July 1, 2010
By John Davidson
Filmmaking is a costly business, and that’s a truism that hasn’t really changed in more than a hundred years of cinema. Films from Asia Pacific may be more popular now than ever before, despite the power of globalization, but the trickle of films being created each year in the region has yet to become a flood. Acquiring media financing remains a daunting prospect for any filmmaker, whether they are a novice or a seasoned veteran, but that may be starting to change. Governments in South East Asia are slowly but surely cottoning on to the power of film, both from an economical point of view, as well as a societal and tourism benefi t, and are beginning to invest more into the film and media industries. But is there enough money to go round? And should governments be doing more? Singaporean filmmaker Tan Pin Pin believes that while it is not “hard” to find finding, it does “require a lot of effort”. “It’s not as hard as people make it out to be,” she said. “It depends on the project. Documentaries are harder to get funding for then feature films.” Tan’s films include the awardwinning short film Moving House and the documentaries Singapore GaGa, 80kmh and Invisible City. Tan has been making films for the past 15 years and has received funding from Singapore institutions, private patrons and international film bodies. “My main issue with government funding is I’m not really clear what their angle is,” she said. “There is not a consistent trend on what is picked up [funded] and what is not. There are no reasons given. It would be great if they did [give reasons].” Fellow Singaporean filmmaker Boo Junfeng has benefi ted from local government funding. He said it is hard to get funding anywhere in the world, but Singapore at least has the government bodies the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the Singapore Film Commission (SIFF) which provide funding. The Singaporean government may be more advanced than most when it comes to state-assisted funds, but as a small country the Lion City has its own challenges. “We have been struggling because the local market is saturated with foreign product,” he said. “It’s virtually impossible to make big budget films. Comedies mainly make it, and horror films. A drama is very hard to get picked up. Singapore film as a brand is not known anywhere else in the world. It’s hard to market it internationally as a Singapore film. Singapore film in a Singapore context is very hard to sell.” Junfeng has been making short films for a number of years and his credits include A Family Portrait, Katong Fugue, Keluar Belaris, Bedok Jetty and the feature films Sandcastle and Lucky 7. Sandcastle debuted at Cannes this year, the first Singaporean film ever to do so. Junfeng said apart from government funding, other funding options are not very established in Singapore, and government funding comes with a few restrictions and several criteria that had to be met. “You submit a treatment, a pitching process to a panel,” he said. “It had to be a narrative feature, not a documentary. It had to be in partnership with a production company that has done two feature films. The MDA is also a regulatory body, as well as a funding body. There are subject matters they won’t fund. It’s a conflict of interest.” There are undoubtedly flaws in the Singapore government’s model of media funding. But it should be applauded for the way it has tried to re-energize filmmaking in the country. Its grants include the Script Development Fund, the Short Film Fund, the New feature Film Fund, the International Film Fund, the 35mm Development Find and the $5 million for 3D Development. These grants have contributed to the rising number of local films being made – from four feature lms in 1998 to 15 in 2009. The MDA has also supported more than 400 short films in the past 12 years. In terms of private media funds, there is around $1.5 billion worth of grants based in Singapore, which includes the US$75 million MDAHyde Park-Imagenation alliance, the US$20 million Production Fund by Infi nite Frameworks and a US$70 million Integrated Media Fund by Salon Media Management. The MDA has also signed up a new co-production deal with Tiger Gate, a film fund with Fortissimo and launched a new film market called ScreenSingapore in the past few months. Yuni Hadi is the partner and co-founder of Objectif Films, an international short film distributor based in South East Asia. Hadi said media funding in Singapore is more government-led, while in countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand there is more private funding. “Singapore is reliant on government funding,” she said. “Having government support usually helps [filmmakers] get other support. European funds don’t got to Singapore, they go to the third world countries.” According to Sujimy Mohamad, executive producer and director at production outfi t Screenbox, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are the most film-friendly countries in the region. That’s a view shared by Christopher Slaughter, the managing director of multimedia company APV. He said Singapore and the likes of Taiwan and Korea have been very supportive of the regional filmmaking industry, developing several strong local production companies and robust post-production sectors. “That development has come at a cost to other regional markets, though, as production companies and post houses moved to set up shop in Singapore and be ‘closer to the money’,” Slaughter said. “Since the MDA has taken over the funding reins from the Economic Development Board, however, the funding parameters have changed, and fewer companies qualify. There are other initiatives in the region, however, with government funds set up in Taiwan to support documentary production, the recently launched ‘Hong Kong To The World’ initiative, jointly administered by RTHK and National Geographic Channel International, and the Korean Asian Network of Documentary Fund.” According to Hong Hyosook, director of the Asian Cinema Fund (ACF) and the programmer of Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival, the Philippines is the most film-friendly government in South East Asia. The ACF is a financing body that supports and encourages talented Asian filmmakers. The Filipino government has launched the Cinemalaya Foundation, which has supported ten independent films every year. “Also it holds the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival and encourages their local films to promote themselves to the global market,” she said. “Especially this year, five films were introduced under the form of Director’s