Toronto and London-based Blue Ant believes there is a future in nature film, specifically high-definition nature content. The company recently launched its SVOD service Love Nature across 32 countries, in partnership with the Smithsonian and Blue Skye Entertainment. For £3.99 a month, subscribers will get access to a host of content focused exclusively on the great outdoors.
The company believes there will be such high demand for the content, it’s setting up a two-year filming camp in Zambia to capture nature and wildlife in 4K.
But the question remains: are there enough people willing to pay the monthly fee just to watch nature content, especially considering the competition from the likes of National Geographic, Discovery and Disney?
While once asking people to pay for a channel dedicated to a specific topic might have seemed fool-hearted, today, thanks to the breakdown of geographic barriers, is becoming more viable than ever for content producers to find global audiences. After all, whether you’re in Canada, the U.S. or New Zealand, who doesn’t like watching furry lion babies on the African plains? (For Love Nature, it also helps that its content is easy to dub over so it’s translatable into multiple languages at a relatively low cost, says Jo Parkinson, managing director.)
Hollywood and the traditional broadcasters may still be the biggest exporters of cultural content in the world, but there are new players entering the space, and digital is affording them a fighting chance. And when it comes to the race for global eyeballs, getting as close to an audience seems to be the answer.
Just to be clear, it’s still not a fair fight: CBS still sells $1 billion worth of its content globally annually, says Laura Martin, managing director at Needham and Co and keynote speaker at this year’s Stream Market in Santa Monica (June 6 and 7).
But in this new world, Hollywood is harder to sell and buy.
Netflix made waves earlier this year when it announced its expansion into 130 countries, giving it a near blanket reach across the globe.
However, with the global rollout came new global challenges: the hodgepodge regulatory systems around the world has resulted in an ad-hoc approach to licensing, says Martin. Global rights are difficult to negotiate, especially when pre-arranged or long-standing agreements can be more lucrative for the content creators than new digital-only ones. In the local markets, competition is also heating up, with new players like Australia’s Stan or Canada’s Shomi, becoming more aggressive in the licensing process. Simply put, negotiating for licensing rights is becoming more expensive as more players enter the fray.
Netflix and competitor Amazon, which also has global ambitions, are responding by sinking even more money into original content. In one interview, Ted Sarandos, chief content officer at Netflix, said dollar for dollar, original programming is providing better return on investment than licensing.
And, to appeal to global audiences, increasingly that content is coming from outside the traditional Hollywood market, such as Mexico, Spain and France. This affords the SVODs the opportunity to take advantage of local tax credits (though it’s not always cut and dry and many local markets are still trying to figure out how OTT platforms fit in), while also getting the content-creation process closer to the audience that is to consume it.
However, there is still plenty of value in licensing content, and this is becoming especially true of locally produced fare. For SVODs, a key strategy appears to be picking up programming that not only does well in its country of origin, but also has the opportunity to succeed abroad. Not only is content from Japan cheaper to acquire, than, say, a season of Modern Family, there is a proven audience for it as well.
In his essay “I saw the future of Netflix in a Japanese Reality Show” on Wired, Davey Alba says he didn’t even know he wanted to watch the Japanese-language Terrace House until Netflix served it up. Then he was addicted.
“It wants to hook me on a Japanese reality show I can’t find anywhere else and never would have found if its algorithms hadn’t determined that this obscure overseas morsel was exactly the kind of video junk food I’d compulsively devour,” he writes. “Welcome to the future of global television, which isn’t about exporting Hollywood to the world. Clearly, when TV is truly global, the world will come to you.”
It makes sense, of course: For Netflix, U.S. cable subscriber rates have slowed, while international growth has continued to boom, with nearly 42% of new subs coming from outside the U.S.
Even in the U.S., there are more diasporas settling down, creating demand in their expat country for home-grown hits.
Just look at the success of Downton Abbey, pulling in 10.1 million views in its latest season premiere. And dedicated SVODs are responding: AcornTV has been building its subscriber base banking on the popularity of British and British-style television; Crunchyroll, which specializes in anime, has 750,000 paid subscribers (as well as a free user base); while DramaFever (Korean hits) pulls in more than 20 million monthly views.
It’s not just the SVODs that are seeing success as a result of the demand for global content: producers are also seeing the windfall.
For Antoine Disle, producer at France-based Rockzeline, the shift towards a global audience has less to do with geographical boundaries, and more to do with the fact that content can be tailored made for specific audience.
Historically, Hollywood hits had to appeal to the masses, which creates an inevitable sameness. “When you talk to everyone, you talk to no one,” he says. But, it wasn’t as economically viable to create content for niche audiences since content is sold in such a segmented way.
Today, without the geographic boundaries, the niche audiences are growing. He points to Mortal Kombat: the film version, released in 1995, made $122 million in sales, with the majority (approximately 75%) coming from the U.S.
When Kevin Tancheroen created a new Mortal Kombat: Legacy series for Machinima in 2011, the statistics reversed: 25% of views came from the U.S., while international audiences made up 75%. More than 90 million people watched the first season, while another 200 million tuned in for the second, he says. This is great news for producers outside the U.S., as they’re able to tap into opportunities in digital that might have otherwise gone unnoticed in Hollywood.
Even in the U.S., companies like Mitu are finding new global opportunities, spurned by the new approach to content.
Mitu was founded on the need for higher-quality English-language content geared at the Latino community, co-founder and chief content officer Doug Greiff says.
And while the content is specifically created for U.S. audiences, it’s more than capable of crossing boundaries.
There are shared traits and stories that cross countries, so the brand has been able to sell some of its local content to other Latino nations
“People feel the Latino experience has been depicted in one way in the U.S. – it is the hardship, the struggle, the undocumented workers, or the gang-bangers,” he says. “That’s unfortunate. Mitu can offer up different stories that can paint a different picture.”
There’s a certain hegemony to content coming out of Hollywood. Just look at the recent hoopla created when Scarlett Johansson was cast to play an Asian character in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell movie. Pundits weighed in on her casting as a necessity, since she was such a money maker for studios. Or look at the Oscar debate over the lack of African American actors nominated. Or, like Greiff says, look at how the Latino community is portrayed seemingly all the time.
U.S. producers create content for a U.S. audience. As a result, there is a certain predictability to what can and does sell in that market, which lends itself to that sameness Disle was speaking of. But what sells in the U.S. doesn’t always resonate in other nations. Smart producers are realizing there are underserved, untapped audiences around the world, and these can be big business in creating that content.
For further reading, check out the CMF’s in-depth report on the current state of content acquisition, as well as its study into the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) economy. To hear more about how to gain access to other markets, check out its co-production guide for France, the U.K., Germany, New Zealand, Australia, China, South Korea, India, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina.