May 19, 2024

One of the most popular events at the 34th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) was a panorama event where six of the country’s leading indie film lights shared a panel to discuss opportunities and challenges.

Opportunities are plentiful, with the festival world embracing Singaporean films and filmmakers warmly. Hong Kong-based Anthony Chen has had a stellar year with his directorial efforts “Drift” and “The Breaking Ice” which premiered at Sundance and Cannes, respectively. The latter was selected as Singapore’s entry to the 2024 Oscars.

Among Chen’s fellow panelists, Jow Zhi Wei’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” premiered at the Berlinale this year; Nicole Midori Woodford’s “Last Shadow at First Light” at San Sebastian; and Nelson Yeo’s “Dreaming & Dying” won two major awards at Locarno.

Also on the panel were Kelvin Tong and Chai Yee Wei whose “A Year of No Significance” and “Wonderland,” respectively, premiered at this year’s SGIFF.

One of the concerns of the panelists was the dwindling post-pandemic box office. Chen said that the total box office in Singapore has halved, even for Hollywood films. “What I’m quite shocked at, is everyone seems to be very happy to fork out like S$200 ($149) a head at a nice restaurant, or spend S$400 ($298) going to a live concert, but they wouldn’t spend S$12 ($9) to watch a film. And that’s the thing that baffles me, we used to have some of the highest box office per capita in the world and we used to have one of the most screen counts per capita in the world,” Chen said. “Maybe we’re too posh now, maybe cinema isn’t spectacular enough. And it does worry me.”

Chen noted that his debut feature, the Camera d’Or-winning “Ilo Ilo” (2013), performed far above expectations, collecting some S$1.3 million ($970,000) in Singapore. In contrast, He Shuming’s “Ajoomma,” Singapore’s entry to the 2023 Oscars, produced by Chen, earned just S$700,000 ($520,000) despite expectations of S$1.5-S$1.7 million because it is a drama-comedy, the filmmaker said.

“When it didn’t cross a million [dollars] I knew there’s a real problem,” Chen said, adding that even the king of Singapore’s local box office, Jack Neo, isn’t commanding the numbers he used to.

Chai said that he is a keen analyzer of box office numbers and, while the percentage of local content watched by audiences in other east and southeast Asian territories bear comparison with other countries, those in Singapore remain low. “Singapore for the past 15 years, the best we’ve done is almost 5%,” Chai said. “Let’s not talk about whether we have a small market or not. Just purely looking at percentages, come on, we can do better.”

“We’ve reached the stage where if you look around, not just our region, but around the world, we are probably the only country where our arthouse films outnumber our commercial firms. And we really need the commercial business to go up, because that is usually what sustains the industry, for a lot of markets,” Chai added, saying that he is striking a note of cautious optimism for local market box office growth.

The audience at Singapore’s Lasalle College of the Arts had a high percentage of aspiring filmmakers.

“The onus is on us, but at the same time, I do hope that maybe more young filmmakers will find creative ways to sustain,” Woodford said.

“One of you could very well rescue us and the entire industry,” Tong said. “Filmmaking is still worth it, because there’s nothing like film and cinema that give a lot of meaning to a lot of things.”

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