Interview with Daniel Yun
by Felix Cheong
When youre living your dream, theres no time to stand still, to flitter and linger over small talk.
Almost immediately after the handshake that flags off an hour-long chat with The Edge Singapore, Daniel Yun is waxing lyrical about his next project: a follow-up to the sleeper hit I Not Stupid (2002).
Like a movie director, MediaCorp Raintree Pictures top honcho Daniel Yun often tries to make you see the big picture by creating arcs with his hands, talking through them. Its probably an unconscious habit drawn from his days as a graphic artist and visualizer.
Unlike his twin brother Tai Ho (who is older by 15 minutes and currently heads MediaCorp News), Yun has gone up the corporate rungs the hard way, "the school of hard knocks" as he wryly puts it. Confessing hes never let the fact that hes not a graduate hold him back, hes done time and paid his dues in the advertising industry as an accounts executive and accounts director. At one point, he was even managing a printing company. By the time he turned 30, he had realized his ambition of setting up his own company.
Ever restless for challenges, Yun, who declines to disclose his age but looks to be in his early 40s, joined the then-Singapore Broadcasting Corporation as Vice-President of Radio Sales in 1991. In that capacity, he had, by his own admission, "created a phenomenon," spiking up the ad share from two to five percent. A year later, he was made Head of Radio Programming. He then went on to establish and head the Marketing Communications as well as the Programming and Acquisition departments for the station when it became corporatised as Television Corporation of Singapore (TCS) in 1994.
In 1998, Yun took up the position of Vice-President of Production 5 at TCS and was heavily involved in content development, supervising the production of such English dramas and sitcoms as Under One Roof and Growing Up. In the same year, he was appointed the CEO of MediaCorp Raintree Pictures. He has since relinquished his position at Production 5 to concentrate on the movie-making arm of MediaCorp.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Edge Singapore, Yun speaks candidly about the business of creating celluloid illusions.
Some critics have sniped that since Raintree is government owned, theres no way it can fail...
(Laughs) How I wished that was true! First of all, the government has no control over whether movies like The Eye will succeed or fail. They wish us all the best and thats about it. Its strictly business.
MediaCorp Raintree Pictures is run like a small boutique outfit. Were very commercially driven. If we dont do well, theyll close us down. No two ways about it.
So far, you seem to have that Midas touch, the knack to continue picking winners, with The Best Bet being your latest, well, best bet. Whats your trade secret, your strategy?
You dont make one movie. You make a slate of movies to start off with. Within that movie, you co-produce. This co-production thing serves two purposes: we learn and we spread the risk. And number two: the minute you co-produce with someone from, say Hong Kong, that particular production will automatically be shown in Hong Kong. Thats traveling by default.
To me, its a no-brainer. From day one, people talk about how small the Singapore market is. So itll be stupid of me to make a movie just for the local market. It has to be a regional business.
On top of that is your approach to making movies: you have to be very disciplined. You have to tell yourself: youre not about art house movies. Youre about mainstream quality movies.
Well never see an art house picture from Raintree?
[Emphatically] Never. What are art house movies anyway but personal movies? Therere some art house movies that are very powerful but some are purely indulgent. Just some personal sentimental journey.
Recently, I saw Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), the closing film at the Singapore International Film Festival directed by [Taiwanese filmmaker] Tsai Ming-Liang. I almost died. [Laughs] There was a scene, about 13 to 14 minutes long, with the camera fixed on an old theater. Nothing moves. So strange! I was seated next to the ambassador from Taiwan and his wife. They walked out halfway!
Its infinitely easier to be an art house director than to be a successful mainstream director. Im not talking about blatantly exploitative directors. Im talking about making a quality movie for a target market. Its not easy!
Steven Spielberg does it very well, but people dont like him because hes too successful. Its ridiculous. People dont like Jack Neo. Some of his movies in terms of technical quality - are still raw. But you cant knock the fact that he touches the nerves of many Singaporeans. He knows the heartbeat and pulse of what makes Singaporeans tick.
Isnt there a sense his movies are really just TV movies?
No. When I work with Jack, I want him to push the envelope. Therere a lot of things he can say on the big screen which he cant on the small screen.
But the main thing is: you think audiences are stupid? That if its just a TV movie, theyll pay good money to watch it? A good film is ultimately a film that can attract people to watch it.
So it seems as a producer, you do give a lot of leeway to your directors?
