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International co-productions are now the bread and butter of the content industry, offering direct access to new markets and audiences. With the regional headquarters of studio heavyweights like Netflix, The Walt Disney Co. and HBO Asia in its backyard, Singapore has emerged as a key player in matchmaking global projects with local companies and talent.
However, given the city-state’s relatively small population — 5.7 million — and high market saturation, Singapore’s position in the regional content industry is unique, with many overseas studios seeking partnerships with Singaporean companies but not prioritizing the domestic market at all. Realistically, most international partners operating in Singapore are looking for stories, eyeballs and revenue streams elsewhere — most often, in the more populous countries of surrounding Southeast Asia.
To meet the complexities and challenges of such a position, the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) has invested heavily in local media companies through schemes like the Capability Partnership Programme. Funding and benefits provided by these government-run schemes allow domestic SMEs to gain equity in projects and assert themselves as influential creative collaborators in the regional content industry, instead of being relegated to mere facilitators.
“If we are not able to bring financing to the table, then we may end up as just a service provider. That’s not our goal in the long run,” says Seng Choon Meng, CEO of Singapore’s Scrawl Animation. “We want to be able to participate in projects, gain an equity position, and [benefit from the] economic returns and long tail, whether this goes on to sequels or spin-offs, licensing, merchandising and even gaming.
Scrawl Animation has equity in and is currently working on the Alex Player series, a co-production with France-based Cyber Group Studios and Italian studio Graphilm. Broadcasters already on board for the project include France Télévisions and RAI. Technical expertise also allows Singaporean professionals to take on major roles in international partnerships. When Cyber Group Studios began its global expansion and acquired majority stakes in animation studios in Italy and the U.K., it picked Scrawl Animation as its partner in Asia.
“It was a good fit because Singapore has that blend of technical expertise, an openness to new technology, a culture of innovation, and the schools here have a strong emphasis on technical capabilities and skills,” Seng says. “Singapore was in a very strong position to set up an extension of the Unreal Engine, a real-time production pipeline here in Asia.”
Cyber Group Studios received a “MegaGrant” from Epic Games in 2021, allowing the company to develop a new virtual production pipeline using the real-time Unreal Engine. This will help to accelerate and optimize creative workflows, enabling simultaneous production of linear animated programming, social media short-form, video game content and interactive digital experiences.
Alex Player will be Singapore’s first long-term animation series produced with the real-time pipeline. Seng says that IMDA saw the value of the technology as a key driver for productivity growth in content creation, and the government agency provided financial support for Scrawl Animation to build up the infrastructure for production and training. This has enabled the company to serve as an important node in Cyber Group Studios’ global real-time workflow.
There is a growing maturity in the roles that Singapore studios and media professionals are able to negotiate on major international co-productions, with many clinching prominent creative roles. “It is really moving away from Made in Singapore to a Made by/with Singapore mindset,” says Jeevan Nathan, secretary of Singapore’s Association of Independent Producers (AIPRO).
“We see it as a chicken-and-egg scenario. For international partners to see Singapore as a viable and exciting destination for their productions or to even want to consume our content, they first have to know what we are about,” Nathan explains. “That’s where IMDA and AIPRO members have been successful, in being advocates of creating international relationships through grants, programs or work-for-hire.”
Nathan adds: “As the partnerships grow stronger and more established, it will allow our local content and local players to be seen as more integral creatives on the world stage.”
Mike Wiluan, CEO of Infinite Studios, says that IMDA grants have supported between 20 to 30 percent of the costs on shows that he has produced. His media production house owns soundstages in Singapore and Batam, Indonesia and Wiluan has worked on projects like HBO’s Westworld Season 3 and Grisse. IMDA’s funding enables him to gain equity in projects, and as a result, retain creative freedom and intellectual property rights. These conditions are a priority for him now as a storyteller, after one of the shows he was working on for a major international network was not renewed due to a sudden leadership change.
The Crazy Rich Asians Singapore co-producer found the right project in Losmen Melati, a horror series made in partnership with Taiwanese OTT streaming platform CATCHPLAY. Wiluan directed Losmen Melati alongside Indonesian co-director Billy Christian. Currently in post-production, the series will be released on the platform in the first quarter of 2023, with CATCHPLAY handling distribution in Taiwan and Indonesia, and Singapore outfit Clover Films taking on distribution for the rest of Southeast Asia.
