How the pandemic has changed, and might change, film and TV viewing and production

Cinemas in Singapore closed to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the face of entertainment in Singapore, that much is obvious. As millions of us work and shelter at home, watching more streamed shows than ever, observers have noted patterns that might well become the new normal here even after the circuit breaker period, which is currently slated to end on June 1.

Singaporeans are turning to light-hearted Asian works and children's fare has also been a hit

With the closure of cinemas and other places of public entertainment, such as bars and sit-down dining areas, Singaporeans have had to turn to the goggle box and other media devices more than usual.

WarnerMedia, which operates the content provider HBO, reports that viewership on its HBO cable channel has grown by 35 per cent since the start of the circuit breaker. On its online streaming service HBO Go, the growth is 20 per cent. On HBO Go, the science-fiction series Westworld, with its fresh episodes of season 3, is the most-watched show in April so far.

Other WarnerMedia properties, such as the Korean entertainment channel Oh!K, also saw viewership growth of 30 per cent. An April 11 and 12 weekend marathon of the Korean drama Goblin, which stars Gong Yoo, saw ratings swell by 200 per cent compared to the timeslot average over the previous month.

The company's Cartoon Network, with shows such as The Amazing World Of Gumball, The Powerpuff Girls and Teen Titans Go!, also saw a double-digit increase in ratings.

Streaming giant Netflix announced that there were almost 16 million new sign-ups globally in the first three months of the year as lockdowns kept people indoors. Its top 10 charts for Singapore showed that viewers here were open to foreign-language fare such as Spanish-language thriller Money Heist (2017 to present) and K-dramas, including Crash Landing On You (2020) and Itaewon Class (2020).

Its competitor, the streaming service Viu, also reports growth in sign-ups and viewer engagement. The service offers South Korean and shows from elsewhere in Asia at free and premium tiers.

Mr Anson Tan, general manager Singapore at Viu, says that while romance, fantasy and mystery dramas continue to top the charts, during the crisis there has been "a slight shift" towards more light-hearted romance titles such as Korean series When The Weather Is Fine and Meow, The Secret Boy.

"Feel-good content usually resonates well with audiences, and perhaps even more so during these difficult times," says Mr Tan.

Crisis becomes opportunity for content providers and film events

Organisations are moving quickly to adapt to stay-home trends to win loyalty.

In a move that could set the trend for future stay-home periods, WarnerMedia on April 15 began offering first seasons of selected HBO Original shows for free on its HBO Go streaming service, without registration or subscription needed to stream or download. The buffet includes award winners such as the crime drama The Sopranos (1999 to 2007), the social drama The Wire (2002 to 2008), family drama Succession (2018 to present) and comedies like Barry (2018 to present). The list includes Asian works like the horror-tinged Folklore (2018) and Singapore drama collection Invisible Stories (2020).

Some film events, instead of being postponed or cancelled, have moved online during the crisis.

Earlier this month (April), the National Youth Film Awards Conference, organised by *Scape and aimed at helping young film-makers, was held online for the first time. The webinar comprised talks and question-and-answer sessions on a range of topics related to film.

Smaller cinema operations are at risk

So far, cinema chains here have not announced lay-offs, nor have there been reports of them seeking bankruptcy protection or filing suits against insurers to get revenue loss pay-offs, as has happened in Europe and the United States.

In interviews done at the start of the circuit breaker, major local chains Shaw Theatres and Golden Village Multiplex said they would use the temporary closure to upskill and redesignate staff, as well as carry out site maintenance.

It will be the smaller players, such as independent arthouse cinema The Projector, that will be in a life-or-death struggle. They have said so themselves in interviews with The Straits Times and will be using this time to raise money through merchandise sales and income with video-on-demand offerings, through a partnership with distributor Anticipate Pictures.

As Singapore emerges from the circuit breaker, and as especially if more temporary closures come to prevent second or third wave infections, smaller companies are at risk of going under permanently, reducing choice in film programming here.

Even though organisations here have held streaming watch parties and hosted online chats through Zoom and Instagram Live to create the feeling of a film festival or going to the cinema, nothing beats the real thing, say film fans.

Some have wondered if film-goers will be too nervous to head back to cinemas post-crisis. After all, even before the temporary closures came into force, cinemas were already seeing a drastic drop in attendance. A spokesman for Golden Village had told The Straits Times in late February that cinema attendance had dropped by 40 per cent since the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (Dorscon) level was raised to orange on Feb 7, compared with a similar period last year.

One optimist is Jerrold Chong, a 27-year-old director and animator whose blackly comic short film Piece Of Meat was selected for the Directors Fortnight at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

"Watch parties and similar stay-home activities won't replace the experience of cinema. We are social creatures," he says.

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How Singapore film crews will work post-pandemic

Post-pandemic, film-makers might have to adopt new hygiene measures, especially if they want their work to qualify for certain grants or festivals.

Viddsee is an online platform showcasing short films. Mr Kenny Tan, head of Viddsee Studios, is helping to draw up a set of safety guidelines for film crews that submit films to the site. He hopes that the new normal for film crews will include steps such as keeping headcount on set as low as possible, holding more meetings online and practising safe distancing on location.

To spur creative activity during the crisis, Viddsee has launched StoriesTogether, a regional initiative to create inspiring films that includes a content fund.

Film-makers who can work alone or remotely can get more done now than those who need teams - and one such format is animation.

Director and animator Chong says in an email interview that animation is poised to shine now "as we have the advantage of being able to continue working from home compared to live-action productions".

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