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ScreenSingapore: SE Asia Film Finance Still Lacking Maturity, Development

Multiple, different reforms are needed if film in South East Asia is to reach its potential as a business, delegates at ScreenSingapore were told.

After three days of conferences largely devoted to the small screen, Friday’s seminars within the Singapore Media Festival saw conversations turn to cinema.

The contrast of optimistic long term thinking and an obstacle-ridden near term reality was a frustrating pattern throughout a series of conversations that ranged from case studies to co-production and movie-marketing.

Problems include: a regional market that is currently too small to sustain commercial productions; an over-dependence on state subsidy and angel investors; and lack of structure and market discipline.

“We need to change mind sets that have been this way for 30 years,” said Kamil Othman, head of government film agency FINAS in Malaysia, a country where local movies had their peak in 2012, but have lost ground at the box office ever since. “When we tackled TV in 2009 Malaysia’s strategy was to first create an industry with small and medium enterprises and to let content to follow. In film we need to move to co-creation instead of subsidy.”

The disconnect between the industry and the marketplace in Malaysia may stem from a law which requires ‘compulsory screenings’ of local films, and a system where government broadcasters guarantee acquisitions.

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“I have to go through due diligence to raise the money in the first place,” said Mohan Mulani, director at producer-financier Surya Ventures. “The industry needs to be much more disciplined once it has taken someone’s money,”

Chieko Murata, recently appointed by Sony Pictures to head a local film production initiative in South East Asia, said that the studio will necessarily proceed slowly as it seeks to find movie projects that are big enough and commercial enough to justify its involvement. “We will not be doing anything that is not suitable for the market,” she said.

Murata also identified auteur attitudes as a recurring problem. “Too often the director and the producer are the same person,” she said.

“Producers have been spoiled by non-professional investors, people who want tea with an actress or to get their daughter into the movies,” said Chan Gin Kai, a veteran producer-financier and executive producer of Silver Media Group.

“Hollywood has already developed a risk mitigation system model for film finance, there is no need for us to reinvent it,” said Leon Tan, producer, VFX provider and financier at DragonSlate Media. He suggested that more projects should be tested for commercial viability by the attachment of sales agents and distributors before going in to production.

(Away from the ATF on Thursday, Joseph Cohen, president of American Entertainment Investors, and financier of Singapore International Film Festival movie ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity,’ gave financial professionals a lecture in movie industry risk management at the Singapore Stock Exchange.)

Tan and Chan sounded a common refrain – that SE Asian governments are willing to put up money for film, but have often delivered measures that are either wrong-headed or only partially-executed.

“The banks in Malaysia will not cash flow the 30% production rebate. It is not that they don’t trust the government paper, but their auditors don’t understand how to audit the rebates,” Tan said.

“Money from the Media Development Authority in Singapore comes with many strings attached. The MDA doesn’t have good taste in the projects it selects,” said Chan. “I won’t take their money unless I have to.”

Significant too was a change of emphasis compared with earlier editions of ScreenSingapore. Rather than pitching Singapore as a global film finance hub, participants were this year much more focused on South East Asia as a region that is distinct from other parts of Asia or China.
“Hollywood is looking to SE Asia for production and as a growing marketplace, look at the way that ‘Terminator Genisys’ struggled in North America, but performed strongly in this region,” said Tan.

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