Blink! The Future of Film Distribution

Photo credits: SINdie (by Mohan Deitrich)

Filmmaker Daniel Yam (pictured above) had been making corporate videos, advertisements and other forms of content for more than a decade. Then in 2013, he completed his first short film in a long time after years of producing commercial content, titled An Unconventional Love Story. Teeming with hope, he submitted the film to all the major festivals, anticipating a good response as he felt the film had the right formula to excite people and surely, years of directing experience would put him in a good stead. However, none of the festivals responded, putting a check on his film festival ambitions. 


Then in the same year, he met Community Chest (Singapore) and landed in a project to promote volunteerism. Inspired by Thai commercials, and feeling compelled to move away from the ‘Corporate talking heads cut to beneficiaries-on-wheelchair’ formula, he advises the organisation the idea of using storytelling to make a point. 

When the video was launched, it had 9,000 views, within the first few days. In a matter of months, the views hit the millions in views and the film spread like wildfire across the world, even drawing compliments from the Huffington Post, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, and eventually getting translated into 10 different languages around the world. That’s not all, Singapore film company mm2 Entertainment (mm2) called him up shortly and in no time, he signed a series of film projects with them. That short film was Gift.

When asked if he still wants to win a major film award, Daniel replied,”If you give me a Palm d’Or or a Golden Horse, of course I will be encouraged. But sometimes I admit when I watch an arthouse film and think that it was not a wonderful film, and then it goes on to sweep international awards, I get really baffled and also troubled that I cannot seem to appreciate this type of cinema. I still cannot resolve the feeling about wanting to win awards and knowing that it is not in me to make that sort of films.”

Artistic conundrums aside, Daniel’s success on the internet shines a light on the possibilities of finding a different audience or even fan catchment on the internet. Film festivals and cinemas are no longer the do-all-and-end-all for filmmakers. Derek Tan, co-founder of Viddsee (pictured below, picture courtesy of Viddsee), a Singapore-based online video platform that aims to promote and share Asian short films to a global audience, related to SINdie the experience of Basaan, A Filipino short film. Gino Jose and Luigi Gonzales found a new lease of life for their film Basaan after the film festival circuit turned a cold shoulder to it. Then upon a friend’s recommendation, they decided to give Viddsee a try, with a tinge of skepticism. In just 10 days, the film garnered 8300 likes on Viddsee and to-date has found the right audience pool they have always wanted for this film.
While film festivals have created a platform to celebrate the filmmaking craft, Derek feels they do not necessarily reach out to people who should be watching some of these films. On deeper thought, isn’t there something paradoxical about making a film on HDB life, tailored for the consumption of academics and figures of authority in film, and not eventually reaching the typical HDB heartlander?

“We started as filmmakers ourselves trying to share our stories to a local audience. While our films travelled across festivals, it wasn't reaching the local audience we wanted to…(Then) we thought, why not put it online, in our intentions to reach a wider audience for the films... Ultimately, the thought of sharing content forms the heart of why we built Viddsee first,” Derek said.

Viddsee has an extraordinary following, cultivated over the years. For a filmmaker who has completed his or her short film, getting it on Viddsee would be an option hard to ignore. At the same time, Viddsee also resides within a bigger universe of other online distribution platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, Catchplay and of course powerhouses like Netflix and iTunes. 

For the benefit of those who are confounded by the multitude of online platforms, here is what sets one apart from the other. YouTube needs no introduction. It is the most pedestrian in terms of content and functionality. Anything from an angry rant to an elaborate music video can be seen on it. Vimeo, while similar in functionality, is pitched at a higher level. If one word could sum Vimeo up, it’s ‘HD’. Its synonymity with high definition has made it a favourite with ‘serious’ content creators. In particular, if you are a filmmaker with a sizeable following, you can generate decent revenue through Vimeo on Demand. Then, there are numerous mid-tier Video-on-Demand websites that offer films or content with different genres. One example is CatchPlay, which is built for movie lovers. It is a subscription-based platform that offers Hollywood movies alongside Chinese movies.