“The opportunity for Singapore producers and creators is tapping into everyone wanting to come to Singapore because of the organizational capability, transparency, openness of business, and relevance to world dynamics,” Wiluan says. “There is an opportunity here to branch out and not just think of Singapore as a market, but Singapore as the center of where germination, ideation, management, financial packaging and marketing come together.”
Wiluan spent the early years of his career as a producer (and frequent collaborator) on independent films by prominent Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, like Be With Me and My Magic. Acknowledging that high production costs in Singapore remain a major challenge, Wiluan is a big proponent of Singaporeans casting their creative net abroad, which can be creatively fulfilling and also financially advantageous.
“Singapore is not an easy place to make movies because of the cost and the resources. But that’s where Singaporean filmmakers also are ready to push beyond the boundaries, because they have assistance from the government and a very competitive environment,” says Wiluan, having set up Infinite Studios in both Singapore and Batam, Indonesia. “There’s this other new opportunity where Singaporeans can look beyond the shores of Singapore and [still] find the support of the Singapore government…You can make Singapore movies in Indonesia. They can make different movies in Thailand, and still make it from a Singaporean storyteller, director or producer’s point-of-view.”
Another homegrown media company that has recently pivoted to take on major creative roles on international productions is Mocha Chai Laboratories. “From the get-go with Mocha Chai, I have always positioned us as a showrunner and producer for the region. We are well aware that the streaming platforms are generally not looking for Singapore content and they’re not targeting the Singapore market,” says Michelle Chang, co-founder of Mocha Chai Laboratories. “When we develop ideas, it has always been for Asia. It’s been proven that as long as it is a fresh and unique idea, streaming platforms will engage us.”
Established in 2012 as a boutique post-production house — and the only Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision-certified facility in Singapore — Mocha Chai Laboratories expanded into developing and producing content in May 2019.
Chang says that the pandemic reinforced the importance of the company’s push into content development and diversifying its services, as Covid-19 brought production (and thus, post-production) to a halt. Currently, Chang is showrunner and producer for Venus On Mars, a six-part sci-fi romantic comedy series made in collaboration with Korean entertainment giant CJ ENM’s Hong Kong office.
Venus on Mars features Taiwanese and Singapore actors, with Taiwanese producer Phil Tang on board and CJ ENM handling worldwide distribution. Chang says that she also has a Thailand-based project in development, with another under negotiations with a streaming platform.
Mocha Chai Laboratories will have a presence at the upcoming MIPCOM (which runs Oct. 17-20), alongside 16 other Singapore media companies in a delegation co-led by IMDA and AIPRO. At the annual TV market in Cannes, Singapore companies will present over 460 hours of storytelling from Singapore and Asia, across more than 60 titles.
For many in the Singapore delegation, this MIPCOM will be the first full-fledged edition since the pandemic and an important opportunity to reconnect with international business partners. “We need to get back into it again as this is a very tactile, human industry,” Wiluan says. “There’s a lot of new strategies and a lot of companies have changed their outlooks and how they finance. Some of them, pre-pandemic, were moving into higher-budget [productions] and now, post-pandemic, there are discussions about the metaverse, asset creation, gamification, post-content assets, monetization and how IP travels across multiple streams.”
Chang from Mocha Chai Laboratories will be looking for collaborators, investors and writers at MIPCOM. “Ever since we started doing original content, producers from the U.S. and Japan have approached us to represent them,” Chang says.
Singapore will also soon host the ninth edition of the Singapore Media Festival from Nov. 24 to Dec. 11, which will highlight some of Asia’s best content and also provide platform and networking opportunities for professionals. The 18-day festival includes events like the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), Asia TV Forum & Market (ATF) and Screen Singapore (SS).
“Singapore has a vibrant media marketplace that welcomes partners from across the globe to collaborate with our media companies to produce quality content for an international audience,” says Justin Ang, assistant chief executive at IMDA. “The repertoire of made-with-Singapore content showcased at MIPCOM demonstrates our strong ambitions and capabilities in co-production, making us a choice partner for platforms and MNCs (multinational corporations). We look forward to more partners joining us on this journey to create more innovative stories together.”
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