Who is the Entertainment Industry’s “Secret Santa?”

Catherine Morrissey explains how Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA) just might be the co-production finance partner you’re looking for.

Do you remember Santa?  How he’s coming to town, he’ll give you great presents if you are good all year?  (Were you a good girl/boy this year?)

When you’re older, and become part of the “grown up world” many of the simplicities of childhood go right out the window, forever!   But we always seem to look for a reward or magical gift, even as mature as we get, you have to admit most of us get excited when we “win” something, even if it’s only $5 from a $1 lottery ticket.

Jim Henson's Dinosaur Train. Image © 2009, The

Jim Henson Company.

So what do Santa and lottery tickets have in common?  They both encourage the believer to believe in magic and miracles.  Even after we grow up, we still want to believe in Santa (and that we’ll win the lottery - big!).  This sort of thinking and believing is part of what it takes to embark on the long and hard journey of raising funds in order to “go into production.”  And just like believing in Santa, we [eventually] found out that there’s somebody behind that pile of gifts that “magically appear.”

In the realm of creating entertainment content, the phrase “smoke and mirrors” is commonly used to describe the approach to financing, pulling together the pieces of the budget puzzle.  It’s practically a miracle indeed these days, to find out any project has been financed outside the studio system.  So I’d like to share with you how there might be a “secret Santa” hiding out in a warm, tropical climate, who wants to help you finance your next show.

But first, a little background info on project financing.

Government grants are today’s most amazing form of raising money for entertainment projects, because typically, government(s) do not ask for much in return.   Mostly they want you to spend their grant money locally, so they can support their labor pool.  The goal is to grow “crops” of world class talent, who become globally competitive through co-production, and who also develop the skills to create and find financing for their own original home-grown entertainment projects that will work across multiple platforms.

Mr. Moon. Image © 2010 Sparky Animation Pte

Ltd., Gallileo Ltd., Title Entertainment (Mr. Moon)
Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Of all government funders I’ve come across, the most well thought out and accessible agency seems to be the Media Development Authority in Singapore, where un-bureaucratic executives make pithy statements like “We can be the best, if we learn from the best.”  And their budget for “learning”?  is about US$70 million this year.

So if you are not from Singapore and you have a strong project in an advanced stage, where there is global interest (broadcaster and distributor attachments) and other proof of commercial viability, including partial financing commitments, do not pass “go” instead you should proceed directly to the MDA’s website.

There you will see that successful applicants must be Singapore-based, so finding a co-producing partner in Singapore is Step Number One; thus, it behooves you to know about the MDAs government support schemes work.

Some key facts about the MDA:  Up to 40% of money spent in Singapore (the “Singapore Spend”) can be granted in four major “assistance” categories:  1. Development; 2. Production; 3. Marketing; and  4. Talent.  Under their newly modified MDA Grant Schemes, the scheme that will most likely help you to achieve your objectives:  Production Assistance.

Mr. Yeo Chun Cheng, MDA Director of

Broadcast, Animation, Film & Music.

Your best bet is to do your most of your production and/or post-production work in Singapore.  According to the MDA’s Director of Broadcast, Animation, Film & Music, Mr. Yeo Chun Cheng, THE KEY is the amount of Singapore Spend.  Mr. Yeo explained that “All sorts of projects are evaluated.”  And he added “Co-production still is the vast majority of financing grants awarded, and while locals are encouraged to create their own original “IP” (Intellectual Property”) there’s still plenty of room for foreigners to team up with Singapore companies.”  Once your Singapore co-producer submits the paperwork to the MDA, it takes only eight weeks, to receive their decision! (sweet)

Mr. Yeo spoke with me about animation producers (my particular interest), and apparently everything he shared about animation applies across the board for the other entertainment genre (which appear in Mr. Yeo’s long, yet clear professional title).  While it does ebb and flow a bit, Mr. Yeo suspects there are at least 20 very good animation studios in Singapore, and maybe today as many as 40. 

In particular, Mr. Yeo pointed out that KC Wong, Founder and CEO of Sparky Animation, has done both kinds of government-supported projects, with the example of “Dinosaur Train” from Jim Henson Studios a source of pride, even if not invented in Singapore, a world class production and major globally-known co-producer who brought in their own IP.

Dream Defenders. Image © Tiny Island

Productions 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Another notable animation studio in Singapore is led by David Kwok, who explained that his company, Tiny Island, is currently producing their own IP, an original stereoscopic 3D series “Dream Defenders”. “We [Tiny Island] have a complete eco-system here.  The MDA helps us (Singaporeans) with 70% funding of practical training, since one of the [MDA] fundamentals is for us to have a strong work force.  With “Dream Defenders” we have a 360 strategy, a TV series, game, movie, various apps and even more than that ….. everything we’re doing is made in a future-proof way, for all markets and in all formats.“

Not for nothing, and with the highest of professional standards, the other “dream defenders” just might be an apt synonym for the MDA, who already have become a de facto “Santa” to many co-producers around the world.   But in no way does Mr. Yeo consider MDA funds a gift.  It takes a lot of preparation and hard work to qualify any project for MDA Grant Scheme submission.   But in these economic times, it sure does appear to be a very attractive way to lower your production budget.  And you can feel especially good if your animation project is funded by the MDA, knowing that kids all around the world will see your production, a world class “made in Singapore” cartoon, or game, movie, music or all of the above…….!  Quite a big bag of entertaining gifts, from a tiny Asian island where a [wink, wink] very special, secret Santa is scheming away.    

For more information, very clearly laid out (by a government agency, you ask if that’s possible?) - yes, I assure you!  See for yourself how clear and concrete the MDA funding schemes are by going to www.mda.gov.sg 

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Catherine B. Morrissey is an AWN writer who has over 20 years of entertainment industry experience in distribution, production and coproduction.

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