WITH the recent box-office success of Jack Neo's Ah Boys To Men Part 1 and Kelvin Sng's Taxi Taxi (the former has raked in $6.2m, making it the highest-grossing local film of all time; while the latter has chalked up $1.4m so far), the local movie industry is enjoying a resurgence of sorts as local audiences warm up to home-grown movies.
But there's no denying the scene is still relatively small and young; which is why some local industry players are spreading their wings by venturing into more established and lucrative markets overseas. Whether financially or creatively, they are spotting opportunities elsewhere in the region and even as far as the United States.
Take the star-studded Cloud Atlas - co-directed by The Matrix's Andy and Lana Wachowski and starring big names like Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant - which opened here a fortnight ago. The epic sci-fi fantasy drama has two Singapore links with local company Ascension Pictures being one of its key Asian investors and Philip Lee, a permanent resident here who served as its executive producer.
"We believe this is the first time a Singapore company has invested in an international movie of this scale with renowned world-class directors and an A-list cast line-up," says director of Ascension Pictures, Pearry Teo, of the deal which made the front page of The New York Times last year.
The 34-year-old adds that it was a rare opportunity to be a part of a project this large because Hollywood mega-movies are usually backed by major studios. Cloud Atlas was an exception and its financing was all done independently,
As the film's executive producer, Dr Lee managed to raise a whopping one-third of the US$104m budget in Asia alone through first-time investors in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea. Although no exact figure was given, the Hong Kong native - who has worked extensively in Hong Kong, China and America on blockbusters like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Forbidden Kingdom and The Dark Knight - reveals Ascension Picture's contribution came up to about 30 per cent of that sum.
According to Dr Lee, the way funds were raised for Cloud Atlas is a world-first and has created a very big impact in the film industry internationally, signalling a trend where big-name directors and actors will eventually forgo studio films to pursue their own dream projects independently.
"There are many film producers already moving forward to Asia to look for funds (and) Singapore, of course, is one of the most important places," says Dr Lee, who is encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by Asian investors for Cloud Atlas and foresees even more opportunities for Singaporeans to be part of such projects further down the road.
But local industry players are not just contributing financially; as the box office in Mainland China continues to grow year-on-year, Singaporean lawyer Michael Leow has managed to build and develop his entertainment and legal practice since moving to Hong Kong in 1999, dispensing financial advice and support to producers and investors all over the region.
To date, he's helped to close deals on Chinese blockbusters such as Curse of the Golden Flower, Red Cliff, 2046 (Wong Kar Wai was one of his first clients) and Wu Shu; as well as Thai arthouse director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe and Invisible Waves.
Not only that, the 47-year-old also co-produced the Taiwanese indie Au Revoir Taipei; though he says he did not make a deliberate effort to choose a non-Singapore project other than the fact that the film presented itself at the right time for him to push himself to utilise his skills set and experience.
Similarly, he adds his move to Hong Kong was part of an internal reallocation of personnel within the law firm he was in and had nothing to do with the film industry. His foray into movies was hence almost incidental as the opportunities presented themselves and he saw growth potential for his legal practice in the entertaiment industry.
Mr Leow now shuttles between Hong Kong and Singapore, working with local producers and investors here on film financing matters, just as he did recently with Ascension Pictures on Cloud Atlas.
But he notes that even though the Singapore film industry has become "considerably more vibrant" now compared to a decade ago, few homegrown movies make it beyond local shores because of limited universal appeal. It's a view shared by Ascension Pictures' Mr Teo, who's an LA-based filmmaker himself. That is why he chose to remain stateside after studying there, and has since established himself as a director of genre films.
"I do feel that America is very advanced in its approach to making globally demanded films for the world market (with) content and productions (that) are more accessible to the world," says Mr Teo who, besides making award-winning shorts, is also the first Singaporean to helm a Hollywood film with 2007's The Gene Generation, starring Faye Dunaway and Bai Ling.
He doesn't rule out making a film here though his personal interest currently lies in projects with more universal appeal and global marketability. The lure and opportunity to work in Hollywood is also what attracted lighting artist Roger Lee to move to Burbank, California, when he was hired by Disney last April to work on Wreck-It-Ralph. Not only that, he now gets to work alongside some of his personal heroes from the Disney flicks he watched while growing up.
But the tough competition in the US forces the 35-year-old to be on his toes and give 101 per cent all the time at work. "Staff positions are scarce so most artists are hired on a project basis; if you can't keep up and slacken, it will most likely cost you your job," he warns.
However, he adds that moving out of his comfort zone has been a great learning experience after working in animation here for 11 years.
"The environment is more conducive for growth and creativity as the people you mix with day in and day out are some of the very best in the industry... Everything is also of a much bigger scale here, such as the budget and the size of the crew; the atmosphere is also more dynamic as things move a lot faster here," says Mr Lee.
Likewise, Flora Goh took the plunge and made the move to Hong Kong in mid-2009 because she wanted to challenge herself and saw the city as the main gateway to the second biggest film market in the world - Mainland China.
Despite a steep learning curve in getting accustomed to the culture shock from the no-nonsense work ethics of the film industry there, the ex-marketing director of film distribution outfit UIP has overcome it all in a short period of time and produced her first film - The Second Coming, a 3D suspense horror film directed by veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Herman Yau. It is scheduled to be released in the third quarter of this year.
Like everybody The Business Times spoke to, the endgame for all of them is to bridge the gap between Singapore and overseas film talents so as to grow our own industry here - both Mr Lee and Mr Teo continue to track the local scene via their peers and friends to look for future projects which they can contribute to; Mr Leow sees legal needs changing with the times as more home-grown filmmakers seek an international platform; and Dr Lee notes there is a huge potential for Singapore to become a major investment hub for financing of big international films like Cloud Atlas.
Miss Goh, who engaged Widescreen Media here to provide the 3D stereography for The Second Coming hopes to continue getting as many Singaporeans as she can to work on the next film, Mack The Knife, that she's putting together.
As she aptly sums it up, "The whole idea is to collaborate and create quality win-win films that are beneficial to filmmakers and investors from anywhere including Singapore."