Viu Pitching Forum

We Speak to Viu’s Sahana Kamath About the Future of Malaysian Content

Dept. of Chats and Confabs

In September of last year, Hong Kong streamer Viu announced the launch of their inaugural Viu Pitching Forum here in Malaysia. The program, which was first launched in Indonesia in 2016, aims to identify, groom and nurture local up and coming scriptwriters, by providing shortlisted participants with mentoring and guidance from leading creative talents from across the industry. The winner of the Pitching Forum will have their work brought to life as a Viu Original production, while and additional three finalists will receive mentorship to develop their concept further and refine their pilot scripts.


It is an exciting program and one that we here at Goggler feel is both essential and necessary given the sorry state of so much local content. What the Malaysian movie and television industry lacks is this kind of support structure, where creatives are given the right kind of training and guidance in order to properly bring their ideas to life. It is also refreshing to see private enterprise not just invest in content but also in the development of the people making it. Needless to say we were pretty intrigued by the whole thing.

To find out more, we caught up with Sahana Kamath, Viu’s Head of Original Production for Indonesia and Malaysia, for a quick chat about their content plans for Malaysia, and the region at large.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan: I know a lot of streamers have gotten into the “original” game. I’m curious as to Viu’s approach in Southeast Asia. Is it a country-by-country look at creating original content, or do you think about it regionally?

Sahana Kamath:  I think it’s a great question. And I can answer it with some context around how Viu started and the ethos behind it, because in a way, the answer is both. I think you can see that in the shows that we have produced and released so far as well.

Viu’s ethos has always been about bringing the best of Asian entertainment to our audience. On the production side, what that translates into is unique premium series with a very strong local resonance, a very strong local relatability, and international production values. I think authenticity is obviously very key to this. Our audience definitely wants to see themselves represented on the screen. And to us, it’s important that that is in front of the screen and behind the screen as well. So, local voices, local faces, local languages, have always been very important to the kinds of productions that we’re doing.

In terms of the commissioning approach, it is country-by-country. We have production teams in all of the countries where we produce content. And those are the teams that take the pitches on a day-to-day basis. The commissioning decisions are always made with the audience top of mind – obviously backed by data and insights as well. We commission shows at a regional level as well as at a local level. The regional commissions would be like The Bridge, which we did with Double Vision and in association with HBO Asia, that took that show across 24 markets. We did Pretty Little Liars, which for us was a kind of internal co-pro between Malaysia and Indonesia, remaking the format for the whole of Asia. And it worked really well for us. All of the decisions flow back into Singapore at a certain point because our Chief Content Officer, Virginia Lim, is based there. But we are really taking pitches at a local level.

Viu Pitching Forum
A still from Viu’s Indonesian remake of the hit American series Pretty Little Liars.

UA: What then was the objective of the Pitching Forum? Was it primarily to try and locate new interesting new talent, or was it for established producers and filmmakers as well? 

SK: It was really to find new talent. It was to find them, to empower them with exposure, resources, and training, specifically on premium drama. Because I think, as you know, there’s always been an opportunity gap. The opportunity gap in the sense that not many people were focusing on premium drama until very recently. We’ve done nine productions now so far and I think we’re changing that game. But we also want to be part of building the industry that supports that kind of drama. So that is really what underpins the Viu Pitching Forum. Bringing it to Malaysia for the first time was important to us. We were really overwhelmed by the reaction to it. And we like the idea of bringing together very seasoned writers, directors, and producers with emerging talent and kind of seeing what comes out of that. What kind of symbiotic relationships, conversations, and stories will emerge.


UA: So you had over 700 submissions. Were there any trends that you came across? What kinds of stories were Malaysians looking to tell?

SK: What I would say is, and this is quite typical, because we’re talking about writers who are getting into this for the first time, many of them will normally go one of two ways. It will either things from their own experience, which are very personal stories or something totally outside the box. Among our finalists, there are some really interesting looks into things like self belief, bullying, anxiety, female empowerment, underdogs rising, and things like that. We also had some writers go the way of sci-fi fantasies and dystopias. Those are the sorts of stories that were coming out. We also ran the gamut with regards to genre. We have romance, comedy, thriller, crime, dystopian futures. It was really interesting and exactly what we were looking for – something very out of the box, but quintessentially Malaysian.

UA: What were you looking for in picking the Viu Pitching Forum finalists? Were you just looking for a general quality of pitch, or were you already looking for specific type of program that viewers would be inclined towards? 

SK: There was no imperative for the kind of content we were looking for. We didn’t say pitch us horror. We didn’t say tell us a great love story. We really didn’t want to curtail the creativity. We just wanted to see what would come out. There are some things that we were looking for and we were transparent about that.

One was the appeal to our core target audience. So Millennials and Gen Z. We wanted that. And I think when you’re talking about young writers who are in those age ranges as well, they are really going to resonate with the kinds of topics, the kinds of themes, that our audience are also interested in. Localization was another thing. So the fact that the story should, like I said, be quintessentially Malaysian. It should have story, characters, and settings that really speak to its sense of place. That was very important to us.

