Sunday 28 March 2010

Your film flopped? Here's more taxpayers' money

Maybe it's because I just filed my income tax.

But when I read last week that the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) is giving four local film projects up to a grant of $500,000 each - twice what it gave previously - my first reaction was: "Wait a minute. Isn't that taxpayers' money?"

Since the SFC is part of the Media Development Authority, which is part of the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, I think it's safe to say that yes, that's taxpayers' money.

So possibly up to $2 million of taxpayers' money is going into making movies that I believe most taxpayers' aren't likely to watch even for free on Okto, much less pay to see in the cinema.

People complain about paying the TV & radio licence fee. So how come no one is complaining about this? Many local films suck as bad as local TV shows.

But hold on, the SFC says it isn't just "giving" the money away. That would be stupid.

No, the commission is actually "co-investing" in them and expects a cut from the millions of dollars the films would hopefully make. We'll see.

In 2008, the SFC had "co-invested" $250,000 each in nine films. That's a total of $2.25 million of taxpayers' money.

Of the nine, only one, Blood Ties, has been released. The film reportedly cost $850,000 to produce and has earned only $282,000 so far.

That Blood Ties lost money is not surprising. As a rule of thumb, Jack Neo's movies are the only local films that make money.

And since Singapore's most famous adulterer didn't make any of the nine SFC-funded films, I doubt the commission will see that $2.25 million again

So what does the SFC do? It has decided to double the individual grant to half a million dollars.

When will it end? Will it be a whole million next year? What about the year after that?

The expression "Throwing good (taxpayers') money after bad" comes to mind.

Set up in 1998 to "nurture" the Singapore film industry, the SFC has funded dozens of short films and features. After 12 years and tens of millions spent, its biggest hit was Royston Tan's 881 in 2007. A few other things were selected for international film fests and won awards here and there.

Any legit film company with a track record like this would've gone out of business a long time ago - or asked its managing director to leave. I'm looking at you, Raintree Pictures.

Would the money be better spent on, say, building safety barriers at all MRT stations sooner so that another life doesn't have to be lost on the train tracks?

Of course, nobody wants every local film to be a Jack Neo movie, but a viable local film industry has to be at least self-sustaining.

Unfortunately, for all its good intentions, the SFC may have encouraged a mindset where local film-makers seem to feel that the Government owes them a living.

Last year, when the SFC removed a travel grant for film-makers, oh how they bitched. One said: “It is a crisis for us film-makers and it is helping to bring us independent film-makers together.”

Perhaps it's time these independent film-makers live up their name and be truly independent.

It's funny how some would decry our nanny state, yet seem content to suckle at the nanny's teats indefinitely. Let the final cut be the apron strings.

If only I could claim tax relief on my cameraman.

- Published in The New Paper, 28 March 2010

SFC's response:

We refer to your article (dated 28 March 2010, entitled 'Your film flopped? Here's more taxpayers' money') referencing the funding of local movies and the question of how much funding is too much.

It focuses on a perennial challenge: balancing the call on one end of the spectrum by up and coming filmmakers for greater Government support, and the thought at the other end that these independent filmmakers should be true to their name.

The Media Development Authority (MDA) is continually in discussion with the industry to achieve the best balance between support and self-sustainability.

While we support artistic films and recognise its contributions to Singapore's culture and identity, we also believe that the industry is ready to develop a more commercially viable sector within the filmmaking space.

This is why the MDA takes a two-pronged approach to supporting local filmmakers; investing in capability development and artistic endeavour, with a greater emphasis on supporting commercially viable projects for a sustainable sector.

When the Singapore Film Commission first became part of MDA in 2003, much of SFC's and MDA's financial participation in content projects was in the form of grants. This was necessary to get the industry going.

In recent years, while we still have grants in place, such as the Short Film Grant and the Script Development Grant, we have also moved into co-investments, where Government's share of the rights and returns are ploughed back into further seeding and catalyzing of the industry.

As a result of these efforts, local films today are gaining traction in the international festival circuit with participation rates doubling in the last five years from 30 to over 70 in 2008.

Last year also marked the fifth consecutive year a Singapore film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. In addition, our average annual feature film output for 2008 almost quadrupled compared to what it was before SFC was founded.

There is also growing evidence of local players creating or co-producing projects for international sales. For instance, world-renowned sales agent Fortissimo Films (who made Wong Kar-wai famous) signed Singaporean Boo Junfeng's debut feature, SANDCASTLE, for international distribution even before the cameras started rolling. SANDCASTLE, incidentally, was one of the films to receive funding through the New Feature Film Fund (NFFF).

The US$10 million HOST 2 film, scheduled for a 2011 release, is jointly-produced by Korea's Chungeorahm Films and homegrown Boku Films. BAIT, Singapore's first stereoscopic 3D film which has already been pre-sold to over 24 territories, will be co-produced by Australia's Arclight Films and Pictures In Paradise, as well as Singapore’s Blackmagic Design.

While the progress made by the local film industry is encouraging, not every homegrown film will find commercial success. This mirrors the very nature of the film industry worldwide.

By increasing our funding quantum for the New Feature Film Fund, we are stimulating higher overall production values and wider international marketability. This move supports our goal of creating a viable, self-sustaining film industry supported by robust production, distribution and financing frameworks. Such an industry would drive up employment and projects created for the global audience, but made by or with Singaporean talents.

We thank Mr Ong for his comments, and continue to welcome discourse and input to our ongoing calibration and refinement of our cluster development strategies.

Mr Kenneth Tan,
Director, Singapore Film Commission