Where is the audience?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 11, 2013

After two weeks at the box office, Anthony Chen's award-winning drama Ilo Ilo has grossed $500,000 in Singapore.

It seems like a respectable figure for a mid-sized release of 15 prints. A spokesman for exhibitor Golden Village had earlier estimated that the film could collect $500,000 by the end of its run, but the figure has been reached in its second week. The movie is likely to continue its run for at least another two weeks.

But the sad truth is that even a much feted film such as Ilo Ilo, which won the Camera d'Or for the best first feature film at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, is not going to break even anytime soon.

The movie was made on a $700,000 budget and the rule of thumb in the movie industry is that a movie needs to make three times its production budget in order to turn a profit, given other costs such as marketing and promotion.

This means that Ilo Ilo, about a Singapore family's experience during the 1997 Asian financial crisis and its relationship with a Filipino maid, has to make about $2 million to break even.

In fact the harsh truth is, apart from Jack Neo's military-themed Ah Boys To Men 2, the other local films this year are unlikely to break even too, going by their takings at the Singapore box office.

Ah Boys To Men 2 marched away with $7.9 million and is the highest-grossing local film ever. It was the sequel to the very successful first instalment released last November and offered a familiar brand of humour and story-telling in a relatable setting.

The two movies were made back to back on a budget of $3 million and have earned over $14 million in total.

This begs the question: Is Jack Neo Singapore's only bankable director?

As Ms Suzanne Chia, who works in office administration and is in her 40s, says after watching Ilo Ilo: "If we as Singaporeans don't support local works - and he doesn't make it big here after winning an award overseas - it seems like such a pity."

Executive director of mm2 Entertainment Melvin Ang, 50, is not surprised by the wildly differing box-office fates of Ah Boys To Men 2 and Ilo Ilo.

Leaving aside the story, production values and budget, he points out: "More people have experienced going through the army than having a maid at home, so clearly an army movie is a more mass subject matter."

The company had a hand in producing Ah Boys 2, nostalgia youth drama That Girl In Pinafore, drama Judgment Day and horror flick Ghost Child.

Director Neo says: "Part Two was more relatable and was an even stronger reflection of military life. All those who have gone through military training can totally identify with that feeling of camaraderie among brothers in arms. It's hard to put this relationship into words, it can only be felt and the movie's story manages to convey that feeling."

Student Lee Yu Jia, 16, who has been watching Neo's films since the release of I Not Stupid (2002), says: "His films are very educational and you can learn life skills, such as lessons about family bonds, from them."

She has also caught Ilo Ilo and says: "I think it's not bad but there's no plot, it just features the real life that you suffer in Singapore."

What does this state of box-office affairs say about the movie tastes of local audiences? Chen's alma mater, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, invested $200,000 in the film, and the director of the institution's School of Film & Media Studies Anita Kuan says: "I'm tempted to say we're all actually low class people underneath a high class veneer, myself included of course. With so much stress in an increasingly complex world, all we want is a good laugh and to be entertained."

However, it does not mean that films such as Ilo Ilo should just throw in the towel. She adds: "There is also a segment of society that appreciates well-crafted stories told sensitively. There is a time and place for deeper reflection. And like any good store, there must be such products to satiate this demand."

Director Yeo Chun Cheng says box-office takings is not the only measure of a film's success. "In Ilo Ilo's case, the film put local cinema on the global film map; gave Singaporeans something to cheer about; and the director, Anthony Chen, himself inspired a generation of Singapore film-makers with his craft and dedication."

Ms Kuan, noting that the historic Cannes win, which is the highest film honour won by a Singapore film, was not just Ngee Ann Polytechnic's but also Singapore's gain, adds: "In terms of non-financial returns, Ngee Ann Polytechnic has already gained much."

As for financial returns, the film has been sold in more than 20 countries to date. "So I dare say NP will likely recoup something," Miss Kuan adds.

Ilo Ilo was also partly funded by the Singapore Film Commission's now-defunct New Feature Film Fund.

Clover Films managing director Lim Teck, 38, says that the local box office does not tell the whole story. "In the movie business, we can't just look at one territory's box office, especially when we are all going regional."

