Singapore may be geographically small but it has big plans for its screen industry, including making good use of its co-production treaty with Australia. Miguel Gonzalez reports.
Next month, the screen industry’s eyes will be in Singapore, as the island nation hosts its first market/conference/ trade and technology exhibition, simply called ScreenSingapore.
It is part of the country’s plan to become a regional media hub. The local media industry employs 60,000 people, with about a 30 production companies, 20 animation studios and a dozen post-production houses. Plans for growth include the development of Mediapolis @ one-north – a 19-hectare innovation and R&D complex that by 2020, will host soundstages, digital production and broadcast facilities.
The country’s Media Development Authority launched the blueprint for the nation’s media industries in 2009. The Media Fusion Plan aims to make Singapore “the trusted global capital for New Asia Media” by strengthening the media infrastructure and supporting the creation of innovative content with global appeal.
Singapore has the financial resources to back up projects that will contribute to the skills and international exposure of its practitioners, and is not afraid to use them. According to the MDA’s Kenneth Tan – whose titles include chief operating officer, director for film, animation and publishing, and director of the Singapore Film Commission – the history of Singapore’s economic development is entirely based on international partnerships, and their vision for growth does not strictly revolve around domestic production.
“Other Government organisations are more interested in things that happen geographically within their territory. Our interest is not confined to that; we want to develop projects made in Singapore as well as others made by Singapore. As long as there’s an opportunity for meaningful involvement, it doesn’t matter where in the world it happens physically, because our talent is being exported and incorporated into other ecosystems,” he explained. “We’ve also funded R&D for proprietary animation and 3D systems, so there might not be anything Singaporean about the look of a project, but the way it is done is distinctively Singaporean.”
Singapore has bilateral agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China and Korea (TV only), with more than 200 co-productions in its national slate. The treaty with Australia was signed in 2007 and entered into force in October 2008; a very recent partnership compared with their Canadian treaty,signed in 1998. According to Screen Australia, only two co-productions have been made between the two countries, with a combined budget of $25.09: the 3D feature Bait (Arclight Films, Story Bridge Films, and Pictures in Paradise, in association with Blackmagic Design) and the animated series Zigby (Avrill Stark Entertainment/Big Animation, also working with Canada’s Zebra Productions). Project not listed by the federal agency include Milly Molly (Pacific & Beyond/ Scrawl Studios) and Guess How Much I Love You (SLR Productions/Scrawl Studios).
The MDA is also working with ScreenWest in a cross-media development initiative, providing up to U$30,000 to Western Australia/Singapore projects such as Off the Wall (Zac Toons/Scrawl Studios), Life on the Edge (Artemis International/Threesixzero Productions), Are you Smarter than Nature (Sea Dog Films/Very! Productions, Gallery of Everyday Things (Great Western Entertainment/Infinite Frameworks) and Global Sound Hunters (Circling Shark Productions/ Xtreme Production). A third round of projects is yet to be announced.
“Co-productions allow our companies and their partners to draw on each other’s expertise, synergy, cultural and business sensibilities. The treaty has been a very enjoyable experience so far; both sides have contributed and learned a lot. We’re deepening our relationship with Screen Australia and Australian companies.
“We regularly take our companies abroad to talk about potential project sand opportunities. Singapore is well poised to play an increasingly significant role; our ties with Australia are strong. And there are complimentary assets that we bring to each other,” said Tan.
The MDA’s funding schemes include the International Film Fund (IFF), which provides up to SG$5m to co-productions. It’s not the only kind of support available.
“There’s also private equity in the form of private funds; financial institutions that MDA has worked to anchor on Singapore, and others in which we have some kind of participation,” explained Tan. “What we do, depending on the project’s needs, is to engineer a public-private funding partnership which enables the projects and the community at large to tap into a larger pool.”
Another source of funding is a scheme administered by the Singapore Tourism Board. The rebate provides up to 50 percent of the local spent for projects shot in the country that showcase Singapore in a manner that would encourage people to visit the country.
“If you showed the island completely decimated in an apocalyptic film, it probably would not qualify, but there are action, romance and even sci-fi projects which can show off the island in a manner that might make them eligible,” explained Tan.