And finally, we were thinking about the the premium nature of the storytelling in terms of the concept itself. Is it differentiated? Is it out of the box? Is there potential for depth of character development? Remember that this will become a 10 episode series, so does it have the narrative engine to drive 10 episodes of a half hour or one hour show? Those are really the criteria that we’ve been looking for. 

Viu Pitching Forum
A still from Viu’s Malaysian adaptation of the popular K-drama Black.

UA: So what’s next for the shortlisted few? How long does the whole process take? And when are we likely to see these 10 episodes? 2022? 2023?

SK: Let me go backwards. We’ve announced the 10 finalists, and then over the month of May we will have the mentoring and the masterclasses. The mentoring will be with our Viu Originals team, and the finalists will be working on their pitch decks, really refining their story and characters, building it out to something they would use to pitch to any broadcaster. We will also be giving input on how to tailor that for digital. Then there will also be the masterclasses that we’ll be running with talent who are associated either with our previous Viu Originals, or upcoming ones. They’ll be giving their insights. So, it will be about pitching, it’ll be about writers rooms, it’ll be about their experience working on our shows as well.

Towards the end of May, there will be a big pitch to a panel of judges, both internal and external. And then we will select the winner, which will be announced in June.

These series obviously take time, and that is an important factor. I know people associate premium shows with budget. But I think it should also be very closely associated with time. Especially when you’re trying to make something that is different to what has been made before. You need more time in script development, more time in preproduction, more time in post. So that is why I would say conservatively that 2022 is when we’ll wee the winner’s production come to the screen.


UA: And you’re absolutely right about the time it takes. I think one of the biggest problems with productions in Malaysia is that it is incredibly rushed. You can probably count on one hand the number of movies and TV shows here that actually have their actors rehearse before shooting starts. Which brings me to my next question. What do you see as the biggest shortfalls or shortcomings with current production values and techniques here? God knows we have our fair share of clunkers.

SK: I mean, I like to stay positive, so I’m going to focus more on what we’re doing rather than focus on negatives. 

UA: When you’ve had your heart broken as much as we have, it’s pretty difficult to stay positive. 

SK: I think we should be positive. I mean, we have a strategy with our Viu Originals and it has been working really well. I think when we talk about our strategy, it’s about the mass Malaysia target, but it’s about not being one size fits all for the region. And I think that’s very important when you’re talking about platforms like ours that have a reach across 16 markets.

A lot of people think when we come to pitch to you, should we be pitching something that will work everywhere? And the answer is “no.” Please don’t try and do that. I think the more specific that something is to its home market, the more localized it is, the more authentic it is, the more it will work for that market, and the more it will be compelling for everybody else.

How can I answer your question? I think the critical success is also if we’re going to talk about making shows that are not, in your words, clunkers, and shows that work, first and foremost for the audience. Obviously, that is our responsibility. And we know a lot more about the audience than we did before when we were in a broadcast environment. So, on the one hand, we understand our audience really well. On the other hand, I think what’s really exciting about what we know is that the audience here is looking for challenging content. They’re looking for content that is different and that is not like what they’ve seen before. So when your creative ethos behind what you’re doing, and what your audience wants, are aligned in that way, it means that you really do have the freedom to make different kinds of shows. 

Bront Palare on the set of the Viu Original production of The Bridge.

UA: I’ll point it out since you didn’t, but I’m glad that you guys are picking up on this because obviously Malaysians watch content from everywhere. So they don’t always want the same garbage over and over again. And it’s very clear that Malaysians enjoy all kinds of content. And yet local production seem to be hamstrung by the fact that they keep trying to remake the same things. I think that your assessment that Malaysians do enjoy challenging content, and are looking for challenging content, is absolutely on point. What then is Viu’s strategy with regards to putting out their Originals. Is it building towards that Netflix model of more is better or the HBO model of good and crafted?

SK: I think it’s definitely about good and crafted. No question about that, I think if you see how many we have been putting out a year, it’s always been, let’s say, a conservative number, but a number that we know we can produce and maintain a certain level of production quality. That is very important to the originals that we’re producing. When we started out in 2018 in Malaysia, we did three shows. We have about a dozen shows in development right now. They’re not all for this year. So we have to be very focussed on giving the shows the time that they need to make sure that they are at that level that we need them to be at.

But let me give you an idea of the differentiation. As you know Keluarga Baha Don is a great one to talk about because it’s so wacky. It’s just wild. It is a genre blend that has not really been done before in the market. So family, action, comedy, quirky, all of those things. I think at the same time it’s also very relatable, like the quirks of those characters are so quintessentially Malaysian. It’s also a show that was a real passion project and the showrunners were looking for someone to take a risk on a show like that. 


UA: Before I let you go, and I’m putting you on the spot here, but is there something that you really want to see that hasn’t yet been made for the Asian market?

SK: There’s so many things from our local sphere that I would love to see made into a show, but the fact is we’re developing most of them. I can’t spill. I can’t do it to us. But there are exciting things coming up.

Are you a Viu subscriber? Let us know what you think about their original content by getting in touch with us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. You can also WhatsApp us on The Goggler Hotline, on +60125245208.

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