Reach for the Sun

Vietnamese streaming platform, Danet, has commissioned a local version of Korean blockbuster, Descendants of the Sun and has a second Korean scripted format – My Love from the Star – on its agenda. No stranger to greenlighting high-end scripted formats, BHD Vietnam/Danet co-founder and vice president, Ngo Thi Bich Hanh, talks about why she believes recreating Korean hits for Vietnam is the right way to go, why it’s time for Vietnam’s story to be told by Vietnamese, and why being this bold is worth the risk.

“Vietnam is a developing country, so a lot of what we do does not really exist,” says Ngo Thi Bich Hanh, co-founder and vice president of BHD/Vietnam Media Corp. “If we want to produce movies, we end up building our own cinema chain. And there are a lot of pirates on digital in Vietnam, so we end up creating our own branded VOD platform”. 

The result so far is a media company that spans production of everything from high-end premium drama and movies and distribution, including the BHD Cinema Complex chain and streaming platform Danet, and partnerships with everyone from advertisers and agencies to channels, broadcasters and rights holders.   

Going back more than two decades, BHD has been involved in everything from The Price is Right to The Amazing Race Vietnam, Vietnam’s Got Talent, MasterChef Vietnam, Full House and, going way back, Ugly Betty Vietnam. 

Earlier this year, Ngo greenlit a Vietnamese version of Korean hit Descendants of the Sun for Danet. Some called her “crazy” for taking on a project that was so well known, for which budgets were bound to be unequal and where comparisons were inevitable.  

First and foremost, Ngo says, she’s a fan of Descendants of the Sun. Also, BHD has a reputation for being daring, for being one of Vietnam’s pioneers. “What makes us different from other companies is that we do things that people don’t do,” she says. 

“A lot of people asked us ‘are you crazy?’, ‘are you sure that you want to remake Descendants of the Sun? Vietnam is much poorer than Korea. We are a developing country. Why don’t you choose to do something more simple, something easier?”

“But we thought ‘why not?’ We know our production budgets are lower, but Vietnamese people are among the most nationalistic in the world. We love our country, and Descendants of the Sun is about how you love your country. So we thought that would click into the hearts of Vietnamese people. We have been through a lot worse. A lot of good movies and drama series are set during war time. A lot of them are told by American Hollywood movies. There are not many about Vietnamese people, about how they loved their country. So we thought we would focus on that and try.”

Bloggers and news sites – including Korean K-pop sites – picked up the story very soon after cameras rolled. Support from buyers in the region started coming in at the first release of the teaser poster. Although BHD never had regional/international distribution ambitions for the series, “we are really happy about the interest,” she says. 

Descendants of the Sun Vietnam is helmed by film director Tran Buu Loc in his first project for television. “Vietnam, despite low budgets, produces thousands of hours a year of content. And it’s all very similar”.  BHD decided to bring Tran on board because “we wanted to do something different, something bold, something that would make people pay attention among the hundreds of thousands of hours of content in Vietnam on legal and pirate platforms,” Ngo says.

Piracy is Vietnam’s legal operators’ most serious issue, Ngo says. “We are actually not so worried about our other competitors.” Danet is part of BHD’s effort to stave off the threat, with multiple access and price points. It turns out that SVOD and TVOD “didn’t develop as well as we expected,” she says. AVOD, on the other hand, took off, which led to the decision to invest in Descendants of the Sun this year and other originals, including a local version of Glee last year. “AVOD is developing quite well in Vietnam and we hope that in time the AVOD audience will turn into SVOD and TVOD,” Ngo adds. 

BHD is more likely to go forward with adaptations of Asian stories – including My Love from the Star from Korean broadcaster SBS – than with more American ideas. “Asian stories are much easier to adapt,” Ngo says. “When we did Glee, we had a slight problem in that men in the U.S. can fall in love with different women during different episodes. And that’s really difficult for us. Our ideal man is one who loves one woman no matter what.”

Vietnam’s formats acquisitions have dipped, with Thailand taking over as the region’s biggest buyer in the first half of this year, according to ContentAsia’s Formats Outlook. Ngo attributes this to multiple factors, including a slower economy, lower TV ratings, and an overload first of game shows and now reality, with back-to-back episodes stuffing schedules. “Audiences get fed up,” she says. “There’s nothing new... So funding is smaller and audiences want more, and they want something different”. 

She has high hopes for OTT, despite piracy. “There’s a big shift from linear TV to OTT,” she says. TV ratings dropped 12% this year compared to last year. At the same time, willingness to pay for OTT services in Vietnam is very low. “Pirate site are for free. Audiences don’t know whether the site is pirate or legitimate, they just come to where the content is.”

Published in ContentAsia's Issue Five 2018, 4 October 2018