BITING THE BAIT
The 3D shark thriller Bait, shot on the Gold Coast in late 2010 and scheduled to premiere at ScreenSingapore in 2012, isi the first feature to be born from this co-production treaty. “Technology has always been important to us. In 2008 we identified 3D as an area that we wanted to champion. We set up a SG$10m Stereoscopic 3D Development Fund and, as a result, an ecosystem has been built here for the production and post-production of 3D content. And because of our location, our screen work has often involved water, so when the Bait project came through the IFF, it was a great opportunity to start our feature film co-production slate,” said Tan. “As the conversations evolved and the pitch presentation took place, everybody recognised there was an opportunity to do something in 3D that would naturally use what both sides could do.”
Australian ex-pat Ian Maycock, executive producer at Singapore’s Blackmagic Design, is one of the co-production partners in Bait. Blackmagic worked with Queensland’s Pictures in Paradise, focusing on the Singaporean funding and elements of the production, which included:
• Cast: Adrian Pang and Yuwu Qi.
• Music composition
• Sound premixing and final mixing, at Yellowbox
• Digital Intermediate
• Stereographic 3D production and post-production
• Data management and wrangling on set, by Widescreen Media.
The Singaporean screen agency, says Maycock, is proactive and diligent, but “if they had a couple of internationally experienced filmmakers advising them, it may help them find better ways to achieve things for screen practitioners:”
When asked to describe the Singapore screen industry, Maycock’s response is simple: “small”. That is why he believes the country should focus on regional opportunities and synergies instead of trying to compete with its neighbours in a race to become South East Asia’s media hub.
“It’s a small island with limited people, locations, experience, etc. It is a leading country in the region and what needs to happen is that South East Asia needs to embrace filmmaking as a region not separate countries. We have Thailand with great locations and probably the best value for quality around – great for art direction and prosthetics, and the crews are great. We have Malaysia beside us and they are building great stages (Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios) in Johor Bahru just across the causeway from Singapore. We have the Philippines, with more locations and a good animation base.
“You add Singapore and then you have a screen creation hub. It needs to be regional; I do not believe anyone, anywhere in the world should be trying to make their one city a one-stop-shop. You limit quality and creativity by trying to use the worst attributes of a place, as well as its best. You also get no diversity in your films,” he said.
The co-production treaty between Singapore in Australia, says Maycock, is working. Blackmagic Design already has a second co-production, The Harvest (a 3D thriller-horror about the misadventures of a group of backpackers) currently in development with Goal Poast Pictures in Sydney.
“It’s the old story; how to make a bigger film for a smallish budget. The main thing is to find films that are suited to Australia and Asia, with an international release and focus. BMD Films want to make English language films with Asian flavours to be sold internationally. We are in the early stages of developing some of those,” said Maycock.
Another Singaporean company working on projects with Australian partners is Scrawl Studios, currently in production of the animated series Guess How Much I Love You with SLR Productions. Scrawl is in charge of episodic designs, storyboards and animation.
“The biggest challenge is finding the right talent for Scrawl in such an international project, as the pool of experienced production crew and animators in Singapore is relatively small,” said Choon Meng Seng. This is Scrawl Studios’ fifth international co-production, and the second with Australia (following
Milly, Molly with Pacific and Beyond). Valuable lessons have been learned from their international collaborations: “It’s given us an insight into the expectations of a major international project, and also how to better set-up our team to achieve the quality expected. It’s been an opportunity to work with some of the best talents in Australian and I came away deeply impressed by the depth of the talent pool there as well as their capabilities.”
The animation studio understands that, given the small size of the Singaporean market, the best opportunities lie beyond the island nation.
“The TV industry tends to be rather inwardlooking at this point,” said Seng. “I am hopeful that the TV industry will be able to support more local productions that could eventually become successful in the international arena, as well as nurture talent that would become key creative and technical players globally.”
The country currently produces about 4,000 hours of television every year, as well as an average of 20 features – and with a population of approximately 5 million, its SG$162m box office results and 20,321,000 cinema tickets sold in 2010 are not only impressive, but a clear sign of the country’s appetite for content.
“When the consumption of entertainment is so avid, it does something to the mindset of the people who work in the industry,” said Tan. “It’s stimulating.”