Using The Lure Of Movies To Crack New Markets In Rural Asia

There’s money to be made–and lives to transform–in rural communities in emerging markets. Newton Circus, a Singapore-based social enterprise hub, does it using movies, mobile phones, and a bit of moxie.

“But how will it play in rural Asia?”


This probably isn’t a phrase Hollywood studio executives are throwing about often. Yet it’s something the folks at Newton Circus, the Singapore-based social enterprise hub, are increasingly asking themselves. Newton Circus is developing a new venture called Mobile Movies, which arranges screenings in towns and villages off the beaten track in Myanmar and Indonesia. By bringing rural populations together and holding their attention, Newton Circus is able to gather data and pitch new products and practices on behalf of NGOs and companies.

Mobile Movies is still in the earliest stages–Newton Circus has only run a handful of prototype trips to rural villages, but has rapidly found them to be successful.

Ultimately, here’s how Mobile Movies will work in a typical rural community: Newton Circus will lend one member of the community a movie-screening kit, which includes a Windows 8 smartphone and a mini-projector with speakers. Newton Circus will pay this local field agent roughly $7.75 per day, on average tripling that person’s wages. The field agent visits a different village in the area each day of the week to screen a movie. Advertisements and PSAs may be included with the movie screening, like previews. The field agent may also directly educate the villagers about products and best practices (hygiene, financial literacy), as well as offer product samples. The field agent can also collect data from the villagers (What are the demographics? Are there schools or medical facilities?) on the smartphone, delivering this data to companies more quickly than traditional pen-and-paper methods.

Several initial prototyping trips this summer were successes, say Loring Harkness and Oliver Gilbert, the project director and program manager, respectively, for Mobile Movies (see the embedded videos for a look at the trips). “One thing that surprised me was how quickly word got out that the Mobile Movies event was about to take place,” says Harkness. “The village heads would simply send someone out to go and spread the word, friends talking to friends, and between 45 to 75 people at the end of the day came in from the fields.” They’d gather in the community center or monastery and simply enjoy the movie, says Harkness. “You had old aunties craning their heads so they could see around their neighbors in the crowded room,” he recalls.

There was “extremely positive feedback” from clients like Microsoft and Unilever. “The amount of enthusiasm from partners was astounding,” Harkness says, and it emboldened Newton Circus to plan more prototype trips and set its sights on other countries. Over the next six months, Newton Circus plans to employ 2,000 agents, first in Myanmar and Indonesia, and soon thereafter in India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand. Eventually, says Gilbert, Newton Circus wants to hire 20,000 local agents all across Southeast Asia to spread commercial and public service messages and to collect data of use to companies and NGOs. Gilbert and Harkness estimate that once fully scaled, they’ll be able to reach 75 million audience members a year.

The project has grown from the germ of an idea to an ambitious vision rather quickly. Harkness and Gilbert were first inspired earlier this year by a report from Disney Research documenting the deployment of a “cinema-in-a-backpack” system in Central America. “We thought, Wait a second, we can screen movies in rural areas and use that as a touch point,” recalls Harkness.


As a social enterprise, Newton Circus is interested in a “triple bottom line,” caring about people, the planet, and profits. Ultimately, to the extent Newton Circus is helping bring products to rural communities, it’s focusing on products that will eventually pay for themselves–things like hygiene products and solar lamps, for instance–by strengthening communities. Though companies selling sugar water or skin-whitening cream have expressed interest in Mobile Movies, Newton Circus has declined to work with them, since they “don’t provide real value to communities,” says Harkness.

Still, this isn’t charity. “It’s not CSR–it’s good business,” says Harkness. “The companies we work with will be making a profit.” The intention is to make Mobile Movies into a financially stable business, not some brand-burnishing loss leader. “There’s a huge amount of money at what’s known as the ‘base of the pyramid,’ ” he says. An individual villager may not have enormous purchasing power, but millions of them in aggregate do.

It’s also the case that in emerging markets like Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines (all countries on Newton Circus’s radar), today’s rural poor may be tomorrow’s upwardly mobile city dwellers. Ours is an urbanizing planet. “Companies are interested in building long-lasting positive brand images,” says Gilbert. “They want to engage [potential consumers] at all stages of their lives.”

At the end of the day, what does play well in rural Indonesia? Harkness says that Hollywood action fare is well received, as is that Southeast Asian staple: the Hong Kong kung-fu movie. But ultimately, he says, the things that play best are still movies produced locally, especially films that themselves feature village-dwelling folk (above, an example). So should Hollywood ever want to gain dominance in rural Asia, it’ll have to move beyond the blockbuster mentality. “People really enjoy seeing people they can empathize with in feature films,” says Harkness.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.