Small is not beautiful when it comes to the size of the box office for local films in Singapore.
While Jack Neo's national service two-parter, Ah Boys To Men, has been making waves for earning more than $14 million in total thus far, it is the exception rather than the norm.
Local drama Imperfect, for example, took in just $577,000 and it was the No. 5 top-grossing local flick last year.
As a rule-of-thumb, a movie needs to make three times its production budget in order to turn a profit, given other costs such as marketing and promotion. With local film budgets hovering around the $1-million mark on average, it does not quite make financial sense to produce and screen movies only locally.
So what is an intrepid film producer to do? If the local market is not big enough, then create a bigger one by venturing abroad. Industry players say that an overseas release for local films has become more common in the last three years.
And, at the moment, overseas really means Malaysia.
Mr Lim Teck, 38, managing director of film distributor and producer Clover Films, notes that the only market where Singapore movies "actually collect box office is in Malaysia". He goes so far as to say: "It has become the most important theatrical market for Singapore movies, apart from our domestic market."
For example, the Clover co-produced military horror flick 23:59 (2011) earned RM1 million (S$407,000) in Malaysia, adding to its $1.5-million gross in Singapore.
At least one recent film has been almost as successful across the Causeway as here. Taxi! Taxi!, produced for $1 million, made $1.4 million in Singapore and RM2.8 million across the border.
Its producer, Chan Pui Yin, 43, agrees that the overseas market is important. She says: "We plan our content and budget based on a projection that there will be foreign box-office revenue."
The boost to the coffers can be upwards of RM4million - an amount 2011 comedy Homecoming earned, for example - but even smaller takings help.
Zhao Wei Films producer Gary Goh, 34, says its strategy is to at least break even in Singapore with the profit coming from the Malaysian takings.
Factors such as content, cast and setting determine how popular a Singapore-made movie can be up north.
The key reason Malaysia is, thus far, the only significant overseas market for local movies is that "in terms of sensibility and taste, the two countries are quite similar", Goh observes. This makes it easier for a film to appeal to audiences there even though there are still limits.
Neo admits frankly: "What makes a movie sell is very clearly subject matter and stories that are close to people's hearts. But what is close to our hearts might not resonate with others. My films would sometimes walk into a dead end."
He points out that because of its national service theme, Ah Boys To Men (2012), made only RM2 million. He says: "It might be very good for others, but not necessarily so for us".
In general, what does well in both Singapore and Malaysia are horror flicks and comedies.
Singapore-headquartered production and distribution company mm2 Entertainment's managing director Ng Say Yong, 50, thinks that the action genre would travel too "but it's hard to make a good action movie with the budget we have".
Using "a good Thai or Korean action movie" as a benchmark, it would cost between US$2 million (S$2.5 million) and US$5 million to make a decent flick, he estimates.
The growing impact of the Malaysian market can also be seen in how local films are being made and marketed.
Goh says: "You have to do a better job of packaging and have faces from both shores. That's the general strategy now." Hence, 23:59 had featured a crop of Malaysian fresh faces for the army recruits while this year's Ghost Child (2013), also by director Gilbert Chan, features Malaysian model-actress Carmen Soo.
In addition to having the draw of familiar faces for audiences there, it also helped create greater buzz during the press conference and promotion in Malaysia.
Both films were co-produced by Gorylah Pictures, a horror and thriller speciality label launched by Zhao Wei Films and local production house Infinite Frameworks.
With the Malaysian market in the picture right from the inception of a film, it makes sense for local producers to work with overseas partners - and they have.
For instance, mm2 has brought in "strategic partners" whose roles include investment, distribution and marketing and promotion. Malaysian production company Grand Brilliance also invested in Ah Boys To Men.
In some cases, the Malaysian role is big enough that the resulting work is billed as a Singapore-Malaysia co-production.
Take, for example, the comedy Homecoming (2011), which producer Daniel Yun, 54, calls "a very real Singapore-Malaysia collaboration".
The movie was about people travelling home for Chinese New Year and it featured familiar actors from both sides of the Causeway, including Neo, Mark Lee, A-niu and Afdlin Shauki. Essentially, the film was "organic to the settings in both countries".
Malaysian singer-actor A-niu is also part of the cast line-up for two other Singapore-Malaysia comedies: The Wedding Diary (2012) and The Wedding Diary II (2013).
Perhaps because of the stronger presence of Malaysian elements, from the cast to the setting, the co-productions tend to do better at the Malaysian box office than entirely Singaporean productions, which have tended to fare better here.
Homecoming earned RM4 million and $1.4 million while the two Wedding Diary flicks earned a total of RM8.5 million and $780,000.
Goh notes: "It's interesting how the collaboration is getting very, very close and there's a lot of box-office potential for films going there and Malaysian films coming to Singapore."
On that last point, it is, strictly speaking, potential at this stage. A-niu's directorial debut, Ice Kacang Puppy Love (2010), made RM4 million, but had only a modest showing in Singapore with $265,000 in earnings, despite the presence of popular Malaysian Mandopop singers such as Lee Sinje in the cast.
While the Malaysian box office is the most prominent source of foreign box-office revenue for local films, it is not the only source of income from abroad.
Mr Lim says that some Singapore films do get into cinemas in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but are "mostly on a small release or through film festivals". The objective is primarily to "increase the exposure" of local movies there, as Mr Ng puts it.
In other words, there is not much money there. Instead, what Mr Lim calls "an important source of income" comes from the sale of television, video, Internet and in-flight rights. He estimates that the ratio of revenue from Singapore versus all sources of foreign revenue is about 50:50.
Actress-director Michelle Chong's debut comedy feature Already Famous (2011), for one, was sold to Taiwan's Public Television Service. While she declines to reveal the figure, she adds that she is "happy with the amount and, anyway, it's good exposure for us".
In Singapore, it could be said to have been a success, making $1.4 million on a budget of around $900,000.
The sale was somewhat unexpected for her even though the film did star Taiwanese singer-actor- host Alien Huang. She says: "The movie had a lot of colloquial jokes and very local references and maybe the Taiwanese might not be able to appreciate or get them so this has been a lovely surprise."
Another example of a Singapore film making headway there is Neo's Money No Enough 2 (2008). It has been screening at a second-run cinema in Taichung since May 20, 2009, and is Taiwan's longest- running movie. And it is still playing there.
About 150,000 people have watched it and ticket prices range from NT$35 (S$1.44) for senior citizens to NT$70 for a regular ticket.
The question is not so much whether a film can find an audience overseas, but whether it can find a sizeable audience. Ah Boys' producers, including mm2, Clover and Neo's J Team outfit, are hoping for a favourable answer when the two-parter is released in Taiwan on 16 screens next Friday.
Realistically, though, the films are unlikely to top their performance in Malaysia, given the print count there was more than three times that in Taiwan.
The ambitions of mm2 are definitely regional as the company has recently announced projects with Taiwan and Hong Kong partners.
Its executive director Melvin Ang, 49, says: "Our next goal is to begin film production in Hong Kong and Taiwan with the long-term objective of tapping the China market, like many Hong Kong and Taiwanese producers who have established a foothold in China."
In the end, whether a movie can find an audience and make money boils down to simple basics. It is about getting things right - "good story, strong characters, with professional technical and production values", says Mr Ng of mm2, though that is easier said than done.
He adds: "We're still a child in the world of movie-making and it's a man's world out there. So we need to carefully nurture this child at home, make sure he's nourished and becomes strong and healthy.
"Only then can we make good movies and good movies will eventually find a market outside of Singapore."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 10, 2013
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