Cash starts to attract foreign projects

Singapore’s lavish film funds have become the stuff of Asian biz legend. The city-state’s Media Development Authority has earmarked a great deal of coin for the making of movies, but the take-up has been slow so far.

While the local industry is outwardly pleased with the MDA’s efforts to help the biz, insiders say privately that Singapore is still not as easy a place in which to make movies as Thailand, which is more active in its wooing of foreign projects.

Singapore also has a small population, and faces stiff competition from regional giants like India and China. The small nation’s famous cosmopolitanism, with its Indian, Malay, Chinese and Western population, also means it suffers from a bit of an identity crisis.

But the hesitant take-up of funds on offer highlights a more challenging issue — though money is available, there is a shortage of viable projects that can compete internationally on which that money can be spent.

Still, the MDA is happy the fund is showing steady growth, because film financing is part of Singapore’s broader policy of establishing itself as a regional showbiz hub.

“It’s not a bad sign, because you would be worried if the money was going out like clockwork. What we want to do is develop inroads into the market to draw out the best concepts,” says MDA CEO Aubeck Kam. “It’s taken time for the funds to establish themselves in the market. Setting up funds is one step, but having them link up and pushing ideas through the system takes time.”

Lim Soo Ann, general manager of Singapore-based Fly Entertainment, says that the city-state is still considered a newbie on the block.

“We may have the funds, and groups like the MDA are trying to hook us up, but our content is not international enough yet to get us out there,” she says.

In 2009, the MDA launched the $50 million Singapore Intl. Film Fund. The Singapore government has earmarked a total of $156 million over a five-year period to develop the media content sector, on top of $340 million for interactive digital media research and development.

Some of the region’s big players have become involved.

In March last year, Salon Films and the MDA set up Singapore-based SIMF Management, aimed at raising an integrated media fund of SG$100 million ($72 million).

At Cannes last year, the MDA and Fortissimo Films announced a joint fund to develop, finance and distribute a multi-genre slate of films.

The first film selected was “Camera,” helmed by Singapore’s James Leong.

Last year, the Film Fund shortlisted “The Harvest” and “Cooktales” for funding. It has also supported “Bait” and “Neon Sign,” a Singapore-China-Korean film co-produced by Bang Singapore and Korea’s Nabi Pictures.

In February, the MDA opened submissions to co-invest with the Intl. Film Fund, and said it was looking to invest up to $3.9 million in globally marketable films involving at least one Singapore partner.

Most Asian economies have weathered the financial crisis well, and this means there is still a lot of money around to make movies, especially in places like China and India, which are both areas of interest to Singapore from a funding point of view.

“There is more than enough money in China and India. If you have the right actor and the right movie, or the right actor or the right director, you can get the money. Part of the problem is there are so few bankable actors and directors,” says Ashok Amritraj, chairman and CEO of Hyde Park Entertainment, who has collaborated with the MDA on a number of projects, including a reality TV show called “Project PDA,” in which teams compete to win an internship at his Hollywood offices.

“There is so much equity chasing these movies, and there is new equity coming in. The money is so freely available. All my friends in India and China don’t really need it,” he adds.

The MDA’s Heng Li Lan says Singapore also wants to move into other areas.

“We are encouraging funds to be set up here using Singapore talent and facilities. We would also like to attract ancillary support services here — completion bonds, collection accounts,” she says. “We have invested tremendous resources in terms of filmmakers. We may move toward grants.”

The recent ScreenSingapore film event, which appeared to spare no expense or effort in wooing some of the biggest names in the biz to Singapore, including Fox Film topper Jim Gianopulos and Tom Hanks, underlined this ambition. The next stage is to establish itself as a regional hub for biz talent.

Singapore has done very well establishing itself in areas such as post-production, visual effects and animation, and was recognized internationally as a place with the available technological skill-sets needed.

It has already wooed and won the affections of biz leaders such as the Jim Henson Co. and LucasFilm Animation, which set up LucasFilm Animation Singapore in 2004.

“In the last few months, we have been consulting with industry partners to take a fresh look at what we should do to support the industry,” Kam says. “Our belief is that the depth of talent goes beyond post-production and visual effects and animation, and our job is to achieve this.”

Latitude Entertainment prexy Greg Coote, who also chairs the board of ScreenSingapore, said he expects Singapore to be successful in expanding its role in the biz beyond its current skill-sets in VFX and post.

“Where we’ll see the crossovers is in talent, in front of and behind the cameras,” Coote says.

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