Singapore’s Film Industry Has Come A Long Way In 20 Years

31 May 2018 |  Daniel Yun  |  Today

SFC advisory committee chairman Jennie Chua (second from left) and SFC director Joachim Ng (far right) are seen here at the 20th anniversary celebrations of SFC with the trio who kickstarted the idea of setting up a film commission - Mr James Toh (far left), Mr Eric Khoo and Ms Lucilla Teoh.

The Singapore Film Commission (SFC) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is opportune, at this point, to take a look at how far the Singapore film industry has come and the role the SFC played in its development in the last two decades.  

It was filmmaker Eric Khoo, along with producer James Toh and artist Lucilla Teoh, who after extensive research, came up with what would be the white paper that helped create the SFC.

On March 16, 1998, the then Minister for Information and the Arts George Yeo announced in Parliament the formation of the film commission.

Its role is to “nurture, support and promote Singapore talent in filmmaking, the production of Singapore films and a film industry in Singapore” through funding, training and public education.

To date, the SFC, now a division under the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), has supported a total of 68 movies.

In the first five years of SFC’s formation, the average Singapore film output per year was four. This grew to eight in the next five years. In the last five years, the average output has reached 11 movies.

These include only films with theatrical release, not counting movies for festivals, telemovies or online content. The numbers show a steady growth.

It was not long ago when many believed that Singapore, because of our small market, could not have a film industry at all.

Now we do have a film industry to speak of. It may be still a small one, but it has punched above its weight.

In 2008, Eric Khoo’s My Magic became the only Singapore film to compete for the Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.

“Walking up the red carpet for My Magic and hearing my son Christopher’s score playing, was surreal and moving,” Eric told me.

“It dawned on me that anything was possible. Finally a Singaporean film was selected for the main competition at the world’s most important film festival.”

My Magic would go on to receive unprecedented standing ovations at its screenings during the festival.

In 2013, Ilo Ilo won the Camera d’Or at the same festival and four awards at the 50th Golden Horse Awards, including the best feature film.

Films like Apprentice, Yellow Bird, Pop Aye followed with more international accolades at festivals such as Busan, Sundance, Toronto and Rotterdam.

Today, SFC manages four grants, including the Production Assistance and New Talent Feature Grant for first and second-time feature filmmakers.

Other SFC schemes and initiatives include scriptwriting workshops, film labs programmes, and a film mentorship initiative to support those who have been selected to participate in key international film project labs overseas.

“Without it, I would probably be only a short film director. But all my short films are also supported by them,” filmmaker Royston Tan, who directed his first feature film 15 in 2003, said of SFC’s impact on his career.

Indeed, the likes of Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, Kelvin Tong, Raja Gopal all have the SFC to thank for their success today, while almost all the films of their younger counterparts – Boo Junfeng, Kirsten Tan, Chia Yee Wei, Sanif Olek, Raihan Halim – are also supported by the SFC.

“We nurture. The main thrust is still the creative juices of the market place. And yes, in an infant market, this supporting role is crucial,” Ms Jennie Chua, who has chaired SFC since its humble beginning, told me.

To filmmakers like Junfeng, what is particularly heartening is how SFC sees Singapore filmmakers and the filmmaking community as its key stakeholders. “It has adopted a consultative approach, engaging us to understand what we truly need,” he affirmed.

On many levels, the film industry here has grown beyond anyone could have imagined in 1998.

It is a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s, when Singapore’s priorities were on economic development and its local film industry suffered a long period of decline.

It was only in the 1990s, after the success of Eric Khoo’s Mee Pok Man inspired other filmmakers to follow in his footsteps, that the government starting supporting the filmmaking industry.

But why nurture such an industry? Why make films at all? This pointed question seems relevant as SFC embarks on its next chapter.

The answer from Raja Gopal perhaps best sums up the sentiments of those in the industry.

“What do you mean why?” he asked.

“Every country, every society needs its people to tell stories. We need to tell the truth about ourselves, to ourselves, and to the world.”

To Junfeng, we should not use the KPIs of other industries to measure or assess filmmaking.

“We need to see cinema as a form of art before we can even consider building an industry out of it,” he said.

SFC director Joachim Ng added: “Families are held together by stories of their past, present and future. More than economics, a resilience of a country is built on the stories we have.”

It was a point echoed by Jennie Chua, who noted that film is one of the best, if not the best, medium to tell Singapore’s stories.

“Without films, I think our emotional growth as a people will be stunted. How stunted? I cannot quantify. What kind of society will we be if we only focused on economic growth?” she pointed out.

So what is next for SFC? Going regional is the new mantra.

“The ecosystem, consumption patterns and formats in which storytellers express their creativity are changing,” said IMDA CEO Tan Kiat How.

“As we move from ‘made-in-Singapore’ to ‘made-by-Singapore’ and finally to ‘made-with-Singapore’ content, we are re-energising SFC for the future to embrace the regional market.”

Films like Pop Aye and Ramen Teh, he reiterated, show that there are so much more opportunities if we think about ‘made-with-Singapore’ in a broader regional context.

The signs are encouraging. Junfeng’s 2016 work Apprentice was a five-country co-production. Eric Khoo’s upcoming projects are decidedly Asian.

Jack Neo has just finished shooting a film in Taiwan. mm2 Entertainment has initiatives in Hong Kong and Taiwan, with longer-term plans to penetrate the Chinese market.

A new player, with its roots in China and fronted by John Ho, is Perfect World Pictures.

It has acquired the rights to remaking Mediacorp’s Awakening and Little Nyonya while looking to sign local artistes to star in joint projects with China.

While it makes perfect sense to embrace collaborations with foreign filmmakers, there is still the elephant in the room that needs addressing.

By and large Singaporeans are apathetic towards Singapore films.

While the industry’s output has more than doubled, and our filmmakers have now won international acclaim, support for Singapore films by Singaporeans is still tepid.

After 20 years, it is time to face up to this challenge.

This is the first of a two-part series on the film industry here. Watch out for Part 2 next week on what can be done to get Singaporeans to support Singapore films.  

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