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Singapore seeing signs of expansion

Khoo, Tan leading the way for local filmmakers

SINGAPORE — With government grants, RGM Holdings’ $100 million film fund and LaSalle-SIA’s new School of Film just opened, can Singapore finally make its mark on the movie industry?

Artistically some would say it already has, with helmer Eric Khoo garnering a standing ovation for Zhao Wei Films’ “Be With Me” as the opening film of last year’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. And hot young talent Royston Tan is attracting critical acclaim and distributor interest for the Berlin-preemed “4:30” and work in progress “132.”

Although denied an Oscar entry for “Be With Me” due to a technicality over its foreign language status, Khoo is upbeat about the movie’s widespread distribution via Bavaria Films, including Korean sales.

Despite a high rate of moviegoing per capita, it’s generally agreed that Singapore’s 4 million population is not enough to grow the local film industry.

“Some local films will succeed (locally), but they will not necessarily travel well to other countries,” explains James Toh, Executive Producer at Zhao Wei Films.

“And people here are so used to high quality imported films that they expect the very best; it has to be something exceptional,” says Khoo. “This puts tremendous pressure on local filmmakers.”

But the government is doing its bit to encourage young filmmakers — Tan’s “4:30” was co-funded by Zhao Wei Films, NHK Japan and Singapore Film Commission (SFC).

And December 2005 saw SFC’s inaugural Project Development Grants of $13,000-$26,000 awarded to six recipients — MediaCorp Raintree Pictures, Ground Glass Images, Oak3 Films, and newcomers One Ton Cinema, Monsoon Pictures and Red Ink Media.

Red Ink’s Gilbert Chan says the various grants are a start toward launching young talent. Chan, who also won a scriptwriting competition in 2001, has just wrapped “$11” and is working on horror title “Charlie Company.”

At MediaCorp Raintree Pictures, CEO Daniel Yun says Singapore still needs its first breakout hit. “The film industry is still in its infancy; there’s no grasp of the commercial side of movies and a lack of understanding about the producer’s role. Singapore has been built by people who make good decisions based upon tangible facts and figures, but creativity is difficult for them to quantify.”

Yun says it’s a different story with local TV, parent company MediaCorp’s prime business, which has proved itself financially. But Singapore’s small geographical size means film has to prove itself beyond the domestic box office to gain momentum.

That said, Raintree’s year has been a promising one, with “The Maid” breaking local B.O. records for a horror pic, securing distribution via Fortissimo Films and spawning a prequel set over a century ago in colonial Singapore. Jack Neo-helmed “I Not Stupid Too” recently topped the local B.O. for three weeks, grossing twice that of its predecessor “I Not Stupid.”

And Yun has high hopes for “One Last Dance,” already sold into many territories and set for release in Singapore in mid 2006. “That was a very international cast and crew — something that would not have happened in Hong Kong — which is very much one of Singapore’s filmmaking strengths,” he says.

“Realistically our first breakout hit may not be a solely Singaporean effort,” Yun says. “In such a small market, success becomes an issue of not just creativity but strategy, and Singapore needs to outthink its size. It’s better to consider us as part of a wider Asian movement, with China and Japan, creating a new world order in film.”