27 February 2019

Understanding the Creative Market and Consumers

By Johan Ishak

MACROECONOMICS of a country is the starting point to any research on servicing a market or a customer base. Your targeted audience is likely to possess certain characteristics that can position them within an economy in order for you to derive observations that fuel your business decisions. For example, offerings that are associated with Advertising and Promotion (A and P) has the highest and earliest chance of failing when the economy contracts and has the least and latest chance of reviving when the economy recovers. This is supported by an empirical analysis done by media owners from a 20-year data gathering whereby the A and P Industry behaves like a proxy to the economy. It grows by a multiplier of 1.5 to 2.0 when the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grows and fall at that multiplier when the GDP contracts.

As an entrepreneur in the Creative Industry, one ought to know the basic economic indicators not so much as to look intelligent, but more to give your thinking process a basic foundation. Before you do the icing, learn to bake the cake. Before you do B-Minor-7-11th chord, know your E-A-D-G-B-E first. Once you understand the big picture, you will find that there are others in the same boat who are also continuously learning along the way. When this happens, together, a group of industry players can work in concerted effort to make a difference. You’ll Never Walk Alone! For example, content production houses have come together to form Creative Content Association Malaysia (CCAM) to champion marketing efforts. Championing marketing efforts require economic knowledge such as foreign currency exchange, taxes and tariffs, rebates, demand, rules and regulations surrounding Intellectual Properties (IP) and many more. 

When specific issue is being analysed, the level of technical knowledge can be very detailed. However, for a start, basic economic indicators that a Creative Industry player ought to know or comprehend are Unemployment Rate (2018: 3%), GDP Growth (2018: 4%), Inflation Rate (2018: 2%), Interest Rates (2018: 6.7%), Foreign Currency Exchange (2018: RM4.2:USD1) and taxes (2018: Company Tax 25% and Sales and Services Tax 6% to 10%). How will these indicators affect your business and how will you mitigate risks associated with them? 

Next on the watch list would be Government support. There are many benefits given by many agencies. Of course, the queue is long but nothing comes easy. If creative businesses do not take the opportunities, you will be at loss. What are some of the support and benefits? The Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) incentive under Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDeC) gives tax exemption up to five years of fiscal operation. Film Nasional (FINAS) gives rebate up to 30% of production costs that are incurred in Malaysia. There are plenty of scholarships from various institutes that offer creative tertiary courses. Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has grants for documentaries. Cradle Fund gives grants for start ups. Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) gives financial aid for efforts in the Creative Industry relating to resources, demand and policies. Matrade gives marketing grants for exporting. Malaysian Intellectual Property Organisation (MyIPO) provides training for IP management and valuation. 

There are abundance of support. All you need to do is grab the opportunity to benefit your business. The next time the Prime Minister presents the Malaysian Budget, take the trouble to listen and digest. You will be amazed with the learning points that can be derived. When you take the trouble to listen, you will identify matters that affect your business. Film producers need to understand how Wajib Tayang policy by FINAS works. Film producers also need to decide whether they want to join the Malaysian pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival (or MITCOM). Content producers in general need to understand the window of sales opportunities between the cinemas, Free-to-Air (FTA) Television (TV), Pay-TV, Over-the-Top (OTT) operators, Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) or even mobile telephone video viewing.

The more traditional consideration would be to take stock of how many exhibition premises are there such as cinemas, theatres or even studios. The digital and Internet-of-Things (IOT) mindset would urge you to consider the format of delivery such as streaming or downloading – now that we know that physical CDs or DVDs no longer sell. The Malaysian Minister of Communication and Multimedia, Y.B. Gobind Singh Deo, had announced in 2018 that Malaysia shall switch off its analogue TV transmission, i.e. Analogue Switch Off (ASO), and shall replace it with Digital TV (DTV) transmission under the management of MyTV by the end of quarter one in 2019. What does this mean? Will there be more TV stations and hence, more opportunities to seal production deals? All these need to be thought off carefully for a miscalculated move can sway your financials into a loss position quite significantly.

Observing the trends in the market is an important process in your business decision making. Firstly, your estimation of the size of your audience is fundamental in your estimation of revenues. As at 31 December 2018, according to Nielsen Research Company, the number of TV household in Malaysia was 7 million. Each household has an average of 3 viewers. That means, in total, you have a market size of 21 million TV viewers. However, if you cater your content for mobile phones, your audience size will immediately be 60 million given that each of the 30 million population has an average of 2 mobile devices (2015 Statistics).

