Streaming service Viki has achieved global success, attracting 40 million monthly users who not only watch its licensed film and TV shows, sourced primarily from Asian countries, but also help subtitle them in 200 different languages. But Viki, which was named a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer 2014, has decided it’s not content to be just a purveyor of other people’s programming. Today, the company announced that it is going into production on its first original series, titled “Dramaworld.”
Is Viki trying to rebrand itself as a network TV-style producer the way Netflix did with “House of Cards”?
“I don’t think the goal is as lofty as that,” Tammy H. Nam, CEO of Viki, told VideoInk. “I think it would be great, ultimately, if we had at least a small percentage of content that we produce originally. And there are a lot of different forms that that could take. But it’s really an experiment in many ways. We want to see how people respond to original content, how they respond to this specific type of storyline and what the economics are. I’m sure a lot of video platforms are doing it for the same reason, but maybe they won’t admit it.”
Shot in both English and Korean, “Dramaworld” follows the adventures of a 20-year-old Los Angeles college student (played by Australian newcomer Liv Hewson) who’s sucked into the world of her favorite Korean drama via her smart phone. It also stars Sean Dulake (“Jejungwon,” “Athena: Goddess of War”) and Justin Chon (the “Twilight” saga, “21 & Over”).
“It’s going to include a lot of K-drama and Asian drama tropes that are going to be immediately recognizable, so it’s like a giant inside joke, in a way,” said Nam. “But at the same time it’s going to be very acceptable to a broad consumer mainstream audience. So if someone who’s completely new to Asian drama watches the show, I think that it would be a really great introduction to the genre for them.”
The popularity of Asian dramas proffered by Viki and competitors such as Crunchyroll and DramaFever cuts across racial and cultural lines. According to Nam, Caucasians represent Viki’s largest viewing bloc in the United States, followed by roughly equal percentages of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Viki’s second largest market is Mexico, where its watch time has grown 50% year over year, Nam added.
Viki’s corporate background is multi-cultural, as well. It was founded in the U.S. in 2007 by Razmig Hovaghimian, Changseong Ho and Jiwon Moon, with backing from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and a Singapore-based start-up fund headed by Joichi Ito. The next year, it moved its headquarters to Singapore to take advantage of the country’s generous government subsidies and its status as a pan-Asian hub. In 2012, Viki was acquired by Japanese internet services company Rakuten for $200 million. Today, it has offices in San Francisco, Singapore, Seoul and Tokyo.
The production team behind “Dramaworld” is just as convoluted. Viki is making the series in partnership with China’s Jetavana Entertainment, founded by film investor and producer Ivy Zhong and the team behind “Ender’s Game” and the remake of “The Karate Kid”; EnterMedia Contents, the company behind U.S. remakes of “The Good Doctor” and the K-drama “My Love from the Star”; and Third Culture Content. It is co-written by Josh Billig and Chris Martin, the latter of whom is set to direct all 10 episodes.
Viki has already begun planning for seasons two and three of “Dramaworld,” which could involve taking the concept to other regions with Hispanic or Chinese protagonists crossing over into the K-drama alternate reality, Nam said.
As for the Viki platform itself, right now it only has about 100,000 subscribers paying for the ad-free option (priced at $3.99 per month in the U.S.), with most users choosing the free ad-supported experience. But there are plans to beef up its subscription offering with exclusive content.
“Subscription is something that we haven’t pushed at this point,” Nam said. “But in 2016 we’ll be pushing it a lot more.”
Image: screengrab from “Couple Fantasy.”