Singapore and its 'Superbrands'

This is the suburban mall experience in Singapore. Walk into Jurong Point or Junction 8, you are likely to face this. The gleam of shoes from Charles and Keith, the whiff of coffee from Toast Box, the mist of purified air from OSIM and the familiar and sometimes ‘too-familiar’ spread of local food from either Food Junction, Banquet or Kopitiam. How about a local film at the adjoining Cineplex to complete the entire experience?

One company that’s been making its presence felt in the space of ‘Superbrands from Singapore’, like the ones seen in all the suburban malls, is mm2 Entertainment. Name any recent local commercial blockbuster and chances are they have been involved as either producer or distributor. These include movies like the ‘Ah Boys to Men’ series, the ‘Lion Men’ series, ‘The Girl in Pinafore’, ‘2359’, ‘Ghost Child’. This year, their name appears in several talked-about projects like ‘7 Letters’ and ‘1965’. Over the last few years since their establishment in late 2008, they have made huge footprints in the commercial film space. In the last three years, they were involved in at least a quarter of all commercial movies that had a theatrical screening locally. Last year, in 2014, out of about seven commercially released local films, they produced four of them, including the 2 ‘Lion Men’ installments, ‘Re:Solve’ and ‘Wayang Boy’.

The feather on the cap must be the fact that mm2, under the name of mm2 Asia, got listed as a public company with the Singapore Exchange (SGX) last year on 9 December 2014, being the first local film producer to do so. The only other film producer that is already listed on SGX is Spackman, which is a Korean film company. (Interestingly, Hong Kong”s Media Asia Entertainment Group ( was previously listed on SGX but was delisted in 2007). In a year when Ali Baba put sexy back into getting a public listing, mm2’s listing signaled the start of a new tempo in the business of filmmaking here, some may liken to an injection of steroids.

A question begs, is the emergence of a ‘Superbrand’ in filmmaking like mm2 akin to a coming-of-age of our little film industry in Singapore? 

Just not too long ago in the 2000s, our film industry went through a teething phase of resurgence with sporadic film festival triumphs, sparks of inspiration here and there and a basketful of short films.  Production houses were springing up and some people who worked regular office jobs harboured thoughts of heeding their filmmaking calls and quitting stable careers like engineering or law to get into the action. But alas, the industry then was still trying to find a stable footing and there were hits and misses and in some years, fruitless attempts in film financing.

A convergence of events has changed the game a little. ‘Ah Boys to Men’ phenomenal success is making companies and entrepreneurs with deep pockets open up to a new avenue of investments, which are movies. ‘Ilo Ilo’’s acclaim has potentially opened the door for local filmmakers to foreign financing. We wonder if regional or international stars have become more receptive to appearing in a Singapore movie than before, if Hong Kong comedy veteran Sandra Ng’s appearance in ‘A Fantastic Ghost Wedding’, by a relatively unknown director Meng Ong, is something to go by.

Now with mm2 Asia’s newly-listed status, it is likely to be a winner in the game of numbers. Being a publicly-listed company, there will be more opportunities from financiers, it will pull in the heavyweights in both cast and crew, get the endorsements from the authorities like MDA and find collaboration partners of bigger stature more easily. With such a recipe for commercial expansion, mm2 stands a tall neck up from the next biggest player.  And it comes with some real perks for the local industry here as well.

Very few other movie companies can lock down co-production deals with Hong Kong, Taiwanese or Chinese companies. mm2 has done so with productions like the China co-production ’ and Taiwanese co-producion ‘做你做的事’. ‘ATM’ a Hong Kong co-production with mm2 will complete the Chinese-language regional loop. Not to mention, they got Fox International as a collaborating producer. A local film practitioner, from technical crew to a line producer, will get the near ‘international experience’ he or she’s wanted. A collaboration like this can also be the matchmaking point for many other career developments for the local film professional.

Last but not least, someday Singapore will need to make that multi-million dollar epic and it needs substantial financing muscle to realize that dream. A look across the industry, no company comes close to mm2’s capital-raising engine. It is indeed Singapore’s superbrand for filmmaking.

Like all other ‘Made-In-Singapore’ products, is growing a ‘Superbrand’ the way to go in terms of helping the industry mature? Yes and no. There is no denying the ‘big brother’ effects of a ‘Superbrand’ on the industry, in particular, being the door-opener for the rest and taking all the greenfield risks. But at the same time, smaller players may find it hard to make their voices heard under the drone of the existing ‘big brother’.

It could be fair to say that we want some kind of pluralism in our film community and industry, in which there is a mixed basket of films speaking out to different wavelengths, perspectives, humour and moods. For a long period of time, since Eric Khoo’s spate of HDB-based ghetto-porn films like 12 Storeys and Mee Pok Man, there seemed to be a long overhang of seemingly depressing independent films. It took an brave eagle like Royston Tan to give HDB a musical spin like in 881. Jack Neo’s brand of ‘heartland with a dash of toilet’ humour has also spawned several works by other directors with the same borrowed formula and humour, sometimes indistinguishable from the originator. Thankfully, the plethora of support for filmmakers from different sources is currently varied enough to ensure even films that will be potentially banned will be made.

As mm2 expands further, how much will this pluralism be disturbed? Will Singaporeans be so conditioned by safe commercial films that they lose the patience to appreciate films in less familiar forms? Will filmmakers, lured by commercial gains and the promise of commercial opportunities, decide to ‘dumb-down’ their films to appeal to the lowest denominator among the film-watching crowd? In a small market like Singapore, where natural monopolies form in certain industries (and politics), this could be a very real issue. We all know too what having only one company to run all of Singapore’s terrestrial television channels has done to the quality of locally-made television programs.

At the end of the day, it is a free market for all to play in and there is no reason to clip the wings of frontrunners like mm2.  Film giants in China like Huayi Brothers, possibly a role model for mm2, have played a part in pushing the envelope of Chinese movies and the industry. It too, was China’s first ‘movie stock’ and being listed was a springboard to its phenomenal rise as a regional movie powerhouse. A better question is what we could do to ignite the growth of other players, filmmakers and talents. The possibilities are endless. But a good starting point could where we began this little debate - the suburban mall experience. To all movie exhibitors, give some airtime to lesser-known filmmakers or films that are a bit more out of the ordinary. Same goes for the obligatory 'Yong Tau Foo' stall in all the food courts, stop sourcing your items from the same wholesaler.  
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