The consumers cannot be under estimated. Their tastes and behaviours can be significant. If your creative offerings do not match that, you will be in serious trouble. Some production houses tried to emulate success from other platforms onto another. For example, content that works on TV is reproduced as a film, and vice versa, such as Nurkasih. This also happens between content in printed matters like books and Film such as Ombak RinduMusical Theatre is also a format frequently used to pivot the potential of any particular title such as Cucithe Musical. From the box office trend in Malaysia, it can be seen that content that is appealing to the mass audience makes the most revenue. Movies such as KL Gangster and Hantu Kak Limah are known to record millions of box office collection with the highest, so far, by Munafik 2 at RM40 million (2018). 

It is believed that the Malaysian mass audience just wants to switch off their brains and laugh or cry at easy content. Content that are sophisticated only appeal to the niche market, i.e. viewers of OTTs like Netflix, iFlix and VIU per se. When your content is only appealing to the niche audience, you will immediately reduce your potential market from 21 million mass audience down to 500,000 to 1 million subscribers of the so called urban OTTs. When this number sinks in, you ought to calculate backwards. How much can the OTT make from the subscription revenue? How much will the OTTs be willing to pay for the content?

Some of the observations of the younger audience is akin to the urban behaviours. The Millennials (born 2000 onwards) do not listen to their music via CDs as they use iTunes and Spotify. This changes the music production landscape pervasively. Producing an album of 10 songs is no longer viable. This has been reduced to singles. A unit sale of music used to be a CD album of 10 songs costing RM40. Now, a unit is a song priced at 99 Sen. This phenomenon had shrunk the revenue capacity of the Music Industry by at least 40 times. In 2015, the Recording Industry Malaysia (RIM) President, Datuk Norman Halim, quoted, “2014 is the year when the number one revenue contributor to the Malaysian Music Industry had shifted from physical CDs to on-line streaming or downloading”. As a result, musicians had to explore a 360 degrees approach grabbing revenues from all angles: endorsement, concert tickets, merchandising, digital sales and some, if any, CD sales.

Both video and audio creative content, be it on radio or TV or OTT or any platform, saw a new set of content consumption habits. Firstly, the consumers, now, wants to watch or listen to content ‘On-Demand’ whenever and wherever they are. Secondly, they want the ability to create their own playlist. Thirdly, they are very calculative when paying. In fact, they are not ashamed of consuming pirated content. Fourthly, their attention span has reduced significantly so much so that a research had recently concluded that on-line video viewers’ attention span is worse than a goldfish’s. The fifth habit is their disregard for platforms, i.e. Platform Agnostic, whereby their loyalty to platforms such as TV channels or radio stations is almost zero. To them, they do not care where the content is as long as they can watch it.

The question to ask, as far as making money is concerned; is, Where will you be in the ecosystem? There are plenty of businesses to be made that are behind the scenes, such as supply of equipment, manpower and material. The human resources development side also presents opportunities such as talent management, academia or even consultancy. Businesses can also be formed around post production stage such as audio and CGI services and digitalisation of content. At the far end of the down stream of the ecosystem, distribution of content or consumer engaging content platforms can make money, both domestically and globally. These are areas that the creative entrepreneurs in the industry should ponder upon either for the sake of their own business opportunities or from the perspective of the readiness of the industry per se, so far as being a conducive landscape of the creative business undertakings.

A small market like Malaysia tends to saturate quite easily. The producers of creative content must always benchmark against their competitors. Critical questions will emerge once you have this mentality. Will you not consider producing stuff not the same as your competitors? Or will you ignore that question and produce anything you like anyway because you believe that your production team has got the expertise in a particular genre of choice? In many cases, similar genres, especially when released at the same time (or close proximity) can dilute each others’ market shares. Therefore, it is important to plan the right release dates. When interviewed, Datuk Ahmad Izham Omar, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Primeworks Studios, the largest production house in the country, said, “Sometimes, even when the production of a particular movie is completed, we had to hold them back for a bit and wait for the right time to release. This can be months. In 2019 for example, our fourth instalment of the Rock movie series had to be pushed to the second half of the year. Who wants to compete against The Avengers Infinity War Part 2 scheduled to be released in the first half of the year?”

