Singapore GaGa Tours Singapore
Feature by: Tan Pin Pin
As I write this, Singapore GaGa's five-week run at The Arts House has just ended. Due to popular demand, they are extending the run for another two weeks. That Singapore GaGa even had a cinematic release is novel as it is 55-minutes long, not your usual feature-length work which runs at least 70 minutes. Moreover, it is a video documentary about Singapore, one that is experimental in structure. The words "video", "documentary", "experimental", and "Singapore" are not usually selling points in Singapore. More so in the combination of those words, it should not even be seen at all.
So it was a surprise to me that every one of the 31 screenings were sold out. This article is not about the video, but about the meandering journey Singapore GaGa took around Singapore before it came to have this successful run at the Arts House. I will also mention some of the unusual publicity techniques we used that perhaps contributed to its success.
Digital technology has unleashed many videos of varying lengths, content, and quality in Singapore. The reason why you have never heard of many of these works is that they have not been shown. Even if they are of equal quality, they don't fit the format required for it to be screened in cinemas or television, which are the usual distribution outlets of content. They were probably too short or too long, the content too adventurous, or its form too playful. Cinemas or television are distribution outlets with standardised content and specifications and if your work does not fit those specs, you won't be able to find a place within those ranks. With Singapore GaGa, I found that I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole so I had to find alternative ways of getting the film known and seen beyond the usual places.
Singapore GaGa is a 55-minute video documentary featuring the songs and sounds that I treasure. It consists of vignettes of Singaporeans performing for the camera; while these musical numbers seem unrelated, when seen cumulatively, they give audiences a sense of life in Singapore as well as and its history. It was my attempt to communicate a view of Singapore with other Singaporeans by tapping into our communal aural memory. In terms of its presentation, it was certainly not mainstream; many cast members meander in and out of the documentary and there was more than one storyline. On the other hand, some people featured are easily identified by many Singaporeans. GaGa's publicist calls it "avant garde family fun".
If its final form was unusual, its birth was even more unusual. It was self-commissioned and produced, made with my own money, with funding from the Singapore Film Commission, the Asia Research Institute, the Lee Foundation, and some sponsors and supportive crew members. We took nine months to make this work; the bulk of it was spent traversing Singapore collecting sounds and footage. This extended way of shooting was made possible by the small size of video cameras and cheap tapes. It was easy to get up and shoot with minimum fuss. If Variety, the film trade magazine were to give this work a prognosis, it'd be along the lines of "Charming idiosyncratic video with strong word-of-mouth potential within Singapore but in the absence of a big marketing budget, may take time for news of it to percolate to its intended audience. Its length of 55 minutes may prevent it from being widely released but it has potential on TV".
When I first completed this video, I had no inkling that this was the path it would take. I was too embroiled in its making to consider its post-premiere trajectory. There was no precedent I could follow because nothing like this had ever screened widely in Singapore.
Usually, when a film is made—if its rights are not already pre-sold—the producer (owner of the work) knocks on doors of cinemas to ask if they are interested in showing this film, and between them they would work out a deal as to how they want to split the proceeds of the ticket sales (For Singaporean works, the going rate is 60-40, in favour of the cinemas). They may discuss how many screens will open the film (smaller Singapore films with no stars open in four cinemas at most, out of more than 140 screens). There will be discussion as to who would pay for the advertising and prints. These ancillary costs usually fall on the shoulders of the producer. Hence, if the run is only in a few cinemas, there is a very high chance that the producer may lose money because he or she does not have economies of scale. More people need to see it for the producer to earn his or her money back, but people will see it if more marketing money is pumped into it to create greater awareness—all of which perpetuates a vicious cycle. This task of approaching people to sell rights is usually undertaken by the distributor of the film. For Singapore GaGa, I did not have a distributor so I had to knock on doors and do the figures myself.
Here is what I found out: the cinema route did not work for Singapore GaGa. Firstly, films have a week in the cinemas to "make it" before they get pulled off or its number of screenings become drastically reduced to make way for more profitable blockbusters. This did not suit the temperament of Singapore GaGa. Singapore GaGa needed a longer run because it was one of those films whose best marketing tool (in the absence of a huge budget) was word of mouth, which needs time to build up. Secondly, I would have had to pay the cost of transferring GaGa to film upfront (USD 2,000/ print copy x 4=USD 8,000) or encoding it to a video format that can be played by the cinema's video players. I would also have to pay for the advertising costs if I could not find sponsors for ad slots. With the cinemas taking a 60% ticket cut right off the bat and with such a small release, at the end of the day, it would not have been unforeseeable for me to pay people to come to see Singapore GaGa. For distribution outlets like video or television, there is a different set of costs involved.
This system of distribution, i.e. released at once on many screens with a big bang, is more suited for blockbusters with big stars or special effects which have instant drawing power. It is ill-suited for hand-crafted boutique films like GaGa with no stars, no special effects and tiny ad budgets. Finances aside, I was also a little skeptical about screening GaGa in cinemas because I was not sure what the cinema chains could offer that a place like Substation (which offered fairer ticket splits) could not. Sure, there were the plush seats and great sound and projection. Sure, there was the prestige of telling people that Singapore GaGa has the benefit of a "cinema release"—one could have GaGa's poster hung beside King Kong or whatever was screening that day. But all that would ring hollow if one had to be in debt to bring that to fruition. Singapore GaGa was already a non-profit making video; I was trying to avoid it becoming a loss-making one too.
Of course there was the argument that screening it at a Cineplex would bring in more audiences. But who is to say that less people would come if it was shown in a non-traditional venue? In fact, while running the publicity campaign with the marketing folks at The Arts House, we were very conscious of the fact that we were training and cultivating audiences - that films/videos need not be seen in a Cineplex, that films could be experienced in a variety of places, some ephemeral, others not. In fact, very likely, the best and most interesting work (like short 55-minute experimental documentaries) could be found in unexpected venues. I found myself questioning the whole process of film distribution in Singapore as I tried to work out the best course for Singapore GaGa.
Singapore GaGa started its life in the Singapore International Film Festival 2005 (SIFF). It was screened for free at Goethe Institute which seats no more than 60 people. I had sent out blurbs about this screening to the usual film listservs, made a website for it (singaporegaga.com), and not much else. It was an extremely low-key world premiere - I was so diffident of its viability that I did not even notify the press. To my surprise, the screening was completely filled. Philip Cheah, the SIFF programmer, opened another screening slot. The second screening was even more packed, people were sitting on the floor, and many were turned away. This was my first inkling of the power of word of mouth. To my delight, GaGa garnered unsolicited positive reviews in The Straits Times - the intrepid Ong Sor Fern had hunted down a VHS copy and called it "one of the best films about Singapore". There was a letter in The Straits Times recommending that GaGa be shown and taught in all social studies and history classes in Singapore. Online forums helped create buzz too. At the same screening, GaGa was also invited to the Rotterdam International Film Festival, giving it an extra fillip.
In my exhausted state, I realised that my work had only just begun. I had a sense that this video demanded to be seen, and I had to work to get it seen. A theatrical release was not very attractive to me, for the reasons mentioned above, but without it, what other avenues were available to me?
I approached Substation, an independent arts centre which is the backbone of the burgeoning short film scene in Singapore. They showed my first documentary way back in 1997 and I knew they would be supportive of Singapore GaGa. Although their calendar was very packed, (the cinema doubles as a theatre too), they could spare a weekend in July. They wanted to sponