Discover more from Streamlined by Liz Shackleton
Thailand & Singapore Sweeteners; K-Pop Slowdown; How The Film Biz Can Use ChatGPT
Like many writers around the world right now, I’ve been distracted in recent weeks by playing with GPT-4, the technology that is making many creative types start thinking about retirement or a second career. But I’ve also been researching the K-pop industry, which led to an idea of how AI can actually help international film and TV industries outside of the Anglosphere. I also had a short side-trip to Thailand, which has long been the major inbound production hub in Southeast Asia, to moderate panels for a workshop organised by the Motion Picture Association (MPA). You can’t walk around Bangkok these days without tripping over international producers, which makes me nostalgic for the days when Hong Kong and Beijing were the places everyone wanted to visit.
Thailand Gets Busy; Singapore Seeks Another ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Moment
Now the world has fully opened up, even Hong Kong and China are letting in tourists, the competition to attract footloose international productions is starting to get fierce. Thailand is currently considering plans to increase its 15-20% cash rebate for inbound production to 30% - the move has been approved by the cabinet and is being discussed by the treasury department – and has also doubled the cap per production from $2.2m to $4.4m. Singapore has just announced a new $7.5m (S$10m) fund to lure international productions that employ local talents and attract tourists by showcasing the city in the same way Crazy Rich Asians did in 2018.
Although Thailand’s inbound production figures collapsed in the first year of the pandemic, the country was quick to introduce Covid protocols and production volume started to pick up the following year. HBO/A24’s The Sympathizer, directed by Park Chan-wook, is currently shooting on location in Thailand and The White Lotus Season 3 is reportedly heading there later this year, no doubt to shoot at a luxury resort and white sand beaches. But while Thailand is known for its locations, the MPA workshop also found that more work is starting to move on to sound stages. In 2022, Thailand hosted 348 film and TV productions, with combined budgets reaching $182m, the highest level ever.
Currently, several other countries in Asia and the Middle East are positioning themselves to attract a slice of the billions of dollars in footloose production that mostly heads to the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Last year, Malaysia announced an increase in its cash rebate from 30% to 35%, Saudi rolled out a 40% incentive and India also introduced a 30% federal production incentive for the first time.
But while the cash rebate percentages are eye-catching, they don’t compensate for the fact that not every country in the world is geared up for a large volume of international production. Very few countries have all their ducks in a row when it comes to experienced crews, world-class facilities, transport and hospitality logistics, and a transparent bureaucracy to process payments. Thailand and Singapore have proved that they do have these elements – but both also have their limitations. Singapore is tiny and post-pandemic has some of the most expensive hotels in Asia. Thailand is already facing studio capacity issues with its relatively small sound stages bursting at the seams.
Malaysia, the country that is geographically located between Thailand and Singapore, is a good example of how just throwing money at attracting inbound production doesn’t always work. It has a generous incentive and a world-class studio facility in Iskandar Malaysia Studios (IMS, formerly known as Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios). But while they built it, large volumes of footloose production just didn’t come.
There are many complex reasons for this, and the pandemic certainly didn’t help, but the factor cited most often by location managers is the location of the studios, too far from Kuala Lumpur and not close enough to Singapore, and the lack of nearby crew. This week it emerged in a regulatory filing that Singapore’s GHY Culture & Media, one of IMS’ biggest clients over the past few years, is acquiring the studio for $8m, a massive discount on the original investment costs of $120m.
There will be a FOMO factor in some countries that currently don’t have incentives, especially if they see potential overspill from Thailand, but there is no point rushing into opening up for foreign production if you can’t support it. Some countries in the region may be better off investing in building up their local industries and developing reliable and consistent government support programmes rather than immediately throwing their doors open to the world. Big international productions can help build industry expertise, but attracting this kind of work can also backfire if done in the wrong way.
K-Pop Giants Scramble For Growth As Industry Faces Headwinds
The past month saw one of the biggest ever corporate battles in the K-pop world when Hybe, best known as the management company of BTS, attempted to buy out rival SM Entertainment, an early mover in the K-pop industry with acts like Super Junior, BoA and Girls’ Generation. Hybe eventually lost the battle to Korean tech giant Kakao, which is now the largest shareholder of SM Entertainment.
But what surprised me were the statements from Hybe founder and chairman Bang Si-hyuk that he was prompted to chase the acquisition due to a slowdown in the global K-pop industry. The same reasoning was behind Hybe’s merger with Scooter Braun’s US-based Ithaca Holdings a few years back and the recent acquisition of hip-hop powerhouse Quality Control.
From the outside, the K-pop industry looks like an unstoppable machine that must be minting money as it expands to all corners of the world. How could it be slowing down? But perhaps that’s the point, it’s already reached every corner of the globe. I should have realised that when I spotted a BTS poster on the bedroom wall of my mum’s neighbour’s teenage daughters (in a sleepy suburb of a northern English town; the neighbour complained that his daughters’ BTS obsession was costing him a fortune).
Of course Hybe has its own problems – it’s overly reliant on BTS, which accounts for 97% of revenues – but Bang said these days growth is coming from Latin music and Afrobeats. A potential consequence of all this could be the emergence of cashed-up Korean entertainment giants looking to invest in different genres of music, not just in the US, but other parts of the world. The music biz in Africa and South America should be taking note.
A Potential Upside To ChatGPT For The Content Industry
Italy wants to ban it and Elon Musk wants to slow down its development, but there is no avoiding the fact that language-modelling artificial intelligence (AI), from companies such as Microsoft-invested OpenAI and Google, is going to have a massive impact on the media and entertainment industries. Much has already been written about this subject, and more will be written in future, possibly by ChatGPT itself, with opinions ranging from dismissing it as a souped up version of Apple’s Siri to predicting the end of humanity as we know it.
But after playing with GPT-4 and getting over the initial shock of what it can do, I was struck by one potential, positive use case for the global content industries. Several years ago, I thought it would be cool if there was a platform where producers, filmmakers and investors from different film and TV industries around the globe could communicate with each other and share information, without having to use the medium of English. At the time, human translation costs were prohibitively high and Google Translate was still slow, not very accurate and couldn’t translate slang and idioms. To this day, Facebook has some extremely weird translations (for years I wondered why my Chinese friends on Facebook kept talking about “going to the middle of the day” until I realised that it's a default setting for machine translation that doesn’t understand the original text).
With ChatGPT we’re finally starting to get there. While it’s not perfect, Hybe’s Weverse social media platform is already enabling K-pop stars to interact with their fans all over the world in many different languages. Generative AI language models are getting better at understanding slang, idioms and other nuances of language. Surely soon, this flexibility will also make it easier for international film industries to communicate with each other – an Arabic-speaking producer in Egypt could talk to a potential co-producer in Korea, or a Chinese-speaking director in Beijing could ask questions about a location in Brazil.
The possibilities are exciting, but as someone who has invested many years in learning languages (and never achieving full fluency) also sobering. How much do we gain if the many millions of people around the world who work in translation, subtitling and dubbing, investing decades of education and experience, end up losing their livelihood?
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