Platforms like Netflix and iTunes, by sheer scale, trade in the realm of the more established works and filmmakers. As an endorsement to how far Netflix has paved its road in planet Hollywood, director Martin Scorsese announced in February this year that he had sold the worldwide rights of his latest film The Irishman to Netflix, breaking a longstanding exclusive relationship with Paramount Pictures. Closer to home, local filmmaker and owner of post-production house, Mocha Chai Laboratories, Chai Yee Wei launched a new online film distribution company A Little Seed, giving Singapore film classics like Mee Pok ManIlo Ilo and 7 Letters a new home and lease of life on iTunes. To take online content one step further, the ability of platforms like Netflix to finance the production of original content is a significant game changer. Previously, it was customary for a commercial film to seek a theatrical release before entering the internet space. Now, some filmmakers may choose to go straight from film reel to that movie player window on your computer. 



We have heard about the Hollywood accounting system,” expressed Daniel (above). “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix which raked in US$938 million in global box office takings is US$167 million in the red? This is the work of creative accounting with the big film studios. Shell companies are being established for the making of each film so that the film studios could ring-fence their financial gains from the project while putting a firewall to financial risks. So unless you are Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, you have little power at the bargaining table with these studios. Online distribution is one answer to this problem. As a filmmaker, you get a larger cut of the film’s sales proceeds. With the studios, they have tiers of investors and sponsors to pay and you will find yourself at the end of the pecking order.”

Anthony Chen (Picture courtesy of United Agents)

Director of the award-winning film Ilo Ilo and founder of Giraffe Pictures, Anthony Chen, sees the growing influence of online platforms as a positive. He said,”Living in the UK, I am both a Netflix and Amazon Video subscriber. The rise of such platforms has enabled filmmakers to tell character-driven stories and challenging content that is harder and harder to find financing for these days. In particular, I think TV is the medium that will give space and freedom to filmmakers to explore their cinematic pursuits. In fact, at Giraffe Pictures, we are beginning to develop TV content, and we think platforms such as Netflix might be the best partners for some of these projects.”

Winner of mm2’s first Movie Maker short film competition, Sean Ng (pictured below), who is in the process of making his feature film with mm2, sees the rise of digital platforms as a double-edged sword. Increased accessibility for both producers and consumers is certainly a good thing but its lowered barriers of entry could lead to noise. 

“The idea of releasing a film digitally is definitely enticing. Mirroring the trends in music consumption and streaming in general, I would like to think that it would be more accessible for an audience to partake in your work. But at the same time, I feel that a feature film may lose its gravitas without the presence and charm of a cinema, a big screen and an event of 'movie-going',” said Sean.

If we all stop for a moment to ponder, television was invented after film and when it first hit the market in the 50s and 60s, many Hollywood studio producers became extremely anxious about the survival of cinema. Then subsequently in the 80s, home videos stormed the movie consumption market. In spite of these, cinemas and movie-going continued to hold their own ground and retain their audiences. According to David Lee (pictured below), Managing Director of The Filmic Eye and Vice-President of the Singapore Film Society, this just means more options from both a consumption and production perspective. In particular, a filmmaker does not need to agonise over polar-opposite options, he or she could still have his or her cake and eat it. David suggests that the game  plan could be for filmmakers to start the film’s screening life at the film festivals for a window period of a year of more. Film festivals are not just screening events, but also opportunities to make meaningful connections with potential stakeholders. They offer a face-to-face interactive element missing from the online platforms. A filmmaker planning to achieve his or her goal of making a feature film will film festivals surendipitously useful. Then when the film has exhausted its festival run, it can start its second life in a video-sharing or VOD incarnation.

David Lee

(Seen in the trailer Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny
“Teach Me.” says Snow Vase, played by Natasha Liu Bordizzo, in English, as she begs Yu Shu Lien, a swordmaster played by Michelle Yeoh. The scene cuts to Snow Vase deep in sword practice and Yu Shu Lien repeating the word ‘Again’ several times in a hybrid British-Asian accent. It is jarring to the ears of Crouching Tiger fans who may not be ready for a Yu Shu Lien who has been attending English classes. An original Netflix movie production, this sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was acted out in English for Netflix distribution, and dubbed into Mandarin for its China and Hong Kong release. Together with snazzy CGI effects and a colour finishing that bears tones of the movie Avatar, it is plain to see that this Netflix production was made for a very different audience from the original one.

