Zig Zag Productions commercial director Matt Graff says China remains television’s final frontier for producers, as new restrictions limit the number of overseas formats the country’s networks can air.
‘China: Episode 4’. This adventure sees me joining my second PACT delegation into China, on my fourth trip to television’s new ‘promised land’.
The reason you haven’t read episodes one to three is that despite best endeavours, previous trips left me with lots of leads and plenty of great insights, but more than anything, a realisation that I understood very little about this market – what makes it tick and how you do business here.
Now, at the end of my latest trip, I find myself no more enlightened. This is clearly a tough market to understand, a difficult place to build relationships and a seemingly impossible place to navigate the politics of an industry, which as you might expect is intrinsically linked with the politics of a complex nation.
Television in China is a heavily regulated and restricted sector, there are policies in place that promote and protect the local market, limit foreign influence and implement quotas on international acquisitions and formats. Indeed, it was only days after my latest trip when SAPPRFT, the country’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, announced it’s latest move to limit the number of shows based on foreign formats on air.
Apparently channels will now be restricted to showing no more than two foreign format adaptations per year in ‘primetime’. Those networks that air new shows based on foreign formats without first receiving approval will be banned altogether from showing any programming based on overseas concepts for one year.
However, any understanding of the quotas, rules and regulations need to be offset against a backdrop of consistent change. What’s seemingly ok one day might not be the next. To compound difficulties further a foreign entity is not able to distribute their products directly and – whilst there are no governmental rules to say a broadcaster can’t pay an independent producer directly – it’s unlikely to ever happen.
Enter the co-production opportunities, consulting contracts and local agents, distributors and seemingly endless sea of middlemen, all of whom will struggle to send money out of China. Remittance is considered an even harder nut to crack than getting a Production or Format deal in place.
While the realities of the landscape cast a gloomy shadow, it’s clearly not impossible to build relationships, as Zig Zag’s work with Jiangsu TV at the tale end of last year proved.
We produced the UK leg of Be the Idol for the network: a music-themed competition show that saw six Chinese stars with an 80-strong support cast travel to London for a week of music-based tasks and live performances.
I won’t lie, it was a tough few weeks, but TV production is rarely plain sailing and considering the language barriers and cultural differences I’m really proud of what we were able to achieve together. The broadcaster seemed very happy and there is even talk of a second season.
The opportunity with Jiangsu gave me hope that my previous trips to China, numerous meetings with Chinese delegates in London and at markets like MIP – not to mention the additional revenue I have pumped into the business card printing industry – were worthwhile.
I was quick to take up the opportunity of joining another PACT delegation that would see Zig Zag join a diverse group of independent producers that included stunning natural history (Offspring Films), crime drama (Free At Last TV), IP catalogues that can boast third place in global book sales behind the Bible and Shakespeare (my favourite claim from any of the UK Indies presentations – courtesy of the Agatha Christie publishing juggernaut), impressive multimedia producers (The Jamie Oliver Group and Fresh One) and an award-winning kids producer (Sixth Sense Media) to name but a few. Together, the delegation represented the diversity, creativity and energy of the UK indie sector.
Our mission took us first to Beijing, where we delivered corporate presentations and had multiple panel discussions with CCTV, China’s state owned TV station.
We then headed to Shanghai where we spent time at the Shanghai Film and Television Festival, a kaleidoscope of colour, with stands promoting the latest tech from interactive studios to UHD cameras, a rich live-action and animation movie industry and sea of Chinese channels and distributors with the Shanghai Media Group taking centre stage with the biggest, brightest and most impressive stand.
I had a number of meetings at the market but admittedly without a translator in tow, my best meetings were with foreign delegates from Japan, Korea and India. The afternoon saw us head up to the British centre, a subsidiary of UKTI where we received some incredibly useful insights from Matthew Alderson (a partner at Harris Moure) and Kristian Kender (a partner at CMMI China Media Management Inc). Both are based in China and working with international companies who, like us, are keen to open up the TV trade along the Silk Road.
We had one to one meetings lined up with a number of interested Chinese companies that included producers looking for formats and coproduction opportunities to distributors and digital platforms. All meetings ended with the ceremonial presentation of my We Chat QI code.
On past trips I have been left scratching my head at the lack of follow up and correspondence after meetings in the past, but this time I had greetings and PDFs in my WeChat in-box by the time I got back to the hotel.
The platform is the only way to conduct business in China and I’m entirely grateful for the translation feature that makes even the most implausible of conversations possible.
Wednesday saw a blurry-eyed delegation head to the bullet train for a day trip to Nanjing. I never expected the trip to remind me so much of our format ‘Relentless’!
First to Nanjing Broadcasting Corporation, then on to Media City which must be similar in scale to the City of London. Skyscraper after skyscraper, filled with motion-capture studios, 3D animation companies, virtual and augmented reality, and every other kind of producer you can think of.
I walked round open mouthed, taken back by the sheer scale of the ambition. We also met a number of businesses taking part in Nanjing Design Week, a seemingly bohemian bunch genuinely keen to collaborate and excited about the prospect of taking part in London Design Week this September.
From there it was back to Shanghai for meetings with companies from the very hospitable Shanghai Association of Television, which is a similar organisation to PACT for Shanghai-based producers.
We finished the week with a trip to SMG, where genre heads kindly took time out from their National Dragon Boat holiday to join the UK Indies for a series of round table meetings.
Nothing shows willingness for collaboration like a bunch of senior executives coming to meet you on their holidays.
These meetings were fruitful and all-in-all the trip felt really positive. I’m now back in Blighty and hard at my WeChat follow up, feeling fortunate that we get the opportunity and financial support to join trade missions, explore new markets and promote British export and expertise. I’m feeling positive that China: Episode 4 will bear fruit, but what twist in the plot will Episode 5 bring? I suspect it will reveal a new narrative ark where we are no longer looking to work with, but rather work for, Chinese-owned broadcasters and producers.
Matt Graff is commercial director at Zig Zag Productions