Television

'Shows that are optimistic, hopeful, aspirational resonate well with viewers' : Todd Miller - SPTI Asia executive VP, MD

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 Last year Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI) set up an office in India. The aim was to get more closely involved with the market and help it grow by offering content in the form of formats. SPTI is also looking at developing more local content from India which can travel overseas. Indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Pinto caught up with SPTI Asia executive VP, MD Todd Miller to find out more.

Excerpts:

When you say that SPTI is the Asian Hollywood Studio what does it mean?

We are by ownership an Asian company. We pride ourselves that our business combines the best of US and Asian content. As a distribution company we offer locally relevant content and global content.

SPTI has distribution, a networks segment and a production business. We are the most active of the US studios in terms of producing and distributing Asian content across Asia. So it positions us in a unique way from the others who only focus on US content. Asia is the fastest growing region for us. Korea, China, East Asia and India are key for us.

Could you talk about the partnerships SPTI has with local Asian players in terms of co-producing with them and distributing their content overseas?

We make and distribute content. On the film front we have been active making films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Recently we started to make Indian films. Sawaariya was our first film. We also distribute content on behalf of key Asian partners. With CJ Media in Korea we distribute films and shows.

We distribute it not just in Asia but also outside. This enables our partners to access a wider market for Asian content. So we add value for our business partners. We have also worked with CCTV in China to distribute their show The Stories of Han Dynasty.

How has SPTI boosted its production facilities and distribution network over the last couple of years?

We have a strong distribution practice as there is great content to sell. On the distribution side to get closer to clients we set two offices last year - one in India in October and the other in Korea. We want to have a local presence and develop relationships on the ground. We already have offices in Tokyo, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.

So from a footprint perspective we have Asia well covered from a distribution point of view. On the production front we did a lot of work in South East Asia for formats last year. This year we will focus on India.

How important is India and what is the gameplan to grow the business here?

This year we will sell formats to India. Power of 10 is one show. It is a primetime game show and airs on CBS in the US. We are also planning to a local version of Ripley's Believe It Or Not. We also have a lot of scripted formats as well like telenovellas from Latin America. Our dubbed films area is also growing. We were one of the first studios to offer local dubbing of films to channels.

A year from now I can give you examples of how the formats are being developed. Emerging platforms will open up more business avenues. We recently did a deal with Dish TV for pay per view films.

Are you also looking to create IP as well?

Through films we are already doing this. Sony is also doing this with its Hindi channel. With AXN we are looking to create original shows that can travel. One of these will be a magic show.

Have you formed any deals with Indian companies besides the Sony companies in terms of long term partnerships?

We are talking with parties. One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we develop relationships with major players across the TV spectrum. These are broadcasters, new media clients.

We sell content to many players beyond just the Sony channels. India is a top five market for us in Asia. As new delivery platforms emerge we support them. As we continue to beef up our distribution infrastructure I would hope that one would see Sony content consumed across all the digital platforms.

Are you also looking at co-productions in India?

Our focus is on growing the format business. Once this area is up and running then we will look at other areas.

We recognise the potential in India. We have been doing business for well over a decade in this country. Our management looks to India to be a major driver. One of the advantages we have is that we have different assets (channels, film division, the electronics business) that are already present. We have interesting pieces that often work together.

'We want to have a local presence and develop relationships on the ground'

What have the learnings been in terms of what works and what does not across the region?

Great content from the US sells. But we also recognise the power of locally produced content and its connection with viewers of each country and even each state. In general though shows that are optimistic, hopeful, aspirational tend to resonate well with viewers across the board.

A lot of your content comes from the US. What impact will the WGA strike have on this?

It is having a big impact in terms of scripted shows. We are hopeful that the issue will be resolved soon.

Viva Laughlin was cancelled by CBS after just two episodes. Do you feel that such an unusual format would have worked better on a cable network like USA Network where there is not so much pressure on ratings?

It is quite possible that it might have done well there. Truly original shows sometimes do need time to find an audience.

US networks are impatient and they have to be as they are ratings focussed. They do not have the luxury to wait for numbers to grow.

Besides Damages what are the other high profile shows from Sony US that will debut in India?

We are looking forward to Cashmere Mafia. It stars Lucy Liu. It is about a group of successful, powerful women friends living and working in New York. The show will come to AXN soon.

SPTI also tailors content of shows for the mobile in Asia. From a production point of view what are the challenges?

Our strategy is to make content for mobile and various digital platforms. Taking a multi platform approach allows us to spend more money on our content which results in better production values. At the same time we are not too dependent on any one platform from a revenue standpoint. So a show like Afterworld is a good example of how we are creating content for multiple platforms.

Last year we acquired all television, Internet, digital sell-through, gaming and mobile rights to Afterworld, which is a futuristic 2.5D animated episodic property. This marked SPTI's first-ever acquisition of a project for exploitation across all of these platforms.

At the same time we also have a catalogue which we can and have repurposed for the mobile. This is what we call 'minisodes' which are edited versions of full length episodes of famous TV series Like Charlies Angels. It is a short but complete burst of entertainment. In some parts of Asia where 3G has a high penetration like Korea we are getting really good feedback on our mobile video content. We are also expanding our linear channels into the mobile space. We have created a mobile extension of AXN and Animax.

When will these services come to India?

Our mobile content is already available on all key carrier platforms in India through local partners such as Hungama Mobile. Hungama Mobile won the first Meffy (Mobile Entertainment Forum Award) awarded to an Asian company for their campaign on our Casino Royale mobile content.

Digitisation offers the opportunity to launch more channels. Does SPTI have plans in this regard?

Yes! We are extremely bullish on India and the region. AXN recently launched a new channel AXN Beyond in East Asia. It is a supernatural, sci fi channel that complements AXN.

It also showcases out of the ordinary shows such as The Dresden Files, a mystery/fantasy series based on the books by Jim Butcher and has actor Nicolas Cage as one of the executive producers. The lead character, Harry Dresden, is a professional wizard and reluctant hero who often helps the police with cases involving 'unusual' circumstances.

Another highlight is a sci-fi series called PainKiller Jane which is based on the cult comic book series of the same name. It stars Kristanna Loken as Jane Vasco, a.k.a. PainKiller Jane, she is recruited to contain the threat of Neuros - individuals with superhuman neurological powers. However, she soon discovers that she has a super power herself - that she cannot be killed, but she can still feel the pain.

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