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Local B.O. boom sets high standards.

SINGAPORE Two local films were B.O. hits last year, helping to spark a boom in filmmaking here, with 12 features slated for release this year.

Now the nascent film industry is wondering: Can this high output be sustained in a small country where no films were made from 1974-1991, and three features at most per year after that? And should it?

Expectations were high after Glenn Goei's English-language feature "Forever Fever" was picked up by Miramax for distribution in the U.S. and the U.K., and sold to 20 other territories by Beyond Films, and "Money No Enough," a Chinese comedy starring local comic Jack Neo, became the third-highest local grosser, behind "Titanic" and "Jurassic Park: The Lost World," notching $3.4 million in 18 weeks.

Now, realism is setting in. "In the span of 12 months, we've seen the industry going from euphoria back to Earth," says Jeffrey Chiang, a producer of "Forever Fever."

"I feel apprehensive," admits Dr. Ismail Sudderuddin, director of the Singapore Film Commission, referring to the production surge. Launched in April 1998 and funded by the Economic Development Board, the Tourist Promotion Board, the Ministry of the Arts plus grants from the Shaw Organization, the commission's mantra is to funnel coin into four features and 40 short films annually.

"I would be happy to see (a total of) six to eight movies produced per year," says Sudderuddin.

"This will be a telling year," adds SFC deputy director Christine Lim.

The latest two projects offered SFC investment are "30," writer-director Cheah Chee Kong's comedy about four 30-year-old yuppie friends all searching for something, and "Eating Air," a teenage love story set during Singapore's hottest-ever month, from writer-helmers Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng.

Choo Meileen, chair of the Cathay Organization, looks at the country's filmmaking standards and concludes, "We have a long way to go."

The journey promises to be a hard one. Choo points to a range of factors militating against the film industry, including the small local market, rampant piracy of films on video compact disc, 25% B.O. decline this year, paucity of scripts with distinctive, original ideas and lack of technical know-how.

"That One No Enough," starring Neo and produced by Choo's Cathay Asia Films, opened simultaneously in Singapore and Malaysia on May 13 without previews, to try to beat the pirates.

"Where Got Problem" by J.P. Tan, who produced "Money No Enough," started badly on 30 screens, earning just $36,000 in its first weekend and did not get a chance to build on word of mouth.

Neo's second film, "Liang Po Po," released in February, chalked up less than 60% of the business of "Money No Enough," due partly to piracy that saw video compact disc copies in the market by the second week of release.

"Making a film in Singapore is very expensive because of labor costs and the scarcity of post-production facilities, which means they don't give you competitive rates," notes Chiang, who wrote and directed "Ghost Stories," which will be released later this year. "It's the same with local crews, because there's such a tiny pool of below-the-line talents."

If costs are a problem, raising investment is not--at least for some.

Cathay's deputy president, Wong Heang Fine, avers the island remains flush with funds. "So if you are able to package your ideas properly, you can find someone with venture capital," Wong says.

Indeed, Choo believes that Singapore's standing as a financial center means it could become a hub for funding films. But she concedes that there's a need for a dedicated film school, which could cater to neighboring countries as well as its own talent.

A subsid of the Television Corp. of Singapore, Raintree Pictures launched last Augustinitially to make Mandarin pictures as a steppingstone to English-lingo films that can travel. CEO Daniel Yun says he's keen to do co-prods with U.S. or U.K. companies that will "give us expertise in script development, production and marketing."

But that's in the future. For now, Chiang feels the challenges facing filmmakers will result in "a major filtering process that will sort the real filmmakers from those who thought they could make a fast buck."


Population: 3.1 million

TV licenses: 709,500     VCR penetration: 75%
  (as of February)
Homes cabled: 95%        Cable subscribers: 166,000 (20%)
Cinema screens: 184      Attendance: 16.4 million

Country of origin of tourists visiting Singapore:

REGION/COUNTRY            1997          1998       % CHANGE

ASEAN(1)             2,327,044       878,628         62.2%
Japan                1,094,050       843,683        -22.9%
South Korea            298,436        99,261        -66.7%
Taiwan                 499,782       362,360        -27.5%
United States          376,376       342,586        -90.0%
TOTAL                7,197,963     6,240,984        -13.3%

Note: Total includes countries not listed. All figures are for 1998 unless otherwise noted.

(1) Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations

Sources: Variety research; U.S. Department of Statistics

Don Groves in Singapore contributed to this report.3
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Date:Jun 21, 1999
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