From Betamax to the big screen
When the screen adaptation of the bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians hit cinemas, it shattered box office records and introduced a broader group of international audiences to the iconic towers of Marina Bay Sands and local delights at Newton Food Centre. Behind the cameras at Crazy Rich Asians was a proud Singaporean firm Infinite Studios.
At the helm of the acclaimed production company are Mike Wiluan and Freddie Yeo – two men who share a searing passion for film cultivated since boyhood.
“When I was young, I probably watched The Godfather 50 times,” Yeo recalled. “I think that was really my baptism into filmmaking.”
Wiluan’s start was not too far off, having developed a keen interest in movies through his family’s film distribution business: “I would grow up with all these VHS and Betamax tapes, and I would just watch them every day. I really wanted to be involved in that ever since.”
Today, Infinite Studios has production facilities in Singapore and Indonesia, capable of cutting-edge post-production, visual effects and animation. With a growing reputation for technical and creative expertise, the studio has been attracting large-scale international partnerships. Apart from Crazy Rich Asians, Infinite Studios also played a key role in bringing production of the HBO hit Westworld to Singapore.
Despite the glitz and glamour, Yeo admits that the company started at a rocky time amidst the Asian Financial Crisis of the late ‘90s. It was a difficult period for business dealings, and production work was primarily focused on TV commercials. Still, Yeo held on to his conviction that there was an opportunity to start a company focused on high-tech production activities.
The Singaporean firm eventually found its footing and began to push the boundaries of filmmaking. A few years later, with a boost of funding and support from Wiluan, Infinite Studios really took off.
At the time, Wiluan was looking to invest in the filmmaking industry. He saw the potential in Infinite Studios and knew that he had to be a part of the journey.
“It had a great small team that was pushing the innovation. My investors and I were looking for a company that was really strategically placed and ready to move with the investment forward…a very Singaporean company in that sense.”
The business of film
To expand its international footprint, Infinite Studios capitalised on its strong Singapore identity. “There was a recognition that Singapore had a pedigree of certain standards, technologies and practices in place. And that was what really helped us establish ourselves,” Wiluan says.
He cites the country’s reputation for transparency and trust as significant levers for Infinite Studios to attract clients, especially those that have never done business in the region.
Also, given that creative ideas are the main currency in this industry, stringent intellectual property regimes are crucial. “The producers who were giving us the work needed to protect it at the same time. The laws over intellectual property in Singapore had helped us to ensure that there was no piracy and slippage in that area.”
Ultimately, Singapore’s reputation helped in clinching and retaining business relationships, with continued success “predominantly based on word of mouth and trust.”
“The bottom line is that the industry is small,” Yeo admits. “People who have come to Singapore would talk amongst each other and say what their experience was like. I think if their experience was bad, we wouldn’t have recurring work!”
Supporting industry development
Media is a burgeoning industry in Singapore, and the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and Singapore Film Commission (SFC) are hard at work growing the ecosystem.
To bolster the pipeline of local projects, these organisations provide Production Assistance grants and support efforts for projects to internationalise. For example, the Southeast Asia Co-Production Grant helps foster collaboration for regional storytelling with up to S$250,000 of potential funding.
Both Wiluan and Yeo actively contribute to these industry development efforts, lending their expertise in industry boards and committees. In particular, they underscore talent development as an area that Singapore excels in, with subsidies readily available to budding filmmakers.
The SFC has invested in scholarships for specialised fields in filmmaking, created platforms for networking and mentorship, and adapted the industry to modernise content and distribution.
Creative convergence at industry events
Singapore also enables the sharing of industry knowledge and experiences through events and festivals. Wiluan himself chaired the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) and led efforts to reimagine its future after 25 years.
“There are about two festivals happening every month in every part of the world, and for SGIFF to be noticed and be really critically acclaimed is something that is a journey.”
Despite the competition, he cannot understate the importance of the event for local and regional creatives. “This festival was giving birth to a lot of great filmmakers and it is also a platform for global and regional audiences to view what was on in Southeast Asia.”
SGIFF is part of the Singapore Media Festival, the milestone regional event bringing together media industry leaders to discover the latest trends in film, TV and digital media. The 2019 edition saw a record breaking attendance of more than 93,000 thought leaders, media and creative professionals, film and television enthusiasts, and pop culture lovers from all over the world.
Such events and festivals are critical to the expansion of the industry. “I think it is not easy to have an event where creative talents and businesspeople from all over the region sit in a single space, but it is something we look forward to every year,” Yeo says.
Conquering new frontiers
Looking to the future, Wiluan foresees more over-the-top (OTT) media and digital network providers from around the world setting their sights on Asia. In this evolution, Singapore will play a key facilitative role.
“There’s going to be a lot of interest to discover audiences in Asia through the launchpad of Singapore. That's how we’ve always maintained our business and I think that’s how things are going to be in the future.”
Case in point: in 2016, Singapore ranked 1st in the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index. The digital economy is also projected to contribute an additional US$10 billion to the Singapore economy by 2021.
In Singapore, mobile devices take up 56.8% of web traffic. Additionally, as of January 2020, there were 8.56 million mobile connections in Singapore – equivalent to 147% of the total population. These statistics suggest an evolution in the way users consume content, with mobile technology an increasingly important area for investment and innovation.
Still, while keeping up with consumer trends is important, Yeo asserts that the heart of the industry lies in captivating storytelling. “Being Singaporean and being able to showcase the kind of stories that we have, ones that are universal and that can travel globally, is a real buzz for us,” he says.
To keep telling these stories in fresh ways, both agree that passion is critical. “Passion is the soul to drive forward and make things possible. What we have done here in Singapore is to make things possible.”