The Torch: Commercial Independence
Sometime last year, when the project hadn’t even been completed but barely entered into post-production, a friend of mine dismissed 881 in the most offhand manner as being “commercial” as he put it, a single gesture speaking volumes.
Four months later and right after the premiere, he called me to say that he’d just seen the “best ever made-in Singapore film” – and frankly, I couldn’t help but inwardly smile at this quite unexpected change of mind. The good thing about observing such U-turns is that they serve as evidence to even the most fainthearted that indeed, they can happen. Surely, never giving up early is a more than customary imperative to anyone working in the creative field, without which nothing can be achieved.
Furthermore, an instance such as the one described may tell us a lot about the rules of perception, which in turn govern the industry, where money comes first and has the potential to be both: the ultimate spoiler or the prime facilitator; and it isn’t always so easy to make out if either of the two was for the lack or rich supply of money.
Anyway, there is no such thing as unconditioned art and eventually, in growing up, we have to learn to live with market demands and make the best of it. So I think it is high time to put on record, and to do so explicitly in praise of commerce, that it alone allows the visionary to stay the course and continue to propagate their mission’s cause. In other words: inventiveness will not carry you all the way to your lofty goals just by itself. It needs to be helped along one way or another. A good business rationale in effect is worth more than money, but turns out pure gold when it comes to making your foray into the realm of filmmaking not just a one-time sporting detour, but a life’s calling; and in some very lucky cases to even start you a career. Naturally it takes real passion to set about making a movie or even a short film; there should be no compromising this basic truth. But it is simply a relatively smart move, not to restrict your ambition to that one project exclusively, but to see it as only the most immediate step on a long road to success Ã¢â‚¬” which is a process after all.
Your independence, whether sought after or rather involuntary, what is it exactly? Is it just autonomy, or true self-governance and the responsibility it brings? The difference comes mostly by way of that one little word which starts with a capital “G” and ends with a rant: your highly ambivalent government funding, does it enable or hinder your creativity from coming to life? It is just too real, how any form of support granted can be swiftly taken away from you by that same high level authority, if next time you apply for something you need for example. Apparently there is a certain unavoidable degree of dependence inherent to the system if you choose to work under its patronizing shelter. One has to be aware of it constantly, because any reminder may be a harsh wake-up call or even too late already. In any case, it is no-one but you who will be ultimately responsible not just for the outcome alone but also for any compromise you make in the process of bringing your film to the screens. But first, it needs to make it there.
Be it sympathetic moneybags, or real friends, whoever is willing to invest in your self-made film project is a much needed mentor and proves for real once more that, like it or not, money is an instrumental asset Ã¢â‚¬” without a doubt and with little alternative. Accordingly, I’m not going to argue this obvious point here. But truly, independence is a state of mind rather than a state of being; and this, to my understanding, is very much because of what I’ve just said, even as those two, your artistic freedom on the one hand and the monetary obligations you have to enter into on the other, are related in a variety of ways.
“Art” and “Entertainment” are by no means opposites, much less mutually exclusive as some may think. What these two distinct terms signify and are useful for however is to describe precisely defined sets of specifications which mark out assessment criteria by which to qualify target objectives in media content. Define your goal clearly, without making it one-sided, but get your mix right instead. The clever strategy for any team should be to opt in accord with the assets, financial and creative ones as well. Are you willing to earn money and break even with your film on the commercial front? Is the principal idea innovative and original enough? Do you yourself have a sufficiently profound grip on it, to make it understandable, enjoyable even in a meaningful way to your targeted audience? Don’t forget: this is the essence of whatever genius there is in the craft, and this task of translation is the one fundamental challenge to be mastered in making a good and reasonably profitable movie. See, there are choices that everyone is genuinely independent in making.
But everybody struggles to keep their feet on the ground in the film business, that’s for sure. KOFIC* lately released stunning, if not shocking figures, given the immense popularity and usually strong home market share for local productions, which we’ve come to identify with Korean film and the accompanying wave that washes it to even the most distant shores. According to these, only one in ten Korean films actually turns a profit, and big distributors have to account for losses in 2007, marking their investments in red ink!
Here I admit it openly: there are things in life in which it is more important to be honest than clever. So when you are about to make a movie on a truly independent, that is, a notoriously insufficient budget, spend as much money as you can possibly get your hands on, for it is a long-term investment you are making and quality will eventually pay off. That you have to bring yourself to believe in Ã¢â‚¬” or else, there is little hope. In coming back to my point about free, independent thinking, I would again like to prop up whoever is in need of reassurance by stating that once you have hit on a fascinating idea, you better hold fast to it. Then, it is all about decision making for the aspiring young professional, and the best determinations are the ones you can honestly embrace, with full will and no second thoughts. Apparently the most efficient and successful filmmaker is he who entertains just the right amount of selfishness.
Probably this is the fight for independence that our generation has to prove their worth in. You have to believe wholeheartedly in your vision so that you will persist in your pursuit of making it into a silver screen reality and to be able to convince others to join in the project. Make it original rather than perfect, make it bold rather than fully accomplished, make it groundbreaking and visionary before aiming for commercial success. And now try and tell this to your producer and explain to your investors: if you believe in creating value in the arts, it comes down to the old story of planting many seeds in order to find out which one will grow strong and budding again. It’s verily worth it (and also a way of keeping the environment green, isn’t it?)!
* KOFIC = Korean Film Council (Seoul) is a government-supported body of the Ministry of Culture & Tourism, Korea