage is usually a quarter or less of that taken home by the average person in the United States.

Vivek Couto, executive director of the Media Partners Asia research and analysis outfit, said Netflix had experienced steady growth “among affluent broadband households and postpaid mobile customers” across Southeast Asia.

"Key partnerships with telecom and broadband operators have also helped drive reach and in certain instances subscriber acquisition,” Couto said. "Key markets where performance has been robust include Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. More pricing elasticity and a sustained pipeline of local content, along with a continued push on originals and Korean/Asian content, may help drive deeper penetration in markets like Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. Piracy and affordability across the mass market remain key barriers, but the rapid growth of broadband and demand for premium local and Asian content are key catalysts.”

Media Partners Asia research suggests that Netflix had more than 8.5 million paying subscribers across the Asia Pacific region at the end of 2018, with Southeast Asia accounting for 11 percent, or around 935,000 subscribers. By the end of the first quarter this year, its research suggests the number for Southeast Asia had topped 1 million.

The need for new content has been highlighted in recent months with the announcement that Netflix will soon be losing two  major draws. The Office has been lined up for NBCUniversal’s planned platform, while Friends is set to move to AT&T-owned WarnerMedia's HBO Max.

An increase in original content from Southeast Asia could be one way for Netflix to attract new subscribers in the region. The platform has already added local box office hits with the Philippine horror film Eerie and the Malaysian thriller Fly by Night.

Zainir Aminullah says he and his producing partner, Ideate Media, were attracted to the "Malaysian identity" of The Ghost Bride, but he stresses the film needs to have international appeal.

"It comes down to finding stories that are common enough, in terms of the themes and concepts, that an international audience can also relate to," said Aminullah. "Then we go down to the basics, and I’m talking about the storytelling, the structure. That might be lacking or in need of improvement from the region. It needs to follow a certain structure that will appeal to an international audience. A lot of times it has been only been relevant to the local audience, and beyond that they struggle."

To assist in that regard, The Ghost Bride has employed American-Taiwanese Kai, along with writers from Malaysia and Taiwan. Similarly, The Stranded’s off-camera team was drawn from the likes of Los Angeles (H2L Media) and Bangkok (GMM Grammy), with a team of writers from the U.S. and Thailand.

"The idea of giving Thai content expansive global distribution through Netflix really excites me," said executive producer Ekachai Uekrongtham, also head of Bravo! Studios' Grammy GMM Studios International. “It opens up many new possibilities in terms of the stories that we want to tell the world, and also the kind of genres which we may have not had the opportunities to do, either because of budget constraints or local market demands.”

The details on the two Southeast Asian original series coming to Netflix later this year:

The Stranded (Thailand)

This drama follows an 18-year-old boy, Kraam, who survives a devastating tsunami along with 36 fellow students at an elite private high school on a remote island in the Andaman Sea. As mysterious events start happening on the island, it quickly becomes clear that no one is coming to rescue them, and Kraam must lead the students to rescue themselves.
Director: Sophon Sakdaphisit. Starring: Sinjai Plengpanich, Sarunyoo and Hattaya Wongkrachang.

The Ghost Bride (Malaysia)

In 1890s colonial Malacca, Li Lan has been offered a marriage proposal from the wealthy Lim family to become the “ghost bride” to their recently deceased son. Her family will be saved from a lifetime of debt, but she’ll spend the rest of her life being haunted by the son. Desperate to get out of this arrangement, she soon finds herself wrapped up in a murder mystery and embroiled in otherworldly affairs.
Directors: Quek Shio Chuan, Ho Yuhang. Starring: Wu Kang Jen, Kuang Tian, Ludi Lin.