Singapore Storms Into Premium TV Production With Shows Like ‘Folklore,’ ‘Grisse’

The island is fast becoming a major regional center for the TV biz

Grisse HBO Asia
Courtesy of HBO Asia

It has been a banner year of publicity for Singapore, the runaway success of “Crazy Rich Asians” and the global news focus of the Kim-Trump Summit shining a spotlight on the small city state. With recent announcements of a raft of premium TV productions, the island is also fast establishing itself as a major regional center for creative production, financing and broadcast deal-making.

Authorities in Singapore have long courted brands like Discovery, Fox and Disney with favorable tax and employment environments. These efforts are now paying dividends on the deal-making front, with international players opening regional offices in Singapore to take advantage of the critical mass and infrastructure.

Of greater surprise is the increasing participation of Singaporean creatives in key above-the-line positions in premium TV content production. “Folklore,” the pan-Asian horror anthology recently announced by HBO Asia, boasts Singaporean director Eric Khoo as showrunner, while another HBO Asia series, the period-Western “Grisse,” also has Singapore-based Mike Wiluan as showrunner.

Part of the reason is the experience garnered from years of servicing major international broadcasters. “Our ideas are not Singapore-centric, they are Asia-centric,” says Infinite Studios’ Freddie Yeo. “But also, there aren’t that many countries that can deal with, say Netflix, from a production management perspective.”

“You still have a lot of problems in the region,” says Frank Smith, managing director at production outfit Infocus Asia. “If you’re trying to make a 10-part series [with an international broadcaster], and you have to deliver certain specs, with these budget systems, auditing systems, contractual demands and assurances, a lot of people implode because they don’t normally deal with these demands.”

Another reason for the spike in production has been the explosive growth in regional OTT platforms. Major players like Netflix and Amazon Prime (which launched in Singapore in early 2018) haven’t yet made their presence fully felt in local production, but are already being challenged by smaller operators and telcos.

VIU, an OTT platform started by Hong Kong telco PCCW, recently announced the production of “The Bridge,” a Singapore-Malaysia adaptation of the acclaimed Scandinavian noir TV series of the same name. Series co-executive producer and director Lee Thean-Jeen led a writer’s room of Singaporean and Malaysian writers for the 10-part police procedural series.

“There’s always been a steady stream of Singaporean creatives,” says Lee. “It just depends on the nature of the program. ‘The Bridge’ was an Asian adaptation, so it is only fitting that it’s adapted by Asians.”

Similar moves have been made by HOOQ, albeit on the lower end of the budget spectrum. The streamer, a joint venture between WarnerMedia, Sony and Singtel, launched a competition of series pilots last year, which awarded $30,000 each to six shortlisted producers. The winning entry, “Bhak,” a comedy set in Bollywood, was produced by Singaporean outfit Big 3 Productions and commissioned for a further eight episodes.

Perhaps the bigger story, however, is Singapore’s burgeoning penetration into China’s domestic television market. A common language between the two countries, and a majority Singaporean Chinese population, has enabled close working relationships. GHY Culture and Media, a subsidiary of Shenzhen-listed Perfect World Pictures, recently inked a deal with Singapore national broadcaster Mediacorp for the remake rights to Mediacorp’s library of drama series.

The first in the slate, “The Little Nyonya,” a period drama centered on the lives of the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia and Singapore, goes into production in early 2019 with a sizable budget of $20.5 million. All 40 episodes were written by the original 2008 series showrunner, Singaporean Ang Eng Tee.

The Chinese domestic market has also proven a boon for Singaporean children’s entertainment producers. Animation firm Omens Studios recently sold 180 episodes of its math-centric educational series “Counting With Paula,” to China’s OTT streamer iQIYI, as well as to China’s national broadcaster CCTV. Another 120 episodes have been ordered and are in production, and a movie spinoff is planned for 2020.

“’Counting with Paula’ compares quite well with content like [international series such as] ‘Dora the Explorer,’ which has been in China for some time,” said Tang Chi Sim, executive producer at Omens Studios. “There is traction for this kind of content outside of Singapore. [Compared to Western children’s programming], Singapore’s curriculum is more rigorous, but not to a point where it puts kids off.”