Saving cinema

Three film producers on helping to pull Singapore's film industry out of its Covid-19 doldrums.

Nelson Mok, 44

Director of Asia productions and international sales
Endeavor Content

IT was only last year that Nelson Mok opened the Singapore office of Endeavor Content to find Asian film and TV content to produce and sell to the rest of the world. Endeavor Content is a global leader in the development, financing and sales of film, TV, theatre and audio content. Its high-profile projects include the hit TV series Killing Eve and Normal People.

Mr Mok, 44, started out selling movie posters at Pacific Plaza in the late 1990s, before becoming a distribution, development and financing expert for various local companies such as Golden Village and mm2. Since joining Endeavor Content in 2019, he had rapidly executed his ambitious region-wide plans - until the scourge of Covid-19 started to surface around the world.

His first release was Taiwanese horror film The Bridge Curse, based on a Taiwanese urban myth made popular by campus students. The film reached No 1 at the country's box-office in February 2020, fuelled by "a largely teenage audience who was, back then, a little less worried about the pandemic than older folk", says Mr Mok. The Bridge Curse grossed an impressive US$2 million and Endeavor Content recently announced the shooting of a sequel next year.

But the film was also supposed to open soon after that in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Cambodia, Lao, Myanmar, Hong Kong and the Middle East - and had to be postponed because of the widespread closure of cinemas. When it finally opened in Singapore in mid-July, staggered seating arrangements meant the film could only earn about S$200,000 at the box-office - less than half of Mr Mok's original projections. "Considering the circumstances, however, I'm happy with its Singapore box-office," says Mr Mok.

The Bridge Curse proved to be a great starter for Mr Mok's career at Endeavor Content, in spite of the pandemic. But his subsequent two projects were in limbo for months before they could be restarted:

The Vietnamese horror film The Ancestral, directed by top helmer Le-Van Kiet, had completed filming in February. Following that, the director had left Vietnam for his home in Los Angeles for some rest. When Vietnam imposed Covid-related travel restrictions, Mr Le-Van was unable to return to the country to carry out the editing.

The process is now being done remotely, with the editor in Vietnam in constant communication with Mr Le-Van in Los Angeles. The film's release date also has had to be pushed back to early next year.

Mr Mok's third project is Backstage, an Indonesian music-drama starring popular actresses and real-life sisters Vanesha and Sissy Prescilla. Shooting had started in March but had to stop after only a few days because of the lockdown.

For five months, the cast and crew were unable to return to set. And when they finally did in August, the crew had to be split up and separated, and the group scenes had to be carefully coordinated to avoid crowding. The spectacular finale which takes place in a concert auditorium filled with fans also had to be CGI-ed.

Mr Mok says: "Despite the challenges of finishing the films, I'm less concerned about the quality of the films than the return of the audience. I've seen the rushes and I'm sure the films will be good. The bigger question on my mind is: When will the audience return to cinemas in droves again?

"Both these films boast big directors and stars. They're designed to be blockbusters. But for that to happen, the audience must return to the cinemas in a big way."

Meanwhile, the marketing team at Endeavor Content has rolled out new ways of selling their upcoming titles to potential buyers. With social distancing measures in effect, the LA team organised old-fashioned movie drive-ins concurrent to the Toronto International Film Festival so that potential buyers were able to watch select titles in the safety of their cars.

Cast, producers and directors are encouraged to go on social media to talk about their upcoming projects. And titles are being aggressively sold in virtual film markets.

Mr Mok says: "I was slightly sceptical going into these virtual markets. I wondered if anyone was going to buy movies in a time like this. But at the virtual Cannes market, people quickly fell into their old rhythms and many deals were made . . . I realise people were buying movies because they were also buying hope. Entertainment still has to go on at the end of the day. People want to watch movies more than ever because we're staying home so much."