Are movies made for the big screen destined to be different from movies made for the small screen? Filmmaker Ray Pang (pictured left), winner of the first ciNE655 nationwide film competition, shared, ”The feeling is different when one consumes a burger in a comfortable restaurant or a drive-through or somewhere in the park...When developing a commercial or general content for the internet, I always struggle with whether my content is engaging enough. Can we afford to have a slow build-up before we lose our audience? The other challenge is taste. Online content is like fast food. Tasty but unhealthy. Yet we all love it. Steamboat or Hot Pot, on the other hand, takes time for the soup to enrichen but uses fresher ingredients. If we eat too much fast food, it will spoil our appreciation for food that’s a bit more painstakingly-made.”

Sean feels that with online viewing platforms, the ability to 'channel-switch' and the vast variety of options, makes the viewing experience substantially different from that of going on a cinema date. Currently, the online audience is very much exposed to series-type content, where their subscription allows for binge watching or being more selective with what they want to watch. Founder of Sinema and Executive Creative Director of The Flying Kick Asia, Nicholas Chee (pictured right), explains that there is a blurred line between creating to 'sell' something or creating to 'say' something. Most online content tend to be ‘branded’ nowadays because that is where advertising is shifting to. 

As for Anthony, he does not believe in designing a product specifically for an audience. “What I'm worried about is that with the current trends seen in online platforms, you will see more and more filmmakers or content producers predicting what audiences want based on viewing data. So when something is successful, we are likely to see similar copycat productions, which discourages risk-taking and breaking new grounds with new ideas. We already see that happening with the Studio Tentpole movies,” Anthony added.

While filmmakers are deliberating on how to make content more internet-friendly, or whether they should at all, another group of people, born and bred on the internet are laughing themselves to the bank with strong fan bases who form ready-made audiences for all their content. One word sums up this group of people - YouTubers. Through making viral videos, they have amassed a huge audience who will watch everything they make, from parody videos to the occasional serious short film or even feature film. In February 2017, YouTube Channel Butterworks launched their first YouTube feature film Hooped on You, a romantic film about a basketballer who meets a bubble tea girl. The film has garnered more than 300,000 views on a YouTube channel that has over 70,000 subscribers. Their ‘zero-to-hero’ story is something that will inspire anyone to start picking up a camera and grow a channel. 

Film still from 'Hooped on You', Butterworks' first YouTube feature film; Lun stands in the middle

Butterworks was formed in 2015 by a group of film students from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, who decided to fork out time outside their respective media production jobs to produce narrative content and keep their passion alive. They would commit to taking part in one film competition per year and actually set themselves a goal to hit 10,000 subscribers in six months, failing which, they would close the YouTube channel. In the short span of close to two-years since they started, not only did they hit their subscriber target, they also got hand-picked by mm2 to be become one of mm2’s affiliated digital content producers. Hooped on You was made in collaboration with mm2. 

Interestingly, when asked if they have submitted any of their films to overseas film festivals, Lun, one of Butterworks’ founders said, ”Films which travel to international film festivals have certain style to it, and I think we are not the best candidates to produce them.”

The success of YouTubers like Butterworks as well as other channels like Tree Potatoes or Cheokboard Studios could pose some ‘attrition risk’ to new film graduates going through their rites of passage as filmmakers. On closer observation, while film and media education has continued to grow, the number of film graduates who are choosing to cut their teeth on the film festival route appears to have fallen. 

According to Nicholas, there is more ‘noise’ today. “​The fact that there are more film and media graduate​s today compared to the previous batch of filmmakers, is telling us that it has become 'sexy' to study film or media. Yet today, the struggles aren’t so much with affordable equipment. It’s where to showcase their works. With YouTube and Vimeo being credible showcase platforms, the festival route may not be the first thing on the young filmmakers minds, ”explained Nicholas.

When asked if filmmakers can be successful both ways, Daniel dishes out the age-old adage that story is king, that it is about the story and how we tell it at the end of the day. Differences in  shot framing and narrative pacing aside, a good joke will make us laugh and an honest tale can move us to tears, regardless of the platform. 

Reinforcing a point about the inevitability of technology, Daniel eagerly suggested, ”Maybe next time, we watch movies straight off our eyes with data projected onto screens like contact lenses in front of our eyes. It will be powered by blinking. I have heard there is already a prototype developed by Sony. So maybe next time when you walk down the street and you see someone blinking, he might be either watching a movie or charging his lenses!”

Written by Jeremy Sing

The article also appeared in the second edition of the SINdie quarterly.

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