Singapore, despite a modest population of 4 million, has long attracted international businesses. In an area of the world that’s often volatile, Singapore offers stability, a free-market, and a large English-speaking community. Media is among the industries that have set up shop – Discovery Networks Asia (DNA), launched in 1994, is headquartered in Singapore as is MTV Asia, which opened its office in 1995. A government-led initiative to shape Singapore into a global media city is now enticing a new batch of TV people to arrive at Asia’s gateway. The latest to expand their presence there is National Geographic Channels International (NGCI), which establishes a global production office in Singapore this month.
The pilgrimage began in January 2003, when the government of Singapore looked at its position in Asia, looked at the media biz and the role of communication in today’s global economy, and decided it was sitting on a gold mine. In response, it launched the Media Development Authority (MDA) by merging the Singapore Broadcasting Authority, the Films and Publications Department, and the Singapore Film Commission. Flush with at least SGD$100 million (US$59 million) for five years, the MDA is mandated with growing the media industry in Singapore.
Says Seto Lok Yin, MDA’s director of industry development, ‘The global media industry is a US$1 trillion industry with a five percent annual compound rate of growth. We can benefit significantly if we can tap into the potential growth and opportunities at the global level.’ Specifically, MDA aims to up media’s contribution to Singapore’s GDP from one and a half percent to three percent over the next 10 years, creating more than 10,000 jobs along the way.
The documentary sector is important to MDA’s mission. Seto admits Singapore’s talent pool and output is small, but he sees potential. ‘Documentaries are an area we can exploit,’ he explains. ‘Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, they all produce lots of drama – English dramas that compete with Hollywood. Relative to other regions, documentaries are our strength.’ He adds, ‘We are definitely making headway in establishing our mark in documentary production.’
MDA’s strategy involves reaching out to the international community to build coproduction partnerships. A treaty has already been inked with Canada, and New Zealand is about to sign on the dotted line. Other countries being targeted include Australia, Korea and France. ‘Our philosophy is not to subsidize, but to encourage private risk-sharing and entrepreneurship through co-investment arrangements,’ says Seto.
To this end, MDA and DNA announced in August a joint annual initiative called Documentary Director’s Chair. Designed to nurture local talent, the venture sought an experienced filmmaker to produce three hours of original factual content and play mentor to other producers in the region. The director chosen, however – Singaporean Lee Thean-Jeen – is better known in drama circles. Explains James Gibbons, VP of programming for DNA, ‘The doc industry here is quite small. If we can cross-pollinate genres, it should accelerate its development.’
Thean-Jeen’s winning proposal outlines a 3 x 1-hour series called Triads, the Secret History, which weaves a tale from a chest filled with paraphernalia used by Chinese triads that was found in Amsterdam and acquired by the Singapore History Museum. Although the budget is as yet undetermined, a typical DNA production falls between $100,000 and $200,000. ‘We’ll be the majority contributor,’ notes Gibbons, ‘but Thean-Jeen’s company will own a minority share in the show.’
Gibbons has been based in Singapore for five years and says MDA’s activities are already having an effect on the doc sector.
‘Lots of projects struggle to get made because of a modest shortfall,’ he explains. ‘MDA can come in [with top-up funds] and benefit from ideas
that have been developed for the international marketplace and already have the confidence of other investors.’ He adds, ‘I’ve never worked in a country where the government has focused its efforts on the media industry in such a dedicated way, with such a range of comprehensive resources behind it. You don’t see that in the rest of Asia.’
MDA isn’t the only government agency in Singapore working to grow media. The Infocomm Development Authority joined forces with MDA in November to develop the country’s digital cinema industry. It’s first goal is to turn 20 movie screens digital in the next three years. Another agency, the Economic Development Board (EDB), tries to complement MDA’s initiatives. Established in 1961 to help build Singapore into a global business hub, the EDB focuses on a variety of industries, not just media. It does, however, work with broadcasters to fund content. Generally, projects that receive EDB money don’t receive funds from MDA. ‘We keep each other informed of what we’re doing,’ says Seto.
Both DNA and NGCI are working with the EDB, the latter having recently extended a joint documentary production fund for another four years, a move that will see more than $10 million invested in production. Bryan Smith, NGCI’s executive VP of production, says this year the fund will finance about 12 one-hour docs (up from last year’s 10 hours). Smith, previously based in Washington, D.C., relocates to Singapore this month to head the new office.
‘The EDB is an investor,’ says Smith, noting that each film’s budget is split 50/50 between NGCI and the EDB (last year, budgets ranged between $115,000 and $250,000). ‘But, it’s also a skills transfer in that we are heavily involved with the production community.’
Whereas last year Nat Geo worked with novice filmmakers, this year Smith is targeting more experienced talent. ‘We have identified most of the players in Asia,’ he says. Nonetheless, over 300 proposals were received and at press time were still being vetted.
‘What I’m looking for is something only an Asian filmmaker can do,’ reveals Smith. ‘The idea is to have the filmmakers within their culture, who have the access and have an understanding and a way of telling a story that’s appropriate. But, we also have the skills of how you can structure that story so it will appeal to a global audience. There are very exciting stories and creative visions coming out of Asia and that’s why we’re there, to be able to tell these stories – not just to an Asian audience, but to audiences around the world.’
Smith admits finding stories that appeal to viewers in North America and Europe isn’t always easy. However, there have been a few successes. He names, as examples, Kung Fu Dragons of Wudang by Hong Kong-based prodco Join Legend International, and Hidden Genders by The Right Angle Media, of Singapore. The first visits Mount Wudang, a school in the mountains of China that teaches Taoist kung fu and inspired Ang Lee’s hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The second explores how different cultures respond to transgender people.
Money is not the only perk bestowed on Singapore’s doc community by the EDB and the MDA. Jack Ling, VP of production for Singapore’s Peach Blossom Media, says the government’s support lends credibility to local prodcos. ‘We’re a small company, so it’s difficult to approach the big boys in North America and Europe,’ he explains. ‘The government’s endorsement opens doors to big-time producers overseas.’
Peach Blossom coproduced the 6 x 30-minute series Quiet Mind with Vancouver, Canada’s Omni Film Productions beginning in 2002. But, Ling says few local prodcos have made those international connections – yet: ‘The big hurdle is to prove we have international capability. When a European production company looks at a Singapore company, their first worry is, can they deliver?’
Ling also notes that few companies can yet specialize in docs, as the local market can’t support them. ‘The biggest domestic buyer is TV12 and its license fee is peanuts, about us$1,000 to acquire a one-hour,’ he explains. Peach Blossom also produces animated programs, although it’s currently concentrating its efforts on four docs that are ‘in the advanced stages of discussions.’
In addition to a tiny local market, DNA’s Gibbons notes that Singapore lacks distributors. ‘That’s key to the health of any production community,’ he continues. ‘Yet, a distributor needs a certain production output and it’s not yet there.’
Indications are that it will be – and soon. After all, MDA just celebrated its first birthday. Think what it could do in five years. Says Seto: ‘We envision Singapore as [a place] where media services and content are created, developed, traded and distributed to the international market.’