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Bringing Anime to Southeast Asia: Interview with Medialink, Ani-One Co-Founder Lovinia Chiu

by Rafael Antonio Pineda,

Lovinia Chiu, Medialink co-founder

Over the past six years, many streaming and simulcast services have catered to otaku in Asia, offering simulcasts of seasonal anime and theatrical anime screenings. One such service is Ani-One Asia, a Hong Kong-based Medialink Group brand that offers a competitive lineup of simulcasts every season and regular theatrical screenings across multiple territories. Just in the past two seasons, Ani-One has simulcasted such shows as Kaiju No. 8, Jujutsu Kaisen season 2, Blue Archive The Animation, Solo Leveling, HAIKYU!! The Dumpster Battle, KONOSUBA season 3, and My Hero Academia season 7.

Medialink has been in the anime licensing business since sisters Lovinia and Noletta Chiu co-founded the company in 1994, but has a reach even beyond anime, extending into e-commerce, merchandise sales, and brand licensing for such brands as Garfield, Popeye, and The Little Prince. Medialink founded Ani-One Asia in 2018 as an anime streaming brand, and it has collectively racked up 5.5 million subscribers across its numerous regional channels, streaming anime on its branded YouTube channels or sub-licensing to local streaming, video-on-demand, and television services.

ANN sat down with an interview with co-founder Lovinia Chiu to talk about Medialink's history, Ani-One's recent moves, and the company's future.

I understand you co-founded MediaLink and remain the CEO. Have your duties within the company changed over time, or have they remained the same?

Lovinia Chiu: I think since my three sisters and I co-founded the company together, our vision to become the number one IP management company has always stayed the same. We think we as a company should never change our mission, and our value as a company remains our passion and the strength of our partnerships.

If there are any changes, it is because our industry is constantly growing and changing along with technology. When we started as a company, we were in free, cable, paid, and satellite TV, and now streaming platforms have come along. And we change along with technology to meet the demands of the environment alongside our customers. So right now, we have our Ani-One streaming platform, our merchandising arm, and then Ani-Music-One to show Anisong concerts. So now we have a complete ecosystem ready for modern customers.

I think a lot of our readers are unaware of how MediaLink got their start. Can you give a summary of the company's founding?

CHIU: So one thing I get asked often in interviews is why I became an entrepreneur or a chairman of a listed company. When I was 17, I never dreamed of being a business owner. My concern at that age was my father, who was in a vehicle accident, which meant that I had to struggle and finish university within three years so that I could start earning money. I started working as a media agent at Star TV, where I honed my sales skills, keeping informed of the market situation, the best title in the market, and so on. I left the company after Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation acquired Star TV. I had a lot of contacts and clients from my time at Star TV who were happy with my work, so I brought that with me when starting MediaLink.

I chose to work in animation when starting MediaLink because I believed that my previous company did not service animation. At the time, being based in Hong Kong, China was the biggest market you could easily access, and at the time, animation didn't need to pass through the government censorship process. I knew that Japan was the biggest supplier of animation, so I went to Japan to “lock the door” by being the first to access anime for my market.

At the time, when I was trying to interact with Japanese licensors, they definitely thought that I was just some little girl who had no money. It was a very male-dominated industry. However, I managed to break through to them with the information I had about the market situation in China and Southeast Asia. They had little idea how many TV stations and prime-time slots there were in Asia where their content was airing. So I gave them the information they wanted, and I could talk to them afterward.

Our first acquisition was Ninja Boy Rantaro (Nintama Rantaro), for which Sogo Vision was the licensor at the time before they sold it to NHK. Until now, we are still licensing that anime for its 26th season. We later licensed titles like Pokémon, Ultraman Tiga, Dyna, Gaia, and Cosmos. Ultraman was not so successful, but we eventually brought Gundam titles to Asia, particularly the Philippines. In the Philippines, we distributed the title Hana Yori Dango/Meteor Garden, which really changed the media landscape over there. We sold over 60 live-action drama titles to the Philippines after that. So you can see the picture of how we do IP management.

So your story about Japanese licensors being unaware of the state of their products in other territories makes me curious: do you think that's changed much now?

CHIU: Yes, because, of course, in the past, it was a “closed society.” Knowledge was closely guarded information. That's how sales agents like me survived at the time. At the time, there was no Internet, but I researched a lot of information. I went to every market. Even now, media executives still come to us for information.

But now, Japanese executives are generally aware of the market situation because of the Internet. The Internet is “open knowledge.” But you need to screen, really need to fact check—it's very different. You need different skills. Now, Japanese media people can speak languages other than Japanese; their English is much better than mine! It's been a real change in the past 15 years.

You debuted the Ani-One streaming service and brand in 2018. How has the transition to streaming been in the past six years?

CHIU: We already had the brand name from 2016 to 2017. However, due to COVID-19, we started licensing more titles.

After we became listed [on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange] in May 2019, we hired many people as we started ramping up the Ani-One platform. This allowed us to still distribute anime on our platform, even if clients don't buy the titles we license. It also allowed us to have our fans and ecosystem. Now, we have Ani-Mall, which is our e-commerce brand for merchandise. Some of the merchandise we offer is exclusive to that brand.

So you do feel like it's on a steady path to growth?

