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CAROUSEL FOOISM

FOOISM 2020: BULLISH ABOUT THE BARE

11 February 2021

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FOOISM 2020: BULLISH ABOUT THE BARE

To say the least, 2020 hit the media entertainment industry hard. Projects halted and deferred, regular gigs thinned out, funds re-allocated to emergency measures. Clients who promised better budgets for gigs ‘next-time-around’ cower in embarrassment, requesting even tighter possibilities. Event spaces shut. More importantly, cinemas, shut. The entire independent film business prospect (however slim in the Singapore independent filmmaking context) of making some revenue from a captive viewing audience grounds to a halt.

The passionate voices are muted to the reality that film and cinema as commerce is now threatened. They speak of the new ‘normal’ and the labelling of arts and entertainment being non-essential left many bitter. These times laid bare, being the passionate visual storyteller has no more gravitas than being a video hobbyist who is unable eke out a living.

Perhaps these brakes on the wheel will let us think about our future. When aspirations are curtailed, the wake-up call seeks wider truths in what we proclaim as our industry and community. Are we really that united? Are we really non-essential? Is there even a demand for our local works of media art? What could be thought through to change our own mindsets?


(1) WHY WE NEED STRUCTURE

There’s much talk of associations and union forming. Resistance against this is equally strong by those who would have the industry continue to be a cowboy country and a laissez-faire market. Then there are doubts of quality skills and crafts practised in this laissez-faire market.

The year saw some consolidation and camaraderie nevertheless. The new normal came with a slew of new production practices put together by the authorities working with industry associations like the Singapore Association of Motion Picture Professionals (SAMPP). SAMPP is a filmmaking-driven group who also introduced a fund-raiser for members affected by lay-offs during the pandemic. 

In a similar vein, Labour movement NTUC also introduced VICPA, the Visual Audio Creative Content Professionals Association, to represent professionals focusing on trade practices and work prospects. The purposes and cause seem the same, yet their starting points could be different. 

Image credit: SAMPP Facebook page

SAMPP champion causes and is led by prominent and respectable filmmakers; VICPA is new and has roots in fundamental work and trade-related causes. In the end, so long as the people benefit from a sense of structural reliability, it bodes well for professionalism and sustainability. 

When you have an industry that keeps riding on the words like ‘potential’ and ‘passion’, it is easy to be light-headed and dreamy. An easy assumption is autonomy and self-regulation. But at the teething stage, self-regulating may not mean structure. Another perspective is that early autonomy promotes favouritism and insular priority preferences. Much needs to be consolidated, and more sustained. There isn’t just one way to fish, but a way has to be taught so that it can be improved and relied upon.

How do you validate your craft and work, while avoiding being labelled as non-essential? In the ever-changing landscape, how can we ensure continuity of businesses, especially in creative, media and the arts? How do we educate long-term, our clients and stakeholders well enough so that they can truly appreciate the value-add? 

Image credit: ufse.org.sg

We ponder on all these and now should be a good pragmatic time to seriously look at them candidly. Previously, I believe IMDA put forth a skills framework scoping out these issues. A worthy start but it needs to be sustained, owned and followed through by the community beyond the global consultants who could be too MNC to understand the SME or the freelancer. Think. Act. Change.

Manpower needs are also changing. The labour mix is now digital natives like millennials, digital convertors of Gen X and post-war baby boomers. Having structural references in skills and training provide the foundation for them to fall back on. There is stress on ‘hybrid’ training of the media professional these days, where a media talent has to be adept at the creative, business and technical aspects of the work. Without setting the compass on the ground, how are we to chart the direction and the routes of advancement?

Do we pander to the apparent rigidity of academia or should we implement a mixture of apprenticeship, mentorship and internship? Let’s think.


(2) WHY WE NEED TO KNOW IP RIGHTS

In the business of content creation, the crux of all forms of commerce is intellectual property (IP) and copyright. Understanding how rights work is very key to the long term sustenance of creators, producers and producing organisations. Established media ecosystems in more sophisticated regions thrive on this, and couple this with a certain ‘colonial’ instinct of distribution, they have ruled the screens and imaginations of our minds.

With OTT (Over-the-top) online channels taking over the new norm, commercially branded, commissioned and curated programmes will be the staple for work. But this also means much scrutiny in writing, developing and pitching creative projects to their whim. Onerous deals can be obscure to the hungry producer/writer over-excited by a studio offer, and woe betide when rights and payments get chaotic when ownership becomes complicated.

Film still of ‘Number 1’ / Image credit: MM2 Entertainment

The traditional mindset of making money through operational necessities must be weaned off too. Creative producers make money from their content, not necessarily how ‘cheaply’ it can be done but how it is valued. This proliferation of ‘cheap and good’ festers further into how clients, studios and stakeholders look at Singapore content and hold us hostage to working at a much lower allowance in return for a ‘big profit’.

If we continue the ‘cheap and good’ bargain, Singapore could stand to lose to our neighbours because Singapore is not necessarily the most cost-effective place to produce, comparatively, to our neighbours. What can we compete on? Ideally? The strength of development and our stories perhaps? But in doing so, the knowledge of rights management is essential. A heightened sense of knowledge of IP must be inculcated and hopefully practised across producer, commissioner and rights-holders.