As for the next few years, Mr Mok expects funding for projects to decline because of the financial straits some companies and investors have found themselves in. "But what that means is that the stuff that does get made will be the cream of the crop. They're the sort of extraordinary scripts you read and realise that you simply have to find funding for them, no matter what . . . In short, we might see fewer titles, say, one or two years down the road because of the financial crunch people are in right now. But the quality of each project will be very high."

Mr Mok is still looking for that high-quality Singapore script to produce for the rest of the world. As far as he's concerned, Endeavor Content's plans for telling Asian stories with broad-based appeal are still on track.

Fran Borgia, 40

Founder & Producer
Akanga Film Asia

FRAN Borgia is one of the most respected film producers in Singapore. He's behind some of the successful independent titles here including Sandcastle (2010), A Yellow Bird (2016), Apprentice (2016) and A Land Imagined (2018), all of which nabbed prizes at various film festivals.

Mr Borgia, 40, is clear that he doesn't do it for the money: "If I made more commercial films, I'd probably be a rich man. But I want to make cinema that is poetry, and because of that, I want nothing to do with 95 per cent of the cinema out there." That kind of resolve and single-mindedness is what helped him earn the trust and respect of arthouse filmmakers such as Boo Jun Feng, K Rajagopal and Yeo Siew Hua, as well as the film community in general.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has been particularly harsh on arthouse films and filmmakers, not least because the main route for their survival is temporarily closed to them. Independent titles rely heavily on festival participation and recognition. If a film wins an award, that immediately raises its profile and improves its chances of being shown in cinemas, especially those outside of its country.

Yeo's A Land Imagined, for instance, was the first Singaporean film to win the Golden Leopard for Best Film at the Locarno Film Festival 2018 in Switzerland. It has since been screened in several countries, including, for the first time this month, Spain - Mr Borgia's birth country.

"Spain is, of course, special," says Mr Borgia whose wife and children are Singaporean. "To have the people of my country watch a Singaporean film that I produced, to have them understand something about the culture I've lived in for 15 years, is worth more than all the money in the world."

In the past few months, Covid-19 led to the cancellation of most film festivals, while those that ran reduced the number of films they typically screened and the audience allowed into each screening.

The upcoming Busan International Film Festival, for instance, can only accommodate 50 people per screening for each of its 192 invited films. In the past, the festival attracted 200,000 visitors and screened about 300 films. For independent filmmakers, the missed opportunities are incalculable.

Meanwhile at home, Mr Borgia's company Akanga saw revenue drop by 100 per cent from March to July. All commercial work vanished overnight because filmmakers could not assemble to execute a shoot. His full-time staff members agreed to go on no-pay leave until the situation improved. Many of the freelancers he usually collaborated with went without work for months. "It was heartbreaking not to be able to help," says Mr Borgia.

Things only started looking up in August when the Infocomm Media Development Authority allowed shoots to be carried out, but with a limit on personnel numbers. For TV commercials and feature films, for instance, the total number of cast and crew personnel cannot exceed 50. Performers must also wear masks at all times until they have to appear in front of the camera. The pace is picking up gradually for Mr Borgia and his team.

Two of Akanga's projects titled City Of Small Blessings and Yuni were supposed to complete post-production this year, in time for submission into various film festivals. Their timelines have been extended. Two other projects titled Tomorrow Is A Long Time directed by Jow Zhi Wei and Tiger Stripes directed by Amanda Nell Eu were also supposed to begin production in the second half of 2020. But these have to be postponed to the following year.

Mr Borgia says: "We're not desperately trying to complete these projects. We know that even if we have finished products, it's going to be difficult selling them. Some agents have stopped buying independent films for the time being because they're not sure how to market them as long as cinemas remain either shut or open with limited capacities."

Mr Borgia says: "We are in a kind of post-war situation. Something has happened that has changed the whole world. And we just need to be able to understand it and take it a step at a time. But I'm very hopeful that next year, things will return to normal, or take the shape of a new normal . . . And our films will have a good chance of getting seen by the whole world again."

