Made-by-Singapore: Producing content for a global audience

The word has gone out- Singapore wants to be the media hub for the region. It's not hard to see why. Global spending on media entertainment amounted to US$1 trillion in 2001, and it's expected to hit US$1.7 trillion by 2008. The Asia-Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing market for media entertainment over the next five years, where media spending amounted to US$215 million in 2000 alone. It's certainly a lucrative market that's hard to ignore.

By John Yip

Given its close cultural and linguistic ties to the region, along with its economic track record in dealing with international markets, Singapore does seem to be a natural base for creative talents to produce Asian content for the rest of the world. To this end, the relevant authorities have been spearheading various funding and co-production initiatives over the last few years to foster the development of made-by-Singapore content.

Such initiatives include the Media Development Authority’s (MDA) Scheme for Co-investment in Exportable Content (SCREEN). Under this scheme, the MDA, together with other industry partners and investors, will help fund part of a project’s production costs if it shows potential for having global reach. The level of participation will depend on the scale, scope and merits of the project, and in return, there will be a co-sharing of rights and revenues between the producers and the various investors.

And then, there are the more exciting arrangements with global brand names, such as the National Geographic Channels International (NGCI) and Discovery Networks Asia (DNA). The Economic Development Board (EDB) and NGCI set up the NGCI-EDB documentary production fund in 2001, which provides US$8-10 million in production funding for Singapore-based and other Asian production companies. The long-term objective is to offer these companies an opportunity to develop crucial skills and experience in creating world-class television programmes – 37 award-winning Asian documentaries have already been produced under this initiative since its inception in 2001. Meanwhile, plans for the fourth season are already well underway. At the time of writing, production companies have already submitted their proposals to NGCI, and are awaiting NGCI’s final list of grantees, to be announced in late September 2005.

Discovery Networks Asia also has a similar initiative called ‘Discovery Pitch’. It was started in 2002, where the production community in Singapore was invited to pitch ideas for a given brief. To date, three local production companies have been selected to co-produce documentaries with DNA – Oak3 Film, Yellowstone Productions and Moving Visuals. The initiative is also in its fourth year, and this time round, DNA is inviting proposals that focus on mystic elements, folklore, beliefs and rituals that are practised throughout Asia.

Finding a niche
The grand scheme for the media industry in Singapore is detailed under MDA’s Media 21 plan. There are broad plans for improving Singapore’s media production and financing infrastructure, so as to enhance the country’s economic attractiveness as a media hub. The need to develop made-by-Singapore content for export has also been identified as a strategic thrust. Given that Singapore is a relative late-comer to media content production, it is the belief of most people in the industry that it’s best for Singapore-based companies to focus on specific niches at this time. Documentary production has been identified as one of those niches.

The focus on a non-fiction genre, rather than on the more glamorous entertainment genre, is perhaps a reflection on the current state of Singapore’s media industry. To put it bluntly, the local entertainment industry still lacks the star power needed to create compelling content that can be exported overseas. The country’s technocrats may dream of turning Singapore into the Cannes of the East, but the reality is that the city-state is still very far away from the likes of India’s Bollywood, let alone the global giant in Hollywood.

Singapore has a highly literate population that is intrinsically aware of the cultural nuances of various Asian societies, due to its multi-racial, multi-cultural heritage. More importantly, Singaporeans have a high degree of fluency in English, the lingua franca of the global community. It is hoped therefore, that Singapore-based companies are more in-tune with the interests of the international market, which would give them an edge in creating documentaries that are distinctively Asian, while remaining accessible to global audiences.

It is absolutely crucial to export to a global audience. “It [is] difficult for Singapore to be another Hollywod or, for that matter, another Bollywood, as the Singapore market of less than 4 million people makes it rather difficult for documentaries and films to be absorbed locally,” remarked an industry professional, during an interview for Asia Times Online (24 Sept, 2003). This is the underlying reason behind MDA’s and EDB’s efforts to facilitate interaction between Singapore-based companies and huge multi-national companies like the National Geographic and Discovery – such co-operation provides opportunities for made-by-Singapore content to be shown abroad on international channels that reach out to millions of people.

Singapore, creatively barren?
Nevertheless, cynical people are quick to point out that Singapore’s omnipresent authorities still ‘don’t get it’. The government’s harsh attitude towards foreign media has not been particularly helpful towards Singapore’s image as a media hub. Singapore’s censors banned three foreign documentaries from the Singapore International Film Festival in 2004, the highest number of films banned at the festival since 2001, apparently because the documentaries portrayed explicit sex, and advocated violence.

Having money and infrastructure alone is not good enough for boosting creativity in the media industry. “The talent industry needs to be nurtured, and Singapore’s vision is parochial in nature. It needs to change the way it uses creative talents from overseas while nurturing its own talent base.” (‘Singapore as Sollywood?’, Asia Times Online, 24 Sept, 2003). In other words, many in the media industry privately wonder about the extent to which the Singapore Government is serious about transforming Singapore into a ‘global media city’. It’s hard to foster a truly creative media environment when creators have to constantly worry about being hit on the head by the government’s big stick. Meanwhile the global audience, weaned as they are on international media that routinely challenge the limits on all kinds of issues, will have very little interest in content that dares only to toe the official line, instead of digging deeper into potentially controversial problems.

Where do stories come from?
Does this mean that made-by-Singapore content is sunk before it has even set sail?

Truth be told, the criticism on censorship rules in Singapore is a dead horse that has been flogged too often, and is also often quite one-sided as well. There is no doubt that censorship rules in Singapore are tough, but it’s important to understand why they are so – the possibility for causing mischief by exploiting fault-lines in Singaporean society through the media is real. The intent, however, is to block off media content that actively seeks to undermine Singapore’s social fabric. If the intentions of content creators are pure, then by-and-large, they do get by.

More importantly, media content doesn’t have to be controversial in order to be successful. Take for example, ThreeSixZero Productions’ A Chinese Feast, an entertaining documentary that takes the viewer on a gastronomic journey through China, while exploring the Chinese fascination for food at the same time. The documentary has since been acquired by the Discovery Channel, and subsequently distributed by TVF International, the UK’s leading distributor of factual programming. This is a good example of made-by-Singapore content that is popular and well-researched. It serves an educational purpose, and contains nary a whiff of controversial content.

The simple point is that Singapore is not necessarily barren of creative media ideas because of overly harsh censorship. The material for a kaleidoscope of stories does exist – creators just have to be perceptive enough to see it. Particularly in the genre of documentaries, a lot lies behind the ability of the production team to use a ‘process of inquiry’, in order to find ways of exploring topics that have not been discussed before.

In other words, what Singapore talent still lacks perhaps is the ability to think out-of-the-box. Blaming the censors is in many cases, therefore, a mere excuse. Made-by-Singapore documentaries are already beginning to make their mark in far-flung markets. That is a hopeful sign of things to come, as long as local creators continue trying to see paths around obstacles, instead of simply railing at their existence.

Click here for jobs in Editorial/Journalism!

Click here for jobs in Music, Theatre & The Arts!