Thursday 29 May 2014

Attracting major film projects to S'pore

By John Lui, The Straits Times, 28 May 2014

IT WAS an operation worthy of the undercover operative that gives the movie its name.

The crew for Agent 47, with its stars Zachary Quinto and Rupert Friend in tow, came into Singapore stealthily earlier this month to film a few scenes on its streets. Other filming took place in the new, massive sound stages run by Infinite Studios, off Portsdown Road.

But despite producer 20th Century Fox's attempts to keep things quiet, paparazzi buzzed the Robinson Road shooting site. All it took was a leak - perhaps from a reporter breaking a confidentiality agreement - and news of the photographic locations spread quickly.

Sources say the leak displeased the studio, which was trying to keep images related to the video game-inspired movie franchise a secret until the action movie's release next year.

As far as hiccups go, the leak was probably a minor one for a production with a budget in the tens of millions that will take several years from birth to release.

Mr Mike Wiluan, chief executive of Infinite Studios, says Agent 47 is only the start of what he hopes to be a string of major productions making the trip to Singapore.

This will be especially so after the film's views of Chinatown, Marina Bay and, yes, Robinson Road are seen by a worldwide audience. "This will turn heads. The benefit will be that it will have a lot more producers, more people in the business, interested in coming to shoot in Singapore."

Infinite Studios is a co-producer of the project.

Fox did not come here purely for the sake of scenic locations, a skilled workforce, national infrastructure, the use of English and the new sound stages - reasons often given by those promoting the nation as a film location.

The island competes with other countries in the game of snagging studio work. It is understood that an undisclosed financial incentive was offered by the Government. Tax breaks and other perks are standard in the industry.

New Zealand, for example, offered more than$100 million in grants and other breaks to Warner Bros to keep the production of The Hobbit films in the country. The movies, as well as the earlier Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-2003), bring in a stream of tourists eager to visit the locations where filming took place.

Ms Angeline Poh, assistant chief executive (industry) of the Media Development Authority (MDA), says Fox's decision to come here "is the result of a long- term effort to build up relationships with international companies and win their confidence in Singapore's capabilities to take on large-scale productions".

"MDA has been actively promoting and marketing our media industry's capabilities internationally," she says.

The payoffs of having a major Hollywood feature film shot here - the first in decades - are many, says the MDA.

"These productions provide the opportunity for our home- grown media companies to collaborate with world-class international partners..." says Ms Poh.

"It also creates demand for Singapore talent, creating the opportunity for them to work on large-scale productions and learn from the world's best."

More than 70 Singapore crew members are involved in the production, working alongside media professionals from the United States and Europe. Ten of them worked on the film in two locations, first in Germany, then in Singapore, Ms Poh says.

She listed other knock-on effects that should be familiar to those in the Mice (meetings, incentives, conventions, exhibitions) industry - the production used logistics, hotel and other services.

For example, during a press visit to the set in Infinite Studios this month, journalists shared the same lunch that the crew were offered. This was a catered buffet offering a wide variety of local dishes. It was a menu several notches up from food served to most local productions, where packed lunches from the nearest foodcourt are the norm - if any food is served at all. A joke frequently heard in the local film business is that the entire budget of a local film would cover just lunch at an average Hollywood shoot.

Singapore loves Hollywood products. Tinseltown's offerings top the nation's box office charts year after year.

That relationship, however, has had its ups and downs. In 1978, the producers of Saint Jack, a film based on the Paul Theroux novel, feared that they would be denied permits to film here if they submitted a truthful synopsis of the story, which centres on the life of an American pimp and shows the city's seamy side. So they sent in a fake synopsis. The resulting movie was not allowed here for decades for its nudity and coarse language. It has been screened here a few times with an M18 rating since 2006.

These days, there is no stipulation that film companies wishing to shoot here must submit scripts to the Government for checks on undesirable content. But the usual permissions have to be sought when filming might inconvenience the public.

Agent 47, and the financial incentives it took to get it to come here, shows that Singapore's major-feature industry is still in the pump-priming stage. On top of that, there are also roadblocks.

One obstacle that looks impossible to overcome is Singapore's higher cost structure, which drives even local crews northwards to Malaysia. But as Infinite Studio's Mr Wiluan says, the island can compete on other factors, such as skills, facilities and the famous skyline.

But it is a no go if that skyline is to be filmed from a helicopter. Sources say Fox's request to fly a copter over Marina Bay for aerial shots came to naught over security concerns, but not until after weeks of negotiations with various government agencies.

When asked about the roadblocks, MDA's Ms Poh noted that this was the first time Singapore played host to a production of this scale and that "MDA, along with the other agencies, did our utmost to help meet the requirements of the film and facilitate a smooth production process for Agent 47".

"The issues were resolved promptly without affecting the production schedule," she says.

Mr Wiluan says that to make film-making easier here, industry professionals are in talks with the Government about creating a one-stop liaison centre resembling the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting in New York, which helps film-makers gather permits and financial incentives. Similar bodies exist in other large cities to overcome the problem of civil service silos, he says.

Adaptation is important if film-makers are to come back, not just because they want Marina Bay or Gardens by the Bay as exotic backdrops, but also because Singapore has the right mix of expertise and cost structure for any kind of film genre, he thinks.

Another major obstacle to Singapore becoming a Hollywood in the Malacca Strait is the lack of specific skill sets. For example, large film productions require transport coordinators to work out how a convoy of trailers and lorries can get into and out of a location. People with that skill set are rare here, say experts.

And as one Agent 47 executive noted wryly, there is an absence in Singapore of the trailer, the well-appointed caravan commonly seen on American film sets, in which stars rest.

Fran Borgia is a Singapore-based artist and film-maker who was hired as a line producer on Agent 47, taking care of logistics and costs. He believes that the range of hardware and software needed to keep Hollywood coming back to Singapore will evolve over time. The law of supply and demand will take care of shortfalls in skill sets and equipment in the long run, he thinks.

And in a highly urbanised nation, trailers might not be the best solution. The stars of Agent 47 used air-conditioned tents and nearby hotel rooms, he says.

"This was the first major Hollywood production taking place in Singapore. In any production, there are always things that may not be readily available. But we are always there to make it happen. That is our job," he says.

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