CREATING A SINGAPORE CINEMA
by Jacqueline Tan-Pereira
Will Singapore Ever Be Hollywood? was a question and a subject much hyped by the media throughout the 90s. Singapore was then hailed to be the Hollywood of the East, and to take over the reign of the silver screen from Hong Kong after the handover to China. But come 1997, although the film scene remained promising, the industry was still considered a fledgling one. As we entered the new millennium, film production had gone quiet and the number of exhibited films decreased. There were only four movies released in the year 2000, and about six in 2001. What happened to the ascension? What are the hindrances that stop Singapore from quickly taking over Hong Kongs reign of the Asian silver screen industry?
The beginnings of the Singapore film industry can be attributed to the competition between Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation. Run Run and Runme Shaw were Shanghai businessmen who set up many cinemas in Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore acted as a base for their businesses, and they had a head start in operating movie theaters and film production. They distributed and showed Chinese movies made by their eldest brother in the Shanghai studio. The Shaw brothers brought the studio system of Hollywood to Singapore, and began to build up their own stable of directors, production crew, actors and actresses. They started producing Malay films in their studio, Malay Film Production Limited (MFP), situated at 8, Jalan Ampas. Led by wonder boy, P. Ramlee, Shaw Brothers produced many commercially successful Malay movies.
Wealthy heir Loke Wan Tho founded Cathay Keris. He tried to catch up with Shaw Brothers by opening as many cinemas as he could. He also competed in the production of Chinese and Malay movies. Shaw and Cathay were rivals then, competing to produce as many box office hits as possible. The era is considered the Golden Age of film making for Singapore. There were about 267 films made between 1950 and 1969, with an average of 18 films made per year. But the ambition of Loke was cut short when he was killed in a plane crash in 1964.
The volume of movie productions started to taper off in the mid 60s, especially after the death of Loke. Then came the separation of Singapore and Malaysia, and P. Ramlee decided to depart for Studio Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur in 1964. With nobody to fill his shoes, Shaw Brothers closed its studios in 1967 and moved its production to Malaysia. Cathay Keris officially closed its doors in 1972.
In the 70s, Chong Gays managing director, Lim Jit Sun, was interested in rekindling film production, and wanted to produce three Chinese feature films a year. But their efforts stopped after three movies when the founder, Koh Tian Kit, died. Several movies were made in the late 70s and early 80s, like They Call Her Cleopatra Wong and Dynamite Johnson. But the producers cited financial difficulty and strict censorship laws as being the obstacles to continuing film production. Finally, though there were some films made by independent producers during the period of 1973 and 1994, the quantity and box office success never quite matched the achievements of the early days of rivalry between Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation.
In 1986, the government announced that its services section would command priority economic focus. The Economic Development Board (EDB) started the initiative to revive the film industry of Singapore in 1988. Hence, EDB set about to develop the infrastructure to attract film producers, film makers, and film experts from Asia, Europe and the United States. There were hopes of an exodus of key film production personnel and talents from Hong Kong because of the impending takeover by China in 1997. This would definitely boost the small pool of experienced filmmakers in Singapore and bolster the ambition of Singapore becoming the film making Mecca in the East.
Singapore International Film Festival was started in 1990 and became an important catalyst for the revival of the film industry. The short film competition was the main stable of the festival since its inception. It has yielded some of todays more known film makers such as Eric Khoo, Meng Ong, Cheek and Royston Tan. Medium Rare (91) became the first film produced to kick-start the industry. Produced by Derrol Stepenny Productions and partially funded by EDB, it was made for $2 million but garnered only $130,000 at the box office. The disappointing response to the much-hyped inaugural Singapore film threatened to crush the resurgence of the film scene.
Then came Eric Khoos Mee Pok Man (95), which received rave reviews from international film festivals. With the critical success of Mee Pok Man, Singaporeans became curious about local films. They started going to the theaters to watch Singaporean films made with familiar themes like new army recruits in Army Daze (96), cross-dressing prostitutes in Bugis Street (96), and HDB living in 12 Storeys (97). Even the famous story of Adrian Lim the medium that bombed as a movie in Medium Rare (91), got a rehash and was made into God or Dog (97).
