It has been two months since I went to Singapore to join the pioneering efforts of South East Asian content creators that shape the future of Asian storytelling, but already lots of things are in motion. It feels like the market just waited for the right technology impulses to wake the sleeping transmedia Merilion.
Most certainly we will see significant projects coming from the SEA region in 2014-15 and among them will hopefully be the long awaited proof of concepts for the industry traditionalists that kept saying “wait and see” for the past couple of years.
Defining transmedia in Asia
Regardless of a long Asian tradition in creating vast cross-platform story universes in genre productions, comics and monster franchises, “transmedia” is nothing but a buzzword at this point in time. Storytelling practices of the old masters have been lost in pop culture, ignored by the education system or arrogantly dismissed by recent generations.
Local creators who read up on the topic and try to apply means of transmedia to their projects are rare and mostly visionaries with a strong sense for business development. Ultimately, transmedia does not have much of a pure storytelling character in Asia anymore nor are its primary drivers public funds or academic projects.
Seen as temporary bridge solution, at best, a transmedia concept is something that can add value to entertainment properties and brand building campaigns, but only when you got the right media strategy, partners and production set up.
Budget-wise it is still a nightmare and there are very few qualified agencies around that could handle a full transmedia campaign, creatively and administratively. The question of qualified local talent that brings in a hybrid education and right mindset will be a pressing issue for the months to come.
The Asian tradition and the lack of innovation
Ad agencies and production house still hire people with decades of expertise in banner booking on shopping mall facades instead of looking for digital natives with a storytelling background. It just makes no sense when you see a brand looking on JobsDB for a Social Media Manager with 12 years working experience. Only a few institutions offer hybrid models of education for jobs in the digital and design space only to see their graduates becoming flight attendants or button punchers at TV show control rooms.
Project and content development is still the weakest point in the production chain and barely taken seriously by anyone with money. Being common practice for independent producers to develop their own content bigger production houses frenetically push this unprofitable work toward summer interns from film schools where project development is not even on the curriculum. Too many industry deals are made simply based on name and reputation of project partners regardless whether they can deliver or how they address recent market trends.
The main obstacles of innovation in Asia, however, are corporate structures that have not been altered for the past 50 years and there is no motivation to change something that has worked so well for so long. Everybody got money for the quick fix but not for sustainable long-term strategies with build-in future add-on revenue streams.
Adding to this comes a social factor that prevents innovation to grow like putting salt on soil. The fear of failure is the industry’s biggest enemy. Spreading especially in Japan but lately in China and SAE as well, due to the fierce competition on the market, creatives tend to play safe by copy-paste. The fear of failing by doing something new and subsequently being socially isolated is just too overwhelming.
In general, Asia is a very fragmented market, different cultures, languages and systems. Pan-Asian projects have barely proven to be successful yet, while main driving markets like China and Japan becoming more and more self-isolated. South-Korea is still ruling the Asian entertainment segment with its strong content exports while China fails to gain its desperately desired international soft power share. Dynamics in the market are great and a structural rearrangement imminent.
Why is SAE such an interesting market when it comes to digital media?
For one, far different to any industrial country in the West, the average age in the SEA region is 30, most non-metropolitan areas even far below. A demographic that embraces new technology and is culturally more inclined to experiment – unlike the same demographic in China, where a consumption-only mentality reigns.
Within the years to come, all SEA countries that have not done so yet will install full coverage 3G mobile networks. This might sound like a long overdue technical adjustment of development countries. But one should not forget that this region never had coherently working (landlines) broadband internet yet, due to vast geographical challenges. Hence, we will soon see a number of demographics and generations that never had internet in the first place being exposed to mobile connectivity everywhere and anytime. The way these people will use and behave in the digital space will be radically different.
Creators’ independence in Singapore
Singapore happens to be one of the few Asian countries that hold specific public funds for new media projects, although those funds are new and barely taken advantage of. Fund criteria are often excluding the majority of projects up front or address an entirely different medium altogether. Four years back I was involved in the Singapore Integrated Media Fund, which is still up and running. Despite its fancy title the fund exclusively addressed the local production and spent of feature films.
The Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) has and is about to set up funds for digital hybrid media projects, in fact it recently opened a call for projects in partnership with Unilever. But word on the street amongst local producers is: “We’ll do it on our own”. There seems to be some sort of public funding fatigue going around as every creator in town has had his/her personal share of adventures with these funding structures.
The general opinion is, and I strongly agree with this, a local industry can only thrive when it finds its own independent ways to survive on a sustainable level. Subsidization models create an atmosphere of self-censorship and misleading self-content that could work against the growth of the industry. Hence, one could say Singaporean creators are about to discover their digital creative identity by finding new business models for the entertainment market outside the obsolete system.
Every time I go to Singapore my horizon of what transmedia can deliver widens tremendously. Personally, I am stepping more and more away from feature film and TV to get involved in the advertising side of things. Transmedia strategies for brand building, business development and corporate training. Transmedia as means for experiential marketing.
The line between entertainment and advertising is gradually but quite distinctively disappearing. Branded entertainment, specifically for mobile consumption, will soon be a major industry pillar. Obviously, transmedia is simply a form of mindset. How creators approach projects, open up content to audiences and deal with new revenue models.
Empathy Led Activation
During the countless meetings and talks of the past two months I met the Singaporean media producer turned transmedia visionary Isaac Ray Thomas. He created a concept that perfectly sums up where Singapore is headed with the commercial side of transmedia projects. He calls it “Empathy Led Activation” (ELA) and you can check out his SlideShare here:
ELA embodies terminologies company execs and marketing directors can relate to and provides a very precise angle on the qualities of transmedia strategies in Asia. It is the mere design thinking methodology in telling stories that explains how this power can be leveraged to create specific audience/consumer actions.