CHIU: Of course. We started it out with only 1,000 fans, and now, in only a few years, we have more than 5 million [subscribers]. Now our target is 10 million. Then another 10 million after that.

Is there any market where you think Ani-One could do way better?

CHIU: The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and I think one of the major markets we are targeting is India. Because the population size is the biggest in the world, China is very difficult these days to enter the market because of government censorship, or they have criteria for platform ownership. So India is one of the markets where we're thinking about how to perform better.

What do you think distinguishes MediaLink and Ani-One from its other competitors in Southeast Asia?

CHIU: I honestly think that we are an international company, an IP management company, and a sales agency. And many of the other companies in the space are very local. But for me, collaboration is one of the keys to success in the future, so we're always open to other companies. For example, when we became a listed company, I went to Singapore, to a competitor for licensing, and told them I wanted to invest in their company. And it shocked them, but I told them collaboration is very important.

As for our international reach, we've been doing Garfield, Sesame Street, Little Prince, and Moomin, Transformers for so many years. Anime is an important segment, but we also manage a lot of international brands, and we represent properties even from Paramount and Sony Pictures. So we are in a lot of different sectors. We even do dramas and live-action movies with our team in Hong Kong and Taiwan. So, we manage our IP in a very different way. I can't say the same about our competitors. Maybe we have competitors in only one genre like Media Asia is our competitor in movies or Emperor Cinema. But, due to the diversity of our business, there's really no company that competes with us.


The Asian anime market has been used to piracy for a long time. Does your company have a plan to change users' minds on piracy?

CHIU: When we profile our customers, they look for quality. In the past, when we distributed titles like Thomas & Friends, Pokémon, Beyblade, and Crush Gear, there was a lot of piracy for those. But now, the value of the material is different. People who pirate are not our target. Our e-commerce portal offers merchandise that can't be pirated. Or we offer concerts that can't be imitated. The market is changing a lot, and it's undeniable that piracy exists, but it can be treated as part of marketing.

So basically, you provide an experience you can't copy with piracy.

CHIU: Yes, the real feeling or the experience is very much different. Customers look for quality.

Some companies view people who pirate as “lost revenue.”

CHIU: That can still be true, depending on your product. Even some merchandise, like t-shirts, because they are very easy to copy. But stuff like anime figures, they're high quality. Having quality products signals that you're an otaku or a real fan of anime. In our experience, especially in cons in Taiwan and Hong Kong, people spend [a lot in merchandise], and they're not spending that money on pirated merchandise. Piracy is really just marketing for me; I don't care. I don't care. The market is just different now. And honestly, if the production committee, the licensors, or the authors are aware of it and want to do something about it, then they should speed up approval. (laughs)

That's true! (laughs)

CHIU: If they understand, time is of the essence to produce quality results. The authors' views of anime are very different. After all, this is also their baby. When we did Pokémon, just one shot of underwear and approval for the censorship could take one year. Of course, at the time of Pokémon, the market situation wasn't as dynamic as today. That's why, at the time, maybe they just had a different perception of things.

Has your company focused on home video release before?

Probably not much. It's just one outlet among many. But even with The First Slam Dunk, we're going to release the DVD and Blu-ray in Hong Kong, and it's a very special premium release that fans will come back for.

That's in Hong Kong only, right?

CHIU: Yes.


So, do the otaku in Hong Kong have a big collector culture?

CHIU: Yes. In terms of merchandise sales, I believe Japan is at the top, followed by South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

In the United States and Japan, they have really big collector cultures there.

CHIU: Yes, in the U.S., honestly, it's grown a lot in the past seven to ten years.

But Southeast Asia hasn't had a history of a big collector culture.

CHIU: Yes, though it has grown. Only after COVID-19 did the merchandise sales in Southeast Asia grow. I think it's because COVID-19 pushed a lot of people to go with Netflix and streaming in general, so it saw a lot of customer growth.

Does MediaLink have a plan, or any intention to try and encourage a kind of collector culture for home video or figures in Southeast Asia, where it's historically been pretty hard?

CHIU: I think we're pushing merchandise in that market. We invested in a company in Hong Kong called Sunrisepop. They've had many successful products for anime, and now they're distributing in the U.S. and even in the Philippines. We've been expanding a lot in that area, but not the home video. Merchandise is our way of encouraging a sense of a deeper value for the IP.

What are your plans for future markets? Is the long-term plan for MediaLink to expand outside of Asia or stay within it?

CHIU: When we became a listed company, we announced our five-year plan, which will finish this September. Last year, we started planning another five-year plan. Anime remains a big part of our strategy. We've already invested in a production house for dramas and movies, and in the same vein, we're considering investing in an animation studio or more merchandise companies. Geographically, Asia remains our major focus. Territories like China and India, we still need to go deeper into these. There are still potential fans who still haven't been able to avail of merchandise or go to concerts. So, we need to go deeper into these markets for the next five years.

However, we still have a footprint in other parts of the world, such as merchandise sales. And often, merchandise sales can lead your expansion into another territory. If I have the global rights for the merchandise of a figure, then I'll sell that globally. So that's what we are continuing with MediaLink for the next five years, especially in the anime world. We're also still looking for synergy with strategic partners with whom we share a common vision, maybe from Japan or another part of the world.

Thank you for taking this interview, Ms. Lovinia.

CHIU: Thank you so much!

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