With such encouragement, other film makers were motivated to plunge into the fledgling industry. The number of films produced locally peaked at eight films being exhibited in 1999. From 1991 to 2001, there were altogether about 26 movies made. Director Glenn Goei's debut dance movie Forever Fever (98) was the first feature from Singapore to find a U.S. release. It was picked up by Miramax and subsequently retitled That's the Way I Like It.
But the number of films exhibited dropped drastically from eight in 1999 to four in 2000. This perhaps could be a result of backlash from films that were made to cash in on the success of Money No Enough (98). The audience was disillusioned by its disappointing clones, like Lucky Number (99), That One No Enough (99) and Where Got Problem (99). These films lacked good story content, production quality and had themes that were similar to Money No Enough. Singaporeans showed their disapproval by boycotting local films. Hence, of the 26 films made so far, only about eight films had box office takings exceeding their production budget. Will this spell doom, yet again, for the film industry in Singapore? Perhaps some factors can be highlighted to explain the struggling nature of the Singapore fledgling film industry.
Firstly, the cost of making a movie is high. Unlike in the past where the production was funded by the same theater owners and distributors like Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation, present days financing is a big hurdle to be overcome by independent producers. Film is expensive to shoot with and to develop. It is also not reusable, unlike videotapes, which therefore account for the high cost. There are not enough film suppliers in Singapore to compete with one another to bring the cost down. Currently, only Kodak and Fuji have provided films for productions. But then there are not enough film productions to warrant more film suppliers to set up shop here. It is a demand and supply situation. Hence the cost of film remains high.
As for film development, our sole film-developing outfit, United Lab, was closed down last year due to low demand. Currently, most films produced in Singapore have to be sent to Thailand and Australia for developing. Post-production for film also posed a major headache for aspiring film makers. Singapore does not have such facilities for editing film. Most of the post-production houses work only with digital domain, i.e., they will edit only video, or film converted to video. Hence, there are no facilities for editing directly on film, and also for synchronizing sound to film.
Secondly, attracting Singaporeans to invest in films is also a problem. Singaporeans are still very much of a migrant mindset. They are wary of anything that does not make money. They would prefer to make a quick buck, like in investing in shares, than to invest in film production. The returns of film investments are slow and risky, and film producers can never guarantee that the investors will get their money back. Most ad hoc investors presently give money without expecting to get it back. But that is a small number. Film making is also not acknowledged as an art form, and therefore to get corporate funding for such venture is difficult. Making movies, in the light of Hollywood and perhaps, Bollywood, is seen as a profit making business and hence not recognise as art. However, Hollywood has had more than a hundred years of history in perfecting the art and mechanism of making profitable films. She has also dominated most of the cinema going scene in many other countries, thereby raising her profitability. But for a struggling film industry trying to make a headstart, financing has proven to be a hurdle that has to be overcome.
Thirdly, there is a need for a union or guild for production crew and acting talents. This will help to regulate pay and maintain fair treatment of media practitioners. Recently, some actors have banded together to form their own actors association. What they hope to achieve is to set up an infrastructure that will maintain and help the artiste. The same is needed for production crew that is above and below the line. In Hollywood, there are various guilds that look after the production people. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Directors Guild of America (DGA), Producers Guild of America (PGA), and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) all aim to represent and look after the interests of their members. However, such guilds, unions or associations would require a big pool to make it work. However, currently the number of media practitioners is still too small to warrant such infrastructure. But when the production personnel feel that they are looked after and their interest addressed, there will be less exploitation going on. Currently, with no set minimum wage, or even recognition of skills and experience, the crew is paid whatever the production house or even the commissioning entities deemed as affordable. Most often than not, they are not paid on time but have to wait three to six months before payment. This is an environment that is tough for production personnel to survive. Most continue to work in the industry because of passion, but many have left to make a more lucrative living peddling other trades.
Lastly, Singapore films are at the mercy of a picky local audience. Sophisticated audiences are influenced by polished, high tech film making techniques from the West. Singaporeans are wary of spending $8 on a local production with questionable quality, as compared to spending the same on a blockbuster from America. The thinking is always that local production has low production value and quality. Other Asian films, particularly those from Hong Kong, are also sleek in terms of production and have high entertainment value. Hence, Singapore films need to increase production value and work on the content or story.