ELA does not stop at a simple action or reaction a consumer will do after or while being immersed in a story experience. It also can influence audience behavior in daily life. This aspect is especially interesting to brands when it comes to social issues as well as corporate social responsibility programs. Just recently Unilever addressed this aspect of story marketing.
Language & identity
Traditionally, Singapore as a market in itself is far too small and film & TV producers have turned to Malaysia or China a long time ago. Despite the huge success of Singaporean film in 2013, domestic box office as well as international festival circuit, more and more filmmakers read the digital signs of the market and want to transition into alternative formats of production.
While Singapore is still a new nation and storytellers trying to find their very own narrative voice, the city-state is also one of the most international cities in the world. I have been around quite a lot but that many nationalities and religions on one single island is quite unique. Hence, there is a significant potential for international content that can travel to come from this country. Expanding productions into the SEA region is just the start. Many creators want to go beyond and could prove that a successful cross-cultural transmedia project can exist.
However, this cultural diversity also comes with an ongoing struggle about language identity within the traditional entertainment sector. “While we love movies from Hollywood or the United Kingdom, we do not want to see locals speak the same language they do.” Evidently, it boils down to the instant comparison between production values of Western English and local English movies/TV, where Singapore always picks the short end.
Traditional media around the world is facing the same issue, whereas transmedia can offer alternative points of entry for audiences; outside the boundaries of its own preoccupations and expectations. Therefore having barely international established formula or standards for transmedia production values is an advantage and eliminates quality comparisons up front.
On top, dealing with a variety of languages is something most local new media creators already do on a daily basis. Social media interactions and maintenance is done in at least two languages (English and Chinese), often even specialized channels for Tamil and Malay are being included to a project.
Hence, transmedia creators will be better equipped in dealing with various languages at ones and know how to work them into the stories in the first place, while those coming from traditional media need to adopt. New media technology also enables more diverse language implementations and is often more flexible to expand with the audience, like adding subtitles or providing more language options inside apps. This integrative aspect makes it an easy way to address and reach out to an audience outside the borders of Singapore.
NFC/RFID appears to be a technology tool with untapped potential for creators in the region. Despite the wide use in the public transportation and card payments sectors it has yet to be commonly adopted by event organizers and especially storytellers for location based interactions.
OTT (Smart TV) will be one of the major drivers across Asia, tied in with m-Commerce. Spearheaded by the Chinese market, where a number of video platforms and media groups started co-operations with TV manufacturers, we will soon see an epic merger of mobile, commerce and entertainment. Tencent for instance, which runs highly popular web and mobile chat services like QQ and WeChat develops an in-house mobile payment system that integrates to their new Smart TV system WeChat TV, rolling out before Chinese New Year.
Meanwhile in Singapore, TV networks are still hesitant when it comes to leveraging OTT’s full potential with tailor made content and integrated cross-services. During a panel discussion at Screen Singapore in early December 2013, Lee Soo Hui, Head of Media Business Unit at Starhub, mentioned that the network is interested in going into the transmedia direction but still has not found the right local content. The other TV network giant, Mediacorp, does offer a variety of integrated (very) early stage OTT and online viewing infrastructures with its services Toggle and Xinmsn but seems to struggle taking the next step forward. The sociocultural conundrum outlined above is still in play here.
As one of my personal pet projects, I still see entertainment potential in the live action content Fulldome format, which has proven to be the most immersive tool of visual storytelling on the market. High-resolution Fulldome features tied in with an extended (mobile) transmedia experience outside the projection venue will take up a major stake of the business.
However, the venue infrastructure in SEA has yet to be established. China on the other hand will surely lead the introduction of this format as it has been subsidizing new dome venues for the past years and is ready when it comes to digital distribution infrastructures.
Transmedia in Singapore will start small and incremental. Dealing with the budget issue lean ways of rolling out a project will become the best practice. Given what kind of projects are being developed and pitched right now, location based transmedia experiences appear to dominate the first wave of projects.
I am reminded of this trend every day when passing the construction site of the new National Stadium. Singapore’s new sports hub and jewel of interactive media architecture. Once the stadium opens it will surely be a sandbox for advertisers and experience designers.
The journey ahead
Now, this article might sound like that there have been no substantial projects produced in Singapore so far. In fact, talented Singaporean creators already came up with remarkable transmedia experiences over the past 6 years. Some even commissioned by large brands, others gained short-lived international media recognition. However, still, the market kept dismissing the trend and the signs of time, till now.
There is no doubt that Singapore is about to become a pioneering hub for transmedia in Asia. However, this development is not ignited by government initiatives, festival labs or academic programs. It is a movement solely headed by a small but growing group of independent creators that circumvent the corporate gate-keeping mentality by offering integrated strategies execs cannot refuse.
Communicating and educating what transmedia concepts are about in a language brands understand while creating tailor made content for and with the local audience will be their selling point. Once this is clearly communicated it will be obvious for brands and agencies that without pivoting to a transmedia approach in customer relationship management there will be too much left on the table.
Singapore is no media paradise at this point in time, but rather a rough territory for digital prospectors. The chances for striking gold are plenty but also risky. While the journey ahead is still long and bumpy, the direction is clear.
As there are a couple more factors that come into play but have been barely touched upon, I will publish an extended and updated version of this article, especially addressing the implications and changes of the movie industry in SEA with the emergence of transmedia in the region, in the upcoming edition of our Asian Screen report series.
For all Singapore creators and producers, I created a monthly meetup series where we discuss about transmedia concepts, latest local projects and exchange ideas. Please join the community of storytellers here. For everyone outside of Singapore feel free to join as well and stay in touch with the local industry on news, projects and future reports.