My calling is that I want to be the best producer I can be. I want to work in such a way that creative people want to work with me. The director should trust the producer for his track record, for his experience. And the producer should trust the director for his creative vision, for his own track record. Ultimately, the onus is on the producer not only to create an environment in which the director is comfortable, but also to fight for him.
Let me give you an example. I Not Stupid, when it was first released [in 2002], came when Singaporeans were tired of Singaporean movies. I remember it was Chinese New Year. I was checking out the midnight shows and the theaters were empty! We were so petrified. I had believed so much in this movie.
We decided to get people to sample the movie. Within six days, we got about 7,000 people from all walks of life to sample it free. Then the word of mouth spread, spread, spread.
And then it became a little bit of a breakout hit. It was the first Singaporean movie to be shown theatrically outside of Singapore and it ran in Hong Kong for five months. Wherever we brought it to France, Korea, Japan, China people laugh and cry at all the same parts. Which means, its transcended language and cultural barriers.
Now that you have breakout hits such as I Not Stupid and Homerun, how do you plan to leverage on them so as to realize your vision of taking Raintree beyond Asia, as youve often been quoted as saying?
We want to be more of a regional player first. So far, our collaborations have been our only port and that is with the Hollywood of the East, Hong Kong. But we dont make typical Hong Kong movies, thats for sure. We make movies that are pan-Asian.
This year, weve branched out. My focus is China, Japan and India. I just came back from China and Ive concluded our first collaboration deal with Shanghai, a sequel to I Not Stupid, which will be shown this time next year, during the holidays. The budget is about S$1.2 to S1.5 million.
What weve come up with, our strategy, is to work with three or four young directors from China. Young, cutting-edge directors not too provincial and not too art house-driven. Make fairly small budget movies. On subject-matter that the outside world would like to see.
China is in such a transition, always in the process of opening and closing. Right now, its in its reopening phase. How will the people deal with it? How will the people who have lived through the Cultural deal with what I call communist capitalism? How do we depict it in such a way its interesting for the outside world to see?
With Raintrees successful track record, do you foresee SPH jumping on the bandwagon and going into the movie business too?
Were not worried. Its not a case of seeing what you have on prime time and then we slug it out. Its not like that at all. I think the more the merrier, for then the industry will be more developed. Its about that particular movie, whether it can make it.
Example: The Best Bet is the first movie we released during the summer blockbuster season, up against Troy, Shrek 2, The Day After Tomorrow, Harry Potter. Its turning out to be the best local movie yet. If we can take on Harry Potter, we can take on any local movie. If its a good movie, people will find you somehow.
Any plans for Raintree to take on a listing on the stock exchange?
Thats not up to me. Thats up to my bosses. (Laughs) At least not right now. Within the MediaCorp context, we just broke even last year. We still need to find a level. Its still a vulnerable phase for us. Weve gone out of the difficult phase and were trying to show we can be more than viable.
Were looking at doing four movies a year, plus some acquisitions. Its always been the case. Started with the aim to do eight movies within three years. By the time we hit five years, weve already made 15 movies. Our hit rate is quite high (see other story). Even our Hong Kong collaborators were quite shocked.
Its not luck. But its not such a high-risk business as people make it out to be. Its as risky as any fairly-risky business.
Of course you have to fight and stay at the theaters. Thats part of it. You have to be a maverick.
The Raintree Hit Parade:
Year Film Title Budget Singapore Box Office
1999 Liang Po Po - The Movie S$800,000 S$3,032,883.21
1999 The Truth About Jane & Sam S$1,200,000 S$1,027,870.45
2000 2000AD US$3,000,000 S$910,698.44
2000 Chicken Rice War S$800,000 S$395,065.81
2001 The Tree S$1,100,000 S$718,557.68
2001 One Leg Kicking S$1,150,000 S$715,599.32
2002 I Not Stupid S$1,000,000 S$3,804,087.07
2002 The Eye US$2,500,000 S$1,983,670.04
2003 Homerun S$1,500,000 S$2,348,854.63
2003 Turn Left Turn Right US$3,000,000 S$1,058,213.00
2003 Infernal Affairs 2 US$2,000,000 S$1,049,465.55
2004 The Eye 2 US$2,000,000 S$1,576,690.69
2004 The Best Bet S$1,500,000 Not available
This article first appeared in The Edge, Singapore.