In many cases, forming a joint venture helps a lot. It capitalises on others’ expertise. Many production houses do this with the giants in the industry. For example, Skop Productions is known to have done distribution partnerships with both giants in the industry, i.e. Media Prima as well as Astro. In the movie business, price is not much of a concern as all cinemas carry approximately the same price, if not, exactly the same. However, in other platforms, such as the OTT, higher price setting will require premium justifications such as exclusivity of the content availability to the customers. A particular household has the option of paying a monthly subscription fee of RM42 for Netflix, or RM8 for Iflix or Free-of-Charge for Tonton. In a scenario where intrinsic service or content value cannot be justified, players in the industry will end up playing a price war game. This is true for the advertising industry where Pay-TV is known to have cut advertising rates at a very discounted level so much so that many referred to it as “Timbang Kati” (Sale via weighing the product) that was made famous in the wet market in the early 1980’s. When this happens, it will result in a downward spiral of the creative industry.

The next question is, who are you targeting? This has got significant bearing on how you produce any particular creative products and thus, has differing financial implications, both cost and revenue perspectives. Are you catering to the younger audience like the portal Oh! Bulanor are you catering to the more matured audience like the 170 year old brand, New Straits Times? What about the appeal of the content if we disregard age groups? You will struggle to address the dilemma of mass market audience versus niche market. Majalah 3 for example caters to the mass while the niche watches National Geography. In the movie business, we can see so many examples – Hantu Kak Limah and Munafik 2 appeal to the mass market whereas Pulang and Songlap for the niche market.

We touched pricing matters earlier. This is also an aspect of market segmentation. We must be clear on how much consumers are willing to pay. From there, work backwards on what kind of cost structure works commercially. Then you will face critical considerations on how any particular production should operate. For example, an orchestra at the Petronas Philharmonic Theatre tends to catch higher income earners than a rock concert going on underground tour. If not income, the sophistication of the customers also plays an important role. A more cultured society that values literature does not mind indulging in a classic such as Uda dan Dara whereas a more simple minded set of audiences just wants to laugh at Lawak Ke Der. Both can work, but their financial structures need to be rationalised: Both cost as well as price to consumers.

We know from 2015 statistics that there were 60 million mobile devices actively in use in Malaysia. Today, it may be more. Many of these mobile users may not even be the traditional expected audiences that the creative industry has been targeting since time immemorial. We see a lot more Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Gurkhas, Burmese and even Arabs in Malaysia whom, apparently, uses mobile devices quite pervasively especially the pre-paid telecommunication packages. With the smart phones that we have in this day and age, consuming video content on the mobile devices is as easy as chewing gum. If that is the case, why not provide content that appeals to these new audiences?

Another aspect of foreign influence on our creative industry is the imported content that is not necessarily consumed by the nationality from where the content came from. We are seeing that increasingly, Malaysians are attracted to imported culture from the Korean K-Pop, Hindustani movies as well as Latino dramas. Distributing such content in Malaysia can be lucrative. In February 2019, a famous Korean girl band, Blackpink, did a concert in Shah Alam. Not only were the RM700 priced tickets sold out in the first few days of the ticket release, the black market had prices as high as RM1,500. What this means is that, we are no longer confined to the boundaries of nationality. It does not matter what or where the content comes from, it shall make money if the consumers want it. It is on this pretext that KRU had rebranded Cicakman to Geckoman for its export market.

We had earlier discussed about the various platforms on which creative offerings can be sold. It is important for any creative industry players to be aware of all the available platforms. They must strategise to pivot from one platform to another creating multiple windows of revenue streams. The traditional platforms include cinemas, theatres, TV and DVDs/CDs. Then there are the Pay-TVs like Astro and Unifi TV. With the market expansion of mobile devices like handphones and tablets, OTT becomes more pragmatic. Hence the rise of OTT platforms like TontonIflixViu, Dim Sum and Netflix. The growing acceptance of IOT by the consumers has also surged the Multi Channel Networks (MCN) such as YouTube and Daily Motion, the number one and two top video platforms in Malaysia, respectively, with YouTube commanding 80% of the video consumption market. By the end of 2019, at least 5 mega broadcasters in South East Asia have partnered with YouTube as part of their content distribution and revenue generating strategies i.e. Media Prima from Malaysia, MediaCorp from Singapore and Philippine’s GMA, ABS-CBN and TV5.