There are glimmers of hope yet. For the recent Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum, Mr Borgia and his team could not travel to the city to pitch their new project in person, so they had to do it via video conferencing. Nevertheless, the team made a convincing case and scored the top cash prize of HK$100,000 for its new script titled Stranger Eyes to be directed by Yeo. It beat 53 other projects in development.

Mr Borgia sees this as a silver lining: "It was the first time we pitched online and we won an award. So maybe not everything is lost."

Huang Junxiang, 31

Zhao Wei Films

THE year 2020 was supposed to be a bumper year for Singapore films, with a large line-up that included a Chinese cross-dressing comedy, a Malay horror picture and Singapore's first creature feature about a monster lurking in SMRT's underground rail network.

However, none of these films has been released yet because producers are worried about their box-office earnings during the pandemic. At the moment, cinema halls are allowed to admit only half of the number of patrons they can accommodate, which means box-office projections for any film released now will also have to be halved.

That said, some film producers are going ahead with their releases later in the year, keeping their fingers crossed that cinema halls will be permitted to admit more patrons in the coming months.

One of the first and few Singapore films to open this year will be Tiong Bahru Social Club, directed by Tan Bee Thiam and produced by Huang Junxiang for 13 Little Pictures. Mr Huang says: "We're pushing ahead with our theatrical release later this year because we think Tiong Bahru Social Club is the kind of film Singaporeans should see right now . . . It's about the desire to seek personal happiness in an increasingly complicated world."

The film has been selected for the upcoming Busan International Film Festival - the only Singapore title in the smaller slate of this year's festival. But festival programmer Park Sungho has heaped it with praise, calling it a "whimsical, imaginative . . . refreshing film with a strong vision".

Written by Tan and Antti Toivonen, the story centres on a young man (Thomas Pang) searching for his purpose in life. He ends up joining the Tiong Bahru Social Club, an organisation that uses technology and data to transform Tiong Bahru into the happiest district in the world. Along the way, the young man discovers what happiness truly means.

Mr Huang, who has produced other high-profile films such as Eric Khoo's Ramen Teh and Mike Wiluan's Buffalo Boys, says Tiong Bahru Social Club was shot long before the pandemic, so its production was not disrupted.

Other projects by Zhao Wei Films, however, have been affected. They include a HBO Asia series originally scheduled to be shot this year in various Asian countries such as Indonesia, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines - not unlike Zhao Wei's previous pan-Asian projects Folklore (2018) and Food Lore (2020).

Zhao Wei Films was also involved in producing the videos for this year's National Day Parade, and these had to be completely reconceptualised within a short time by creative director Royston Tan and the team to reflect the current realities.

"On top of that, we had a few pitches for commercials, but they had to be postponed, completely scrapped or reworked," says Mr Huang.

"As creatives, we just have to pivot to find other content or adapt our current content to be more tonally appropriate for the times. It's a challenge everybody's facing today. But I think that the people working in the arts industry are generally very resilient."

Mr Huang lauds the Infocomm Media Development Authority for its strong support of the local film industry. To make up for the drought of projects, IMDA launched an S$8 million Public Service Content (PSC) Fund in collaboration with commissioning partners such as Singapore Press Holdings, Mediacorp and Viddsee to create a pipeline of content and protect industry jobs.

Mr Huang and his team successfully pitched for a five-episode series for Viddsee which has the working title AI Loves K-drama. Written by Mr Huang and playwright-adman Luke Somasundram, the story centres on a failing tech company that tries to repair its fortunes by buying a Korean drama writing robot.

Shooting the series later this month, however, will be a challenge. Mr Huang says: "There are limits to cast and crew sizes. There are a lot more paperwork and processes to go through. The shoot will definitely move more slowly than what I'm used to.

"That said, I think everyone is willing to go through the whole process because we're just happy to be back on set and working harmoniously towards a common vision. That has always been very empowering."


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