In a new norm perspective, perhaps we should think of IP rights as soft powers back to the creative story and process. When this is valued, it can be monetised and internationalised. As heavily demonstrated by established studios, who churn and reboot their content with us fervently lapping them up.


(3) WHY WE NEED TO SUPPORT AND WATCH OUR OWN

On a down day (which happens often these days), I can’t help feeling that we get the industry/community/support we deserve because we are just not watching enough of our own, to generate enough curiosity, interest, and sale potential. But this could just be me ranting.

We put down our very own content and adore Hollywood, K-dramas, etc. Yet we forget that the less we demand of our own stories, the less stakeholders will recognise the necessity, and the less the Great Algorithm (demand and supply) will recognise what we locally produce as the priority choice. This then buries interest and demand in totality and, for generations to come, no one will miss local stories. Couple this with low cinema attendance for local films/content, a sensible pragmatism will frown on the viability of the industry, and therein promotes loss of talent and stories wholesale.

Film still of ‘Repossession’ / Image credit: Monkey & Boar

We should consume our own products. Granted they may not be ideal, but therein lies the opportunity: where a feedback channel is available now, not before on social media. With social media being linked to data analytics, could this lead a way to better our content so long as the feedback is contributive? A way to improve and give a signal to all stakeholders?

Creative, media and arts industries are veils to the bigger ‘C’ word: Culture. Culture, or the ownership of the perspective of it, is the toughest battle of wits and ideologies every artist, government, activist, audience, and practitioner is concerned with now. How best, then to nurture our own? Taste-making is actually more pressing than filmmaking, for behind the practice, is the know-how and that exact wisdom to know the difference.

With co-productions being the buzz word, the challenge for any local producer is balancing perspectives and building trust. With Singapore being such a small market with lesser demands for indigenous content, it makes us tough coproduction partners, except for our government funding support. Once again, the question here is who is our hinterland? What taste of stories do we share?


(4) WHY IT IS WORTH IT (Still)

To every independent producer/filmmaker, being able to present your film in a cinematic space is a milestone of achievement; if that opportunity presents itself to additionally provide you with a commercial source of revenue, the sense of success is even sweeter.

Being honest, all is not necessarily doom and gloom as there are a number of Singapore feature films out that have actually enjoyed cinema patronage. When some doors close, other opportunities will open for films to be shared. If you count and consider, this COVID period interestingly sees more local independent films being screened in the cinemas than they would be, given the competitive onslaught of Hollywood blockbusters:

Spotlighting inter-racial relationships and prejudice, Not My Mother’s Baking made its debut at the Singapore International Film Festival 2020 (SGIFF), followed soon with an exclusive cinema deal with Filmgarde Cinemplexes. They just finished a nine-week run with a number of sold-out screenings. Going by this, the revenue should be encouraging.

Film still of ‘Not My Mother’s Baking’ / Image credit: Studio59 Concepts

Quirky sci-fi social commentary Tiong Bahru Social Club also featured similar tactical patterns of premiering at the SGIFF first before going for a sustained theatrical run.

Gastronomic documentary André and his Olive Tree powered through decisively to release in Taipei first, becoming Taiwan’s highest box-office for a documentary in 2020, before returning to Singapore for a four-week theatrical run, and OTT homes in Netflix and Discovery.

Psychological horror feature Repossession released in the cinemas after two years travelling the festival circuit garnering exposure.

Singapore’s first nod to the Eastern Bloc-Cold-War espionage genre, The Man on the Other Side, playing to social media demand-led four-walling strategy by the filmmaker.

Number 1, Singapore’s cross-dressing twist of our own The Full Monty, awarded at the prominent Golden Horse Awards with Best Make-up and Costume Design.

It’s a rarity of sorts to see many independent films given a chance at the cinemas when, in some irony, these would not have happened if Hollywood studio films pounded the cinemas as they always have done. Many of these decisions are weighed in seriously between the producers and distributors so each has their own calculated risks.


(6) WHY LIFE GOES ON

Film still of ‘André & His Olive Tree’ / Image credit: Tribal Worldwide Singapore

What remains for lessons learnt is that passion may be loosely attributed when the going is great, but there has to be dogged perseverance to push filmmaking to continue when situations take a nosedive. Resources may thin, alliances may shift, scarcity of opportunity will linger, but in the end, attitudes should be hopeful and positive to what we can do with what we have, working towards more resources together.

Gong Xi Fa Cai and don’t stop making films.

BE BULLISH ABOUT THE BARE


Banner image credit: Golden Village Pictures

Juan Foo is candidly regarded by many as the filmmaker who is ‘still’ around doing independent work. He is a producer, educator and activist, and was involved in Singapore’s pioneering independent features like The Road Less Travelled, Return to Pontianak, Dirty Laundry and Perth. Juan teaches at media institutions on subjects ranging from animation, filmmaking and producing. He also looks forward to penning more thoughts on Singapore filmmaking in his book Film is a Four-Letter Word but procrastination gets to him on better days.