These are the platforms that have gone mainstream very fast with the aid of technology as well as technology adoption by the consumers. A more granular approach is required to see other opportunities domestically that may not be apparent globally. In Malaysia, you can see numerous Mamak (Indian Muslim) restaurants showing TV programmes on a big screen especially for football games. Although they do not derive any income from the viewing of such content, it fuels their sales from food and beverages. Kafe Skrin in Kuala Lumpur has taken this to the next level whereby a group of viewers can charter a room for a specific time frame where they can have proper dinner inclusive of the airing of movies of their choice. Malay dramas and local animation series have also made their way onto the airplane as in-flight entertainment offerings. In short, there are many ways of distributing content. We just have to capitalise at any opportune moments.

When considering the various platforms, we must not forget the commercial implications. Assessment will need to be made on the adequacy of viewers to fuel revenue generation. This is an important part of market study – know the size of your market. In Malaysia, there are 7 million TV households. Out of that, 5 million are Satellite-TV households. There are 7 FTA TV stations (prior to the implementation of Digital TV for which, when implemented, will introduce another 13 new players) and over 180 Pay-TV channels. There are about half a dozen OTTs and at least 60 million mobile devices in the country. On the cinema front, there used to be about 134 cinemas nationwide that provides 869 screens giving 154,583 seats but that was in 2014. Today it should be much more.

From these numbers, a business man should estimate what is the total universe of his potential market. Then carve out the portion that he or she thinks they can achieve. Then work out the most suitable price for the target audience. Reverse engineering of the financial logic would produce the level of costs that the business can afford to incur with a decent acceptable profit margin. That calculated cost will be the most important determinant of how elaborate the production should be. Sadly, in many cases in Malaysia, the opposite happens. We need to change.

Not knowing the potential money to be made has two major risks. First, you may miss the opportunity to make the money. Second, you may blindly pour money into ventures that have no potential for profitability. As established earlier, it is critical to understand the economics of the industry. Those who wants to open a new FTA TV channel that will soon be available under the Digital TV licensing by the Government needs to realise the sources of revenues available. FTA TV earns revenue primarily from the TV advertising expenditure (Adex) in the A and P industry that is now in the region of RM1 billion per annum cash wise and RM2 billion per annum media value wise (Note: Media Value less Discounts equals Cash Value). This TV Adex used to grow at double digits but has since gone single digit as a result of Digital Adex invasion. Over the years, this slow growth industry could only promise production houses RM45,000 to RM80,000 per episode for Malay drama series. Malay drama series is used as a benchmark as it is the most watched TV programme on both FTA TV as well as Pay-TV.

Other than TV Adex, new TV channels can consider charging subscription fees to its consumers. However, the willingness of the consumers towards paying needs to be studied carefully. As mentioned earlier, the price needs to be justified by the value of the content; and this prerequisite becomes a lot more urgent when comparing to a free TV station. How much are people willing to pay? The Average Revenue Per Unit (ARPU) per month for Pay-TV can be assumed to be at RM100 to RM150 for basic Pay-TV package pricing structure. The same household may decide to realisevalue of paying the same price but with services bundled with internet connection. The same household may also realisethat they may want fresh content from OTT for a price of RM8 to RM42 per month. In the end, reality needs to kick in whereby the number of subscribers attainable times the monthly subscription should be the maximum financial indicator of how much costs a new Pay-TV station should incur and that is assuming zero profits.

Year in year out, local movies tend to normalise at about 80 films a year. Historically, cinema collection averages at around RM80 million a year excluding the abnormal 2018 due to huge spikes from movies such as Munafik 2 and Hantu Kak Limah. This is an average of RM1 million for each movie. RM1 million is a very low budget to produce a movie. Even if the anomaly becomes a norm for 2019 onwards, it merely moves the average from RM1 million to RM2 million per movie. With such revenue, the production budget inclusive of A and P should not exceed RM1.6 million if production houses are keen in making 20% profit margin. 20% profit margin is what TV production houses normally make whereby that margin is used to pay overheads. Of course these are averages. A movies can cost and earn a lot more, or less. Similar capitalism ideology can be applied for theatre shows as well. Records show that Istana Budaya collects about RM12 million ticket sales a year on the back of 30 shows per annum. Istana Budaya also sells about 170,000 tickets a year priced between RM60 to RM400 each. So, do the mathematics and ponder on the profitability, or loss.


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