The Torch: What Festivals (Won’t Necessarily) Do
It is my firm conviction that possibilities abound for Singapore’s film industry to make itself known internationally in the years to come.
There can be little doubt about Japan being on top of the game where acceptance of Asian cinema in Europe is concerned. But I see no reason why Singapore should not be able to catch up with the likes of Hong Kong, China or Korea over here.
Chances of Singaporean productions connecting well with audiences in old Europe are much better by all accounts than
those of, say Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand or Vietnam, where cultural differences clearly outweigh any shared contemporary experience, such that quality gets lost in translation more often than not.
To say that Singaporean film doesn’t travel well strikes me of an indecision of the kind which Hamlet fell victim to.
If you intend to bring your film over for it not to be stashed away in some archive and be lost to oblivion thereafter, but to actually find its way to hearts and minds of people in some radically different European country, my humble advice would be as follows.
Like any carousel, the international film festival circuit coming together each year at the respective well-known venues is in essence a self-centered affair. Clearly it is showcasing your product to the attendant audiences which figure most prominently on the agenda. And obviously, high-profile exposure is concentrated in spotlighted programming works. In most cases, that is. It is undeniable that the low-budget productions that make up the bulk of your usual 300 to 400 films all vie for attention in some sort of competition. For them standing out is not the ultimate aim of taking part. More often than not it is a question of survival for many auteurs and their partners, with only a limited circle of winners managing to stay on the right side of the watershed, effectively riding the wave of the moment’s favourable opportunity.
We all know this, of course. It is the miraculous workings and machinations of the market and its many (partially obscure) protagonists. Sometimes new and promising names emerge; most often, though, it is your usual stock of recurrent names that continue to show up. Either way, the fascination remains; interest may shift over the years from one festival to the next, but overall it seems to be steady, well-balanced if not growing by the surge of new industry hotspots trying to place themselves visibly on the map – with varying degrees of success or permanence.
To stand out and get noticed in this kind of environment, don’t compromise the creative essence that is your film to suit presumed tastes. Any festival audience mostly comprises an enthusiasts’ gathering, and nobody could possibly criticise showcasing an ambitious independent film by one of these windows to the foreign, the “other”, which still seems like a pretty enterprising thing to do. One should not overestimate the level of consequential exposure this will bring.
What still needs to be proved and wholeheartedly undertaken in the first place, is a Singaporean film’s capability to reach out to the general overseas, the European audience, the non-specialised majority beyond the somewhat limited realm of Asian cinema aficionados. Singapore has long since been rooted in the real world. It bears all the necessary hallmarks to prove its substance, its unmistakable life-size factuality. And in addition to all this, Singapore already professes a language (visual as well as verbal) to adequately communicate its experience in a mature, sophisticated and genuine artistic way. In the end, the merely exotic will invariably succumb to the wake-up call of reality. Bollywood for one is a very particular product, no doubt about that. But what can be learned in terms of marketing your cultural distinctness overseas is that originality – uncompromising, self-conscious originality – eventually pays. So do it, dare to be (and show) your real self in your films!
But something more is needed to enable a sustainable connection: mutuality is the key! Just as with any other complex system of decision-making, film distribution and the chances and risks of making or losing money thereby, has at the bottom line a lot to do with good old-fashioned psychology. No level of advanced professionalism will ever invalidate this simple truth. Wherever you happen to be living, your own stock market proves this for a fact every single day.
Therefore, make a serious and ostensible effort to reach out by showing that you care for success in your targeted destination. Do this by selecting carefully the one festival that suits your film best and don’t be in any way shy or timid about it. Try to go for the best possible deal for your product always; you owe it to your investors, to your staff and crew and the ones who believed in your outlandish idea in the first place and were daring enough to cast in their lot alongside with yours. That is to say, don’t let yourself be squeezed into the framework of the festival’s most obscure envelope only, but dare to make your presence felt center stage, where the competition is. Where the stakes are highest there is the most to be won. Take the time to assess the festival landscape, ask yourself who has been where before your film came along, and whether the last foray is likely to present you with doors that have already been opened up.
If possible, adapt your subtitles to cater to the foreign audience of your choice to meet them half way. It is the little things that make a difference, especially where the question at hand is one of empathy, not cold calculation and some naked business rationale.
Obviously, this is also true of programmers’ decision-making processes, which more often than not tend to stick with the familiar rather than to venture into the unknown. Clearly it is breaking the ice first that proves to be the hardest part of the process, but swiftly after that you will find yourself in a position of reversed interest, where being a tested quantity will pay. No matter what the attitude is, or how impressive a pedigree, in the end it mostly comes down to established personal contacts. The recognised face is always the most welcomed one, or, as we have come to say of our Berlinale over here: nobody ever comes here just once…
Anyone who has even loosely followed the track as of late will have gathered some understanding of how tiring it has become for those selecting films for their line-up, to separate the worthwhile from the not quite so. That explains the sheer vastness of your average, massive flood of offerings nowadays, which may be, if you will, the downside of the digital revolution. Just as by the very nature of things mediocrity inevitably prevails, your counterparts’ openness toward the personal aspect in all this will become ever greater. And all the more decisively must festival marketing strengthen its human component in building workable ties. In effect I recommend you had better scribble down your name on the walls of that labyrinth called “distinction” the old-fashioned way Ã¢â‚¬” and again it seems to come down to mutuality of some kind, doesn’t it?
Lastly, please ensure your distributor doesn’t spoil the game for your product beforehand by requesting unreasonably high entry fees Ã¢â‚¬” these incidents have been heard of, which indeed, make your film ineligible from the start for some of the more ambitious and well managed but rather small events of the calendar.
It takes prowess and audacity to conquer! The next years will be crucial in deciding which way the Singapore brand will be headed in European perception. If you demonstrate an equal level of respect for the relevance and import of your own product that you have for your competitors’, you will inspire an equal measure of the same in your marketing partners. Nothing is sexier than success; and success has its own, very recognisable markers of distinction. You know it all, so there’s no reason to be shy about it; show that Singapore cinema can have all the features that make for good (and better) entertainment!
Now, isn’t that something to be shared with the rest of the world?