Media Development Authority finances filming in Asia

SINGAPORE — Pil Gam-Sung’s “Neon Sign,” a road movie set in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, is about a Korean pop idol on the run from the paparazzi. What could be a more complete Asian conconction? As if to further prove that point, the film is backed by coin from Singapore, China and Korea.

The pic, by the Korean helmer of “Musa” and due for release in 2011, is supported by the Asian film powerhouses CJ Entertainment and Beijing Polybona Film Distribution Co., and produced by Singapore’s Bang Prods. and South Korea’s Nabi Pictures.

But what sets it apart from other Asian co-productions is that “Neon Sign” is the first project to emerge from Singapore’s Intl. Film Fund (IFF), launched at Cannes last year. It illustrates the city-state’s ambitions to boost filmmaking.

The Singapore government is pushing co-productions in live action and animation and has worked to build a major production and post-production hub from basically a standing start, serving one of the most heavily populated and rapidly expanding regions in the world.

At the Singapore Media Development Authority’s futuristic headquarters at the Fusionopolis R&D center, Christopher Chia, MDA’s CEO, is animated as he lists the city-state’s strengths when it comes to wooing filmmakers.

“This is a response to changes in the landscape. People are coming to Singapore and people are looking to Singapore for co-production,” he says.

He believes Singapore’s strategic location close to many Asian power centers and at the crossroads between East and West gives its film and other media companies a unique advantage in the creative process to make content from Asia that resonates with domestic as well as international auds.

The IFF is the first of a number of initiatives launched by the MDA to encourage lensing in the city-state, providing locally based shingles and post-production companies the opportunity to exec produce and/or co-produce films of global appeal with international partners.

The IFF allows a contribution of up to $3.4 million per project, covering 17 to 20 projects ranging across animation, live-action features and post-production.

All told, the Singapore government has earmarked $156 million over five years to develop the media content sector, which comes on top of $340 million it has already committed to interactive digital media research and development.

Thanks largely to China’s strong economy, Asia has managed to evade the worst ravages of the recent global financial crisis. These circumstances have also led to a growing focus on Singapore’s huge neighbor to the north, where many co-prods are choosing to lense. Mandarin is one of Singapore’s official languages, and Chinese culture is strong there, putting it in a good position to exploit the growing Chinese market.

Other major cross-border co-productions supported by MDA include the $10 million “Host 2,” jointly made by Korean producer Choi Yong-Bae of Chungeorahm Films and award-winning Singapore filmmaker Kelvin Tong of Boku Films.

It appears efforts to boost the biz in Singapore are paying off. In 2007 the media sector contributed more than $14 billion in revenue to the economy and employed over 58,000 people. The compounded annual growth rate of the sector from 1997 to 2007 was 6.8%, higher than that of the overall economy, which stood at 5.9%.

As well as the IFF, $882 million in private equity investment is available to filmmakers in Singapore, the MDA says.

Singapore has also set aside $6.7 million for the Stereoscopic 3D Development Fund, which commits the territory to co-producing a slate of 3D films and to develop 3D production and post-production capabilities.

Chia points out the window of the Fusionopolis building to the site where the third major initiative, Mediapolis @ one-north, will be built. This is to be a state-of-the-art media park offering soundstages, digital production and post-production as well as broadcast and distribution facilities.

Mediapolis @ one-north will cover 47 acres and serve as a catalyst for film, TV, animation, vidgame and emerging new-media production, he says. The facility’s first tenant will be local shingle Infinite Frameworks, which has expertise in computer graphics and vfx. Infinite Frameworks will be building two visual effects soundstages for film and television on three acres.

Among the jewels in Singapore’s animation crown are the Jim Henson Co. and LucasFilm Animation. The latter set up LucasFilm Animation Singapore in 2004.

One international animation exec says Singapore’s policy of training animators and sending them to work in the U.S. and other animation centers had really paid off.

“It means that when you call up Singapore companies, you get people who are familiar with your way of working — it’s a big bonus.” he says.

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