As the Singapore International Film festival opens, Screen International examines how the territory is aiming to pull in new backers.

A key global economic hub, Singapore has set its sights on becoming a media-financing centre for the 21st century and is positioning itself as a meeting point of finance and media.

The Asian city-state's business infrastructure has already attracted players such as Lucasfilm, Sony Pictures, Discovery Networks, Walt Disney Television, HBO and the BBC, which all have regional operations there. Now the territory's Media Development Authority (MDA) wants to pull in the kind of partners that can build a self-sustaining media financing eco- system.

'The injection of private capital from the banks, financial institutions and strategic investors to the media industry will strengthen Singapore as the regional centre for the financing, trading and making of media,' says Christopher Chia, CEO of MDA.

'Loan guarantee facility makes it sutiable for moving quickly'
In 2006, in a bid to attract such players, MDA launched a loan guarantee facility (LGF) with Australia's RGM Entertainment for the production of commercially viable English-language international projects.

RGM, a talent management-cum-executive production company founded by Robyn Gardiner, relocated its headquarters to Singapore two years ago and formed a media financing unit to provide gap finance using the facility.

Available to international productions with a Singapore component, the LGF is aiming to partially finance at least six films in the next two years and has attracted financiers including US-based film-finance specialist ICB Entertainment Finance and Standard Chartered Bank.

The facility does not operate as a fund or loan, says RGM's CEO Devesh Chetty, but has both MDA and RGM as a guarantor offering a token amount of the budget for each production it partially finances.

'Accessing funds in some parts of the world is a highly complicated process and the cost is very high,' says Adrian Ward, vice-president of ICB Entertainment Finance. 'The simplicity of the LGF makes it most suitable for moving quickly, which is often a key element in attracting serious film-makers.'

'Big bank might find it tough to justify the kind of risk involved'
The first two projects partially funded by the LGF are now in post: Chaz Thorne's black comedy Pushing Up Daisies and David Auburn's The Girl In The Park, starring Sigourney Weaver. A third project, Winged Creatures, co-funded and produced by Naomi Despres and Bob Salerno's Artina Films and starring Forest Whitaker, has started shooting in Los Angeles.

Singapore production companies Oak3 Films and Infinite Frameworks are associate producers or similar on the first two projects. Infinite Frameworks is also responsible for the post-production of Winged Creatures in Singapore.

Chetty expects, over time, such local companies will take on the role of producers on RGM's projects or bring their projects to RGM for executive production. RGM also handles distribution and manages the intellectual property rights for the films partially financed by the LGF out of Singapore.

But Chetty is aware that the lack of business volume and of sufficient market knowledge for Asian banks to conduct pre-sale and gap lending may hamper the prospect.

ICB's Ward acknowledges a big bank might find it tough to justify the kind of risk involved. 'Traditionally, Asian producers had access to private investors. They were unwilling to pay the premium for a completion bond, but without which a bank wouldn't lend,' he explains.

To entice more banks, Ward says one possibility is to co-lend on projects with local banks that will give them insight into the different banking aspects of production lending. 'Once a local bank enters the business, others may follow if they can see it is profitable and the risk is manageable.'

New money aims for Western-style film financing
In addition to the LGF, Singapore is seeing an influx of new money. Upside Down Entertainment (UDE), a new Singapore-based film financing venture, was launched recently by Mark Byers' Quixotic Media Group of the US and local production house Upside Down Concepts.

The company aims to provide Western-style film financing to Asian companies and produce four to five films annually within the next couple of years. 'The Singapore government has been very helpful, but for our industry to mature, we need to develop the private film-financing industry,' says UDE executive producer Chan Gin Kai.

'Singapore producers have honed their skills on outsourced products from Hollywood. The time is ripe to bring them into Hollywood,' says Byers.

First off the block is $12.8m sci-fi Exodus by Hong Kong writer-director Daniel Chan, as the opening instalment of The Battle Of Hong Kong trilogy. Singapore has also attracted Gary Hamilton's Australian-based Arclight Films, which opened a local office, Easternlight Film Productions, last year to finance, produce and distribute international projects.

Its debut project is Dance Of The Dragon, a $4m English-language action love story which will be shot almost entirely in Singapore from June. Australian-born Max Mannix will direct the project, which is one of five the company aims to make within three years.

'The English-speaking environment makes Singapore highly attractive' says Mannix, who also heads up the local outfit. 'We can do anything we need to do in English without relying on translation. The tax is low and it was not difficult to set up shop here.'