Showcase. The Philippines is very active in supporting film production of local independent cinema. Thailand may be an attractive location for overseas productions, but there is still little support for local filmmakers. The government is somewhat helpful to foreign companies through the Thailand Film Office, which was set up by the Office of Tourism to help bring in these productions, but is not doing enough to stimulate local filmmakers. Tom Waller, managing director of Bangkokbased production shop De Warrenne Pictures, said there is currently “no government support in Thailand for film funding”. “Recently the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture under the Ministry of Culture earmarked some funds to stimulate the local film industry here, but mostly this money was syphoned off rather unfairly to infl uential characters like Prince Chatrichalerm Yukol to fund his Naresuan historical films part 3 and 4,” Waller said. “There is funding in Thailand for Thai films which can find pre-distribution, especially within genre projects such as ghost or horror and commercial projects with stars attached. However, there is very little contribution in terms of co-financing with other nations or co-production, mainly because of the lack of incentives here.” Despite private funding being the saviour of some filmmakers, Waller doesn’t believe it is necessarily easier to get. “It’s just as difficult here as it is anywhere to fi nd funding for films,” he said. “Most local films are funded by family run studios with local movie moguls acting as the gatekeepers to the industry, which is dominated by only a handful of labels such as Sahamongkol or RS, Five Star.” Prominent Thai directors like Anocha Suqichakornpong have received funding from the likes of the ACF. Suqichakornpong was handed a post-production sponsorship from the ACF for her first feature, titled Mundane History, and also benefited from a Dutch government grant on script development from the Hubert Bals Fund. Suqichakornpong had twice applied for funding from the Thai government but had been knocked back both times. Organisations from countries such as Korea, Holland, Italy and France regularly provide financial assistance to Asian filmmakers. For example, in 2009 the ACF funded three Thai films. There are also Asian funding bodies like the Hong Kong Financing Forum. But funds from Europe aren’t available to all filmmakers in Asia Pacific. Holland’s Hubert Bals Fund gives money to filmmakers from Third World Countries only. Objectif’s Hadi said developing the private sector in the region is something that is important. “The first option for many people [filmmakers] is a government grant,” she said. “It would be good to eventually develop the private sector. The government can only support so many films each year. Also, the criteria [to receive funding] may change each year. [This year it might be HD, next year it] might be 3D.” Self-financing is one area that is open to few filmmakers, and is inherently risky, especially for first timers. However, this option does give filmmakers complete independence in making and distributing their film. Sourcing funding through the internet for private, overseas or independent financing is a relatively new but exciting way to gather support. But this has yet to be proved to be a regular or safe source. Whatever the funding method, filmmakers must look outside the box and be innovative when they go about hunting for media fi nance. Objectif Films has just started running a program that is designed to help first-time filmmakers. Called Film Talent Campus, it is supported by Singapore’s MDA and provides support for filmmakers on areas like funding, script development, production and distribution. “Finding funding is a perpetual problem that every young filmmaker faces,” she said. “Nowadays its harder because there are more filmmakers. We share information with the young. Film Talent Campus is an open learning environment. We help them make their second and third films.” Distribution is another area that weighs heavily on a filmmaker’s mind. Distribution can make or break a film, and having control over whom, where and when a film is shown is usually a hotly contested point. The method of distribution also depends largely on the type of film – feature, short, documentary – and its genre – comedy, drama, horror, action. In Singapore through the New Feature Film Fund, selected films are ensured a local theatrical release through Golden Village Pictures. Also through this fund they can receive $30,000 for advertising and marketing. Film blogger Jeremy Sing believes commercial films in Singapore generally, are backed by distribution arms with strong marketing muscle, but this is not the case for other films. “As for the more art-house and independent films, the government has not done enough,” he said. “The Singapore Film Commission does help to promote the film made under its New Feature Film Fund but not in a big way. I guess, they can do more by supporting [it with] TV, internet, radio, billboard ads. The channels through which they spread the word of these films are rather limited and does not reach the average Singaporean like the way Jack Neo movies do. [The] MDA regularly markets a handful of selected local films at film markets. Another way they could help is in the area of DVD promotion when the film’s DVD version is out. Almost nothing is done in this aspect of the distribution scope.” De Warren Pictures’ Waller agrees that governments can do more to help the distribution process. “The idea of a quota system, as in Korea, would be helpful for local films to maintain some toehold in an otherwise Hollywood dominant marketplace,” he said. “A levy on the tickets for studio movies would instantly create a source of funding for inward investment and help grow the local industry.” In many cases, filmmakers have to find their own distribution methods. The emergence of the internet, digital media and the growth of file-sharing networks means in the future there will be less reliance on cinema distribution. APV’s Slaughter is another who feels governments in Asia Pacific can be helping more distribution. “Generally, the way most are currently handling distribution of the films they fund is by partnering with a broadcaster, and then giving that broadcaster sole copyright of the films,” he said. “As a result, producers wind up basically providing ‘work for hire’ and do not own or even share in the copyright of their films. Some agencies share copyright with the broadcasters but again, producers are shut out of those deals, with the ownership divided between the