Increasingly, they are winning prizes at international festivals. “A Land Imagined” won the Golden Leopard in Locarno last year, while 18 months earlier “Pop Aye” and its helmer/screenwriter Kirsten Tan won the screenwriting prize in the world cinema section at Sundance. In 2013, Anthony Chen won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at Cannes with bittersweet drama “Ilo Ilo.”
These and a swelling number of Singaporean productions reflect several years of government attempts to support the film industry. Emphasis has variously been put on Singapore as an Asian funding hub, a co-productions nexus and as a shooting location.
Film funds were set up that ended up in tears and loss — and jail time for one former partner. Since then grants have replaced co-investment. And dubious outreach to China — which shares some linguistic overlap, but is a vastly different market — has been quietly sidelined.
What has paid off, however, is persistence. While some duds can be considered as priming the pump, discretionary funding committees at the InfoComm Media Development Authority are now reported to be increasingly picky.
“While films have been made in Singapore since the 1920s, the marketability and global doors have opened only in the last few years,” says Sreyashi Sen, managing director at Singapore-based producer, distributor and sales agent Darpan. “The efforts to do so are commendable from Singapore government and companies.”
While nearly all Singapore films struggle to find an audience at home — director-funnyman Jack Neo (“I Not Stupid,” “Money No Enough”) is the exception, accounting for most of the top 10 Singaporean chart hits — increasingly they are selling abroad.
Handled by France’s MK2, Eric Khoo’s “Ramen Shop” (aka “Ramen Teh”) earned sales in some 40 territories, including a release through Strand in the U.S. and 150,000 admissions in France through KMBO. Boo Junfeng’s death penalty drama “Apprentice” sold to 15, including Film Movement in the U.S. “Ilo Ilo” scored strongly for France’s Memento (the company is also handling Chen’s upcoming “Wet Season”). Cercamon scored a U.S. deal with Kino Lorber for the U.S. with “Pop Aye.” And “A Land Imagined” managed a theatrical release in France through Epicentre, before remaining rights were scooped up by Netflix.
“Singaporean films are not perceived as a brand in the market in the same way as Korean cinema has a brand image. It is more a question of young, fresh, out-of-the-box Asian cinema, regardless of the nationality. These days [Singapore films] appeal to art-house buyers around the world, the same ones who buy award-winning movies at A-list festivals,” says one European executive who has been involved with multiple Singapore titles.
A useful strength is Singapore films’ ability to sell both in the West and within Asia. That may reflect Singapore itself, as a mix of East and East. Or its globetrotting directors: Chen is based in London. Tan is based in New York.
“Being low-budget is not necessarily a road to hell, since it challenges people’s creativity and the outcome can be more stunning. The stage that needs more investment and support is the developing process, scriptwriting in particular. That’s the main weakness of Asian low-budget cinema and it hinders crossover potential,” says the European executive.
On this point, too, there may be progress. “What signals that the recent festival success is not just a fluke, is how young upcoming Singapore filmmakers are regularly having short films selected in major festivals like Berlin, Cannes and Clermont-Ferrand,” says Raymond Phathanavirangoon, who produced “Apprentice.”
Phathanavirangoon also runs the Southeast Asia Fiction Film Lab (SEAFIC) producer and script development lab along European lines. “In our SEAFIC lab, four out of the 15 projects selected were from Singapore. For a small country with 5 million inhabitants, this is remarkable, and it signals a bright future ahead.”