by Sean Wang & Sorfina Bumidin
The days of traditional cinema seem to have long passed. The entry of streaming services like Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max has made waves in Singapore, enticed by the relatively affordable subscription fees and the ability to watch movies from the comfort of one’s home. Bolstered by the previous shutdown of most entertainment facilities globally due to the pandemic, these streaming services grew in appeal as the number of subscribers reached an all-time high. Movie theatres, on the other hand, faced a staggering drop (though this is recuperating quickly in recent months).
As our cinematic experiences change, so does the field of filmmaking. Even before the pandemic, streaming services were starting to gain popularity. This drastically increased the variety of movies and shows available for viewing via these services and exposed viewers globally to non-Hollywood, independent movies. An example would be Roma, an independent foreign film that was released on Netflix and would later go on to be nominated for an Oscar award in 2019.
This is where the power of streaming services shines. Independent filmmakers no longer only dream of being at the Sundance Film Festival but rather in the Netflix Headquarters. Streaming services essentially took away the volatility of a theatrical release and replaced it with access to billions of viewers with the promise of substantial revenue.
You’d think that filmmakers wouldn’t be able to say no to that.
But surprisingly, many filmmakers are rejecting the offers of streaming services.
In Singapore, the censorship of films in traditional media such as Mediacorp has pushed filmmakers to explore streaming services as a more viable path for film releases.
However, speaking to Ming Siu Goh and Scott C. Hillyard, first-time independent Singaporean directors, it is clear that things are not so simple. While the independent film scene in Singapore has grown recently, independent films are not seeing the same viewership growth on our streaming platforms like Netflix, which typically features commercial Singaporean movies or foreign-produced series.
Directors Ming Siu Goh (right) and Scott C. Hillyard (left) on set of Reposession (2019)
Alas, most of the time, filmmakers require connections to even step foot into the negotiation room. Furthermore, Ming Siu believes the trade-offs may not necessarily be worth it, unless one receives a commission directly from Netflix; new filmmakers might not be paid enough to recoup their production costs. Netflix also adheres to censorship regulations by Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). As seen in the recent removals of drug-themed series on Netflix due to IMDA’s requests, filmmakers like Ming Siu would still be limited by censorship laws.
Personally, Ming Siu and Scott have adopted the Video-on-Demand (VOD) model for their film, Repossession (2019). This is an internal debate many filmmakers have between the constraints of traditional media or the complex layers of streaming services. The VOD model gives Ming Siu and Scott the opportunity to earn while still having control over their film. As our conversation shifts to focus on their film, it is clear that their grit is driven by an immense passion for filmmaking.
Making an independent film is not an easy task. Without the wide network of contacts that usually facilitates distribution and production, Ming Siu and Scott were pushed to adopt VOD as it was the only option available to them aside from a limited theatrical release at The Projector. Despite so, VOD enabled the film to gain significant attention with international audiences, evidenced by its inclusion in several prestigious film festivals.
Directors and lead actors at The Projector’s screening of Repossession
Directors Ming Siu Goh (left) and Scott C. Hillyard (right) at the Five Flavours Asian Film Festival in Warsaw
However, VOD isn’t always the best platform. Some complaints include the stigma surrounding VOD and the loss of surround sound when uploaded to VOD, something which can cost up to $30,000 to create in the first place. But Repossession was not just another movie, it was Ming Siu and Scott’s first foray into independent filmmaking – an intensely personal project.
Rejected by local production grants, the bulk of the budget for the script and story development came from the filmmakers’ pockets. Despite the hardships, they smiled as they talked about other local filmmakers they met along the way, who advised and supported them, as well as the support they have received abroad. While Ming Siu and Scott did not set out to make a polarising film, it became one anyway. “Love it or hate it”, Ming Siu calls it. Instead, what matters to them is that they’ve made something intensely Singaporean that still manages to resonate with people halfway across the world.
Ming Siu’s co-director and veteran actor Scott provides another perspective on the film industry. As an actor in the web series, Adulting, which streams on Viddsee, he notes that it is now more accessible for creatives to “make something” which can be anything from personal stories to experimental shorts. As he mentioned, the creators of Adulting (at the time of the interview) were in their early 20s, something unheard of in traditional media outlets. Streaming services may at times pay less, but they make way for young local creatives to pitch their ideas and get the budget to bring their projects to fruition.
Discussing the differences between Viddsee and Netflix during the interview with the two directors, a new view of Viddsee emerges. More than just a streaming service, Scott refers to it as an “incubator”. With forums for crowdfunding and calls for entries, awards, and opportunities for new filmmakers to share their work, it is easy to see how Viddsee plays an active role in developing a burgeoning filmmaking landscape. One thing that stands out about Viddsee is its diverse content, with a wide selection of genres and topics. Scott attributes their wide span of genres to their willingness to take a chance on projects that they feel there is a market for. As the pandemic changes the film industry, there is hope that more opportunities will open up for novice and experienced filmmakers to carve their own paths.
However, it is still a business. When asked if Viddsee would spend the same budget as Netflix for a film if they are unsure if it would be profitable, Scott notes wryly that Viddsee would not take bigger risks than Netflix. It comes down to economies of scale. A risk for Netflix could be 2% of their yearly budget but that amount to Viddsee could be almost their entire year’s budget. “So this risk is not something that Viddsee can take. Just by the numbers”, he quips.
Comparing risks between an international media company and a local streaming service is difficult, maybe even slightly pointless. As Scott puts it, “the comparison of risk here, or at least what I’m remembering the risk is, is not on an even playing field”. Even if Viddsee would like to take creative risks, Singapore’s censorship presents yet another roadblock in their path.
At the end of the day, whether it is traditional cinema or streaming services, the media landscape is one that still requires its many dewy-eyed creatives to navigate artistic authenticity and profitability.
Watch or find out more about the film Repossession here.