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The Torch: Mainstreaming — On bringing your film in line with the system

10 June 2008

The Torch: Mainstreaming — On bringing your film in line with the system

Spend other people’s money and expect your fellow countrymen to pay for watching the result — that’s what a filmmaker is all about, isn’t it? At times I really wish for a good deal more humility on the part of some such high-flying creatives.

thetorch.jpgIf only they did the modest thing and observed the big picture, instead of just navel-gazing and complaining most of the time. This could be a healing lesson for some, to get a perspective on things, which is a little bit more in line with reality.

But I don’t want to get trapped just venting my anger, but am ready to attest to the fact that to make a movie is also serving somebody’s ego for sure; which doesn’t need to be an exercise in vanity, not as a rule. There are those amongst us whose fantasies and tribulations, whose stories and challenges are simply telling; telling of experiences and emotions close to all of us, or at least of great interest to a wider margin of the general public (we’re all human, remember?). So let them express themselves to affect and entertain us who are of less audacity, self-indulgence or acuity in life. There is a balance in nature that one should trust.

Every system is a regulatory body with the inbuilt capacity for failure, which allows it to adapt and rejuvenate itself. Equally though, it rewards those who stick by the rules, who do their thing without challenging the status quo. But nature in its course (and unrelenting will) is not necessarily humane; we know that — we’ve learnt it, have we not? The give and take — the inwardly working transformation — is not only unavoidable and including everybody (even him standing on the sidelines) but it is the system. Wellness is its product, and whose profit it may serve, each must figure that out for themselves; and will most likely arrive at different conclusions.

Practically speaking, there’s one simple question you have to ask yourself when making movies: “Who’s calling the shots?” The forever renewed producers’ headline call for “real stories” does both: honour the fact that no investment is self-serving, while at the same time appealing to the artist that expression and talent are obliged to communicate. It is in keeping with the constant ebb and flow, the unrelenting tide of money, and never against it that a film industry becomes self-sustaining and can continue to bear fruit (and many different kinds of fruit). By virtue of your intelligence and insight into the inevitable you will find that making films and money need not be mutually exclusive; by dint of being smart you can be all the more effective.

And what about political correctness? What about censorship and “clean” editing? How do you go about that: will you take those swear words out, or live with your rating instead (plus the additional cost and minus a certain portion of your projected revenue)? Do you oppose the whole idea and make it a straightforward case to be outspoken and eventually left with no screen to show your film to your home audience? There are choices, but neither seems very alluring. On the other hand, even an apparently successful production with quite a bit of funding to rely on, and to give it the looks needed to meet public demand, even such films may still have to travel and find their way into other markets beyond the Singapore perimeter in order to generate gains. And then, on foreign ground, there may very well be different standards to meet.

In Singapore today, some people don’t even seem to see the contradiction anymore between becoming a nation and finding your own voice. There is no united nations of film, but co-existence and participation in reality and ideals happen to involve us all: globally and without end. Therefore, when going public, everyone first has to identify which system exactly they are part of and in turn are determined to affect. The market that deals in numbers — is it your mentor or judge? What marks your personal truth (and are you willing to sell it)? If I know one thing to be true, it is that audiences the world over are very sensitive about authenticity and will go for honesty always.

To be honest about your ambitions and staying true to yourself are of course symptoms as much as they form the foundation of maturity in people and their enterprises; so if you set your heart on making audiences laugh and have a good time watching your film, do so without second thoughts. If you are politically driven and feel an urgent need to get a message across, then be outspoken and upright. If art-house will always be a niche, the inventor and producer will be irreconcilably at odds in their fight over purity versus corruption. To widen this margin and to be creative about raising the general quality level — that is what being innovative about mainstreaming really should mean. And in this, there is emancipation to be gained, because commissioned work is commerce’s favourite pet (even if a snake — biting its own tail). Do you see the opportunity?

There is a smart way to being profitable which shouldn’t surprise anyone (although I admit it isn’t overly sexy): you have to get your numbers right, that’s it. Sit down with a sheet of graph paper and a sharp pencil, then do your calculations scrupulously and don’t be easy on yourself. I’ve never heard of anyone being successful by working less or spending more; it is an investment of all your resources, time and energy not least among them, that you have to make work out for you — before the last cent is spent. If you are going art-house, your budget should be very tight and not looking for any monetary return; if you want to be commercial, your budget should be even tighter (and there is a difference to being restricted, take note!) and everyone on board that ship should be fiercely determined to achieve a surplus.

Let’s not forget that entertainment is a business, we can’t escape it. What we all need to keep in mind is that the market does not create; it demands and enables, but it doesn’t create. We do, and always will.

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