Singapore lures productions

Incentives, savvy pols partner for new media and films

HONG KONG — What is the connection between Rakesh Roshan’s “Krrish,” last summer’s big Bollywood hit, and Lucasfilm? Both have taken advantage of the financial incentives offered by Singapore to help it build a world-class media hub.

Highly developed Singapore certainly does not have the lowest labor costs in Asia, but it managed to attract Lucasfilm’s first non-U.S. production facility.

The branch is now in production on several shows including “Clone Wars.” Both sides are looking for a transfer of skills — Lucasfilm sees a motivated workforce with good generalist skills, while Singapore is counting on the U.S. firm to provide film know-how and a halo effect, which brings in other foreign content players.

India’s first superhero movie, “Krrish,” was brought to the Lion City by a movie and TV fund backed by the Singapore Tourist Board.

Although the plot was distinctly silly, “Krrish” did boast hunky Hrithik Roshan and former Miss World Priyanka Chopra prancing around a downtown Singapore that looked more modern and cleaner than ever. With Singapore less than four hours’ flying time from Mumbai, the city-state is on the radar and within reach of millions of increasingly cosmopolitan middle-class Indian families.

The difference between Singapore and some other principalities and micro-states around the globe that seek the reflected glory of becoming a 21st-century communications hub is that Singapore has a big plan. Its agencies are joined up and its ambitions are founded on more than casinos and oil — though it has also greenlighted plans for two of the former and, surprisingly, has plenty of the latter.

“Singapore has no oil of its own, but has become one of the world’s leading refiners,” says the Media Development Authority’s deputy director Michael Yap, who spearheads plans to build a leading gaming industry. “What we are good at is process control and management. And we are good at finding business niches — competitive advantages in places where they should not be.”

So much for the philosophy. What the MDA, the STB and the Singapore Film Commission do is develop layer upon layer of support mechanisms that encourage creativity in Singapore, if not by locals, then by foreign companies and foreign talent. Significantly, MDA chief Christopher Chia uses the phrase “made by Singapore” not “made by Singaporeans.”

The MDA was founded only four years ago, but already has seven initiatives for the movie industry. These are carefully stepped up from two script and project development programs through a couple of skills development schemes to the Scheme for Co-investment in Exportable Content (known by the semi-acronym SCREEN). Additionally, there are subsidies for use of state properties and for film talent on overseas promotional travel.

The MDA’s July announcement of a loan guarantee system around a slate of films packaged by Australian talent management company RGM had producers in other countries drooling.

With Singaporean shingles as co-producers, RGM extended MDA’s guarantee to two films that were already in advanced stages of production: Kate Bosworth and Sigourney Weaver starrer “The Girl in the Park” and Canada’s “Pushing Up Daisies,” with Rose Byrne and Jay Baruchel. Intended dividend for Singapore is development of production skills and legal structures.

Man Shu Sum, the MDA’s director of broadcast and film development, rules out any notion that his agency is too generous or that Singapore is a soft touch.

“We invest small amounts of money, we do so on commercial terms and we take equity,” he says. “We are a nonprofit organization, but we expect to be repaid in order to fund future projects.”

Man says that Singapore is a very young country and its movie industry is in the early stages of growth. MDA is bankrolling close to 100 short films per year, and the country is making seven or eight features a year. It aims to build a sustainable industry producing 10-15 movies per annum, in three to five years’ time.

“What you are seeing is a short-term push. Longer-term, nonstop funding would be very unhealthy,” Man says.

Message to other foreigners wanting to emulate Lucasfilm, RGM or Roshan? Come and participate in Singapore’s movie development while MDA is still oiling the wheels.

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