broadcaster and the government agency.” To truly foster the industry, Slaughter believes, government agencies should insist that their broadcast partners only get a license window on the films, and producers should be allowed to retain either full or partial rights to works they have created with money from government agencies. “This would provide ongoing ‘annuity’ revenues to the production companies once the license period expired, by allowing them to take sell their work into other markets,” he said. “This would also create an opportunity for home-grown Asian distribution companies, another part of the industry that is lacking in the region – apart from those companies that distribute feature films.” Whatever the option, it is clear that more can be done to help filmmakers in Asia Pacific. The audience for local films is growing, but so are the challenges these content creators face and so are the costs to make a film. Whether finance comes from government, private, self or an overseas source, more help then just money is required. Expertise in areas such as distribution, marketing and post-production, are all fundamentally necessary. Filmmakers in the region need to be empowered and encouraged to make their films, not restricted. The solution to the issue of fi nancing is not a government one, or a private or foreign one, but a mixture of all three. Cinema is the easiest and most widely accessible artform for any country to display its people and culture to the world, and that fact should not be forgotten. However, industry analysts believe the main force for filmmaking in the region should ultimately come from local governments. They are the ones who’s ultimate responsibility it is to ensure the strength and survival of their national cinema. “More government funds to support documentary films and factual programming would be a start, as would terms and conditions that allow filmmakers to own all or at least a share of the copyright to their finished films,” Slaughter said. “Support for filmmakers to attend international conferences on documentary and factual programming would be welcome, and would also go a long way toward developing greater sophistication in the documentary community by exposing producers to trends in the international market, and allowing them to have face-to-face interaction with their peers overseas. Ultimately, the goal of government funding for the documentary industry should be not just to foster local talent for local viewing of their work, but to develop film projects that can reach international audiences.” Blogger Sing agrees that Asia Pacifi c governments are in the enviable position to help first-time filmmakers get their feature films out and support the wider film industry. “But I think beyond that it is fair to say that the filmmaker himself/herself should be entrepreneurial enough to seek future sources of funding and help since he/she has learnt the ropes,” Sing said. “These days money cross geographical borders extensively so the world is really everyone’s oyster if you know how to find the perfect match. One thing I would wish for if I were to make filmmaking my career is for governments to protect the welfare and rights of people working in the industry. Because we do not have unions or systems in place to protect the wages/ treatment of freelancers, who make up a majority of the current film industry, a career in film has been proven to be very challenging and rocky, which deters many from entering it or staying in it. This ultimately affects the availability of talent and resources to filmmakers.” ————————————————————– SOUTH EAST ASIA AT A GLANCE MALAYSIA Malaysian filmmaking goes back more than 70 years but the industry experienced a massive rejuvenation in the late 1970s. On the back of the success of the film Keluarga Comat more local films were made, and in the 1980s the government established the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia to stimulate growth. Local cinema took a hit in the 1990s, but in the past five years has surged ahead again. In 2009 26 local films were made, compared with just seven in 1999. Yasmin Ahmad was one of the leading lights of the new resurgence in Malaysian filmmaking, earning both local and international acclaim for her work, but sadly she passed away at the young age of 51 last year. BURMA In Burma the film industry is inextricably linked with the army-ruled government. There is strict censorship and government control on filmmakers and filmmaking. Comedies are the main type of film made in Burma, and there is a trend towards low-budget productions that are easily and cheaply distributed. CAMBODIA Cambodian filmmaking experienced a golden period during the early 1990s but this ended in 1994 due to government intervention. Cinema then in Cambodia has started to grow and prominent filmmakers have emerged, such as Rithy Panh. In recent years the local industry has been buoyed by the establishment of a national film festival, in 2005, and the launch of production companies like Khmer Mekong Films and Camerado. Government body the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts launched the Cambodia Film Commission last year as a way of attracting foreign productions to be shot in Cambodia. Despite these promising signs, the local film industry has suffered in the past three years. Less than ten local films were made in 2009, with the trends moving away from features to simple TV productions and short films. INDONESIA Despite boasting a huge population, Indonesia has a small and struggling film industry. Since 2000 the government has opened up the film sector and cut down on restrictions, encouraging more local films to be made. In 2005 more than 50 films were made in the country, and animated films are starting to gain in popularity. While there are few official government incentives in place for filmmakers, the Indonesian government does provide support on a projectby- project basis. VIETNAM Politics and war have shaped Vietnam’s filmmaking industry and the way the country is depicted in cinema, and little has changed today. A favorite setting for foreign filmmakers, Vietnam is now carving its own reputation on the world stage. Notable films to come out of the country include Bar Girls, Buffalo Boy, Street Cinderella, Gangsta Girls and Heaven’s Net. Government interference is still an issue though; with the likes of acclaimed director Tran Anh Hung forced to work mostly overseas. Tran’s debut feature film, The Scent of Green Papaya, received a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards while his 1995 feature Cyclo is banned in Vietnam.