Despite the apparently gloomy scene painted, there have been more films in pre-production in recent years, thanks to the Singapore Film Commission (SFC). It was established in 1999 to "nurture, support and promote Singapore talent in film making, the production of Singapore films and a film industry in Singapore." $2.5 million was allocated to aid budding film makers through grants and bursaries, and to promote film making activities like inviting overseas talents to conduct scriptwriting courses and Master Lecture series. The SFC has also given out money to young film makers in the hope of encouraging more films to be made. Its first film investment, Cheah Chee Kongs (CheeK) Chicken Rice War (2000), won for Singapore the most prestigious award in recent years the best breaking out film in the Toronto Film Festival in 2001. Though the film garnered critical reviews overseas, it did not do well in the box office here. This seemed to be the dilemma faced by local films.
The Annual Report of the Singapore Film Commission has on record six films released in 2001. The Tree and Return to Pontianak were exhibited by mid 2001, and Hype (a NUS production), Miss Wonton (a US made, Singaporean directed film), A Sharp Pencil (the first to get an NC-16 rating) and One Leg Kicking in the later part of the year. Though statistics were not given regarding earnings of these films, One Leg Kicking opened with the best ever opening-day box office taking of $111,973. Three other local films are, at the time of writing, also in the works with support from SFC Avatar, City Sharks and Angel Heart. The future of Singapores film industry is infinitely tied to the efforts of the Singapore Film Commission.
So where will the film industry go from here?
Local film makers should produce more films, good or bad ones. How else do we grow and learn? One way is by making many films, good and bad ones, and learning from those experiences. Make all the B-grade and C-grade films first, and then we can learn from that to make A-grade gems.
Making commercially profitable films might ensure a continuing industry of movie making. These movies may utilize set formulas that appeal to local audiences but may not be award winners, e.g., Army Daze, Money No Enough, Forever Fever and Liang Po Po the Movie. The dilemma facing young film makers currently is the desire to make a critically acclaimed movie. These films may win awards in foreign film festivals, but they do not warrant foreign investment in the film industry in Singapore. The ultimate, as Dr. Ismail Sudderuddin (Director of Singapore Film Commission), said during a film forum at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, is to make a movie that is a hit with the local audience, and yet has enough universal appeal to travel to foreign and regional markets. But at the heart of it is a film that tells a good story. A good film can be made with a shoestring budget if it tells a compelling story - a story that touches the hearts of people.
Philosophically, we have to ask ourselves what is the purpose of having a film industry. During the Golden Age in the 50s and 60s, the sole purpose for both Shaw Brothers and Cathay studios then was to make money. Now, the film industry is initiated by the government for economic, and perhaps, some social reasons. We may find willing people to say lets have a go at it. But without the infrastructure, talent pool and willing investors, we find that the going gets tougher down the road. Movie making may seem glamorous but the entire process is wrought with hard work and risk.
The focus of the film industry should shift from its initial ambition of being the Hollywood of the East to one that looks toward the shaping of a Singapore national cinema. Hollywood, with its more than a hundred years history of honing the commercial film system, can make profitable films. Singapore, as seen from the varied box office takings, is still besieged with the setting up of an infrastructure and a system for producing films. The yardstick for measuring the success of film by its box office taking should be discarded. It is an unfair measurement of an industry trying to come out of its infancy stage, and does not serve as an important dimension for building a national cinema.
As Dr. Ismail said during the film forum, one can find trees that are centuries old in Malaysia, but in Singapore we get instant trees. Perhaps that is the dilemma facing the movie making industry of Singapore. Time will help to define the eventual manifesto of our film industry. Time is needed to learn and grow. Infrastructure is needed to provide fair pay and play, and increase the talent pool. Singapore can overcome the hindrances given time and the right environment. Just like trees, we need time to be nurtured and have the right environment to grow and flourish. Our unique culture and voice may eventually be heard internationally through the growth of our own National Cinema.
Ms. Jacqueline Tan-Pereira has been a film and video production lecturer in Ngee Ann Polytechnic for the past eight years. She has taught a variety of subjects, which includes TV and Video Production, Production Management for Feature Film, Film and Television Writing & Scripting. Graduated in 1993 from Taylor University in America, she spent a semester in Hollywood. Professionally, she has produced and directed corporate, educational, music variety and children's productions for film and TV, as well as written and directed plays for stage. Her most recent work is in producing and directing an eight-episode parenting series for TV12 called The Joy of Parenting.