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Southeast Asia Needs to Embrace Change, Says SMF Head Rob Gilby

Managing change is on the agenda throughout Tuesday’s Asian TV Forum leaders conference. Change is also a recurring theme that runs throughout a conversation with Rob Gilby, chairman of the advisory board at the Singapore Media Festival umbrella organization.

The pre-ATF conference includes sessions on: video ecosystems – which former Disney executive Gilby says have replaced conventional value chains as a principle of business management –; commissioning for the streaming era; and how the Chinese content industry might evolve. There’s also an afternoon panel on the next five years of content distribution. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned since I moved to Singapore, it is how the government here is consistently focused on the future and has a commitment to forward-planning.”

Gilby seems ready to turn that disruptive logic on the SMF and its constituent elements. They include the Singapore Film Festival, the ATF, SMF Ignite, and the new Asian Academy Creative Awards

“The film festival (now in its 29th edition, albeit after a hiatus) is really finding its identity and is clearly focused on the art of story-telling. That shows through selections like ‘Cities of Last Things,’ which is broad, but intense, has a strong story mechanism and is futuristic, but not too dystopian. ‘Dear-Ex’ is moving, funny and globally acceptable,” says Gilby of the SGIFF’s gala titles.

But having found what he hopes is a programming sweet-spot, Gilby is keen to make the event more useful. He foresees a greater industry development role, and Singapore as the pole for development of the surrounding Southeast Asian entertainment business.

Reacting to David Puttnam’s Saturday critique that Singapore film needs to move faster if it is not to miss its opportunity, Gilby explains: “many filmmakers are filming only for Singapore, they need also to be thinking of the wider SE Asian audience.” The FLY Program, linking ASEAN countries with South Korea, and the SMF country focus on The Philippines (and Indonesia last year) may be examples of government-led Singaporean responses to the challenges that Puttnam identified.

The rise of China as an entertainment powerhouse complicates the equation still further. “It is not a question of SE Asia versus China, but in some ways the region is the exact opposite of China which has a large, distinct market and its own identity,” says Gilby. The SE Asia industry has challenges that include language, funding and physical location.

Gilby points to a change of emphasis of the part of the Info-Comm Media Development Authority and the Singapore Film Commission, which no longer promote a “Made in Singapore” strategy, but now emphasize “Made With Singapore” instead.

Gilby says SE Asia, with vast disparities in wealth and development, is not yet ready for a pan-regional co-production convention. “The biggest gap we see is funding. Businesses cases can sometimes be hard to make in this region. We need to get the private sector more involved,” he says. Gilby’s own company, Blue Hat Ventures is involved in seed-funding of SE Asian media tech companies.

How the region’s film and TV businesses evolve in response to the forces unleashed by local and global streaming companies (which Gilby explains “don’t define themselves as television companies”) is a critical debate.

Gilby insists on the durability of theatrical cinema. “I don’t ever see it going away,” he says. But he lauds the ability of streamers to lead audiences into content discovery, and he praises ad-supported short form video platforms for their expanding movie promotion role, which he says: “goes beyond trailers.”

It remains to be seen how far SE Asian film and the new ecosystems will compete or complement each other. “South East Asia has huge latent talent. Now it has a platform,” Gilby suggests.

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