Clover's films include Ah Boys To Men 2, Ghost Child and the comedy The Wedding Diary II. The $1.2-million-budgeted Wedding had a lacklustre run in theatres here and took in $280,000 but made RM4.5 million (S$1.8 million) in Malaysia. Sale of rights to other territories such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and China recouped about 35 per cent of production cost, says Mr Lim.

Director Eric Khoo, 48, makes the same point: A local film does not need to recoup its production budget locally once it has been sold to sufficient markets overseas.

He says: "Ah Boys To Men deserves the box-office success because it is a local commercial masterpiece. But Ilo Ilo has sold more international territories than Ah Boys. Win-win for both films."

Ah Boys added to its coffers with RM3.5 million from Malaysia and about S$100,000 from Taiwan. It has also been sold to regional pay TV.

Ilo Ilo has been sold to North America, France, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Sweden, Portugal , Turkey, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

It opened in France on Sept 4 in 80 cinemas and made it to No. 5 in Paris on the box office chart. Producer Yuni Hadi does not not have the box-office figures for France. But during the film's premiere at Cannes in May, the prestigious newspaper Le Monde had said the movie "recounts with infinite justice a family crisis amid a social crisis".

Making films is an art rather than an exact science so even films that seem targeted for a mass audience might not score big enough at cineplexes here.

Taxi! Taxi! zipped away with $1.45 million and is the No. 2 local film of the year. Its budget was $1 million.

It was a vehicle which offered familiar stars such as Gurmit Singh and Mark Lee and a mix of comedy and drama. Producer Chan Pui Yin, 43, says that it performed "up to expectations".

Taxi! took in another RM2.8 million across the border.

Even the tried-and-tested horror genre is no lock at the box office. Director Gilbert Chan's 23:59 (2011) took in $1.5 million but Ghost Child only scared up $530,000.

Ultimately, it is the audience who calls the shots.

As director Gilbert Chan puts it: "At the end of the day, the audience will make their votes by purchasing tickets."

Given the vagaries of public taste, one way of increasing the likelihood of turning a profit could be to reduce production cost.

MM2 Entertainment's Mr Ang points out: "While we can deliver at $500,000, there will be compromise in areas such as cast, audio, production days and so on. We want our films to travel, but at that figure, we are not competitive with others in Asia, not to mention Hollywood-budget works."

His conclusion is that local producers have to do more with limited budgets. "I feel if we can offer local relevant content with good story and acceptable production value, our local audiences will still support Singapore movies."

* indicates a film is still showing in cinemas


Genre: Drama

Director: Anthony Chen

Gross: $500,000

Prints: 15


Genre: Drama

Director: Jack Neo

Gross: $7.9 million

Prints: 44 prints


Genre: Drama comedy

Director: Kelvin Sng

Gross: $1.45 million

Prints: 21


Genre: Nostalgia drama

Director: Chai Yee Wei

Gross: $550,000

Prints: 14


Genre: Horror

Director: Gilbert Chan

Gross: $530,000

Prints: 23


Genre: Comedy

Director: Adrian Teh

Gross: $280,000

Prints: 21


Genre: Drama

Director: Ong Kuo Sin

Gross: $310,000

Prints: 15


Genre: Drama

Director: Ken Kwek

Gross: $40,000

Print: 1


Genre: Documentary

Director: Amit Virmani

Gross: $6,500

Print: 1 (The Arts House second run Oct 21-27)



When: Sept 26

Wong Chen-Hsi’s debut feature is about two children who create a refuge from a harsh world in a storm drain.

It won her the Best Director award in the Asian New Talent section at the Shanghai International Film Festival.


When: Oct 24

This Singapore-Cambodia co-production highlights the issue of sex trafficking in Asia. Former NMP Eunice Olsen produces and stars in it.


When: Nov 14

Michelle Chong’s second directorial feature after Already Famous (2011) mashes up two elements – a road trip and a love triangle.


When: Dec 5

Mark Lee, Gurmit Singh and Kumar are part of the cast of this comedy which touches on toilet cleanliness and how a bout of mass poisoning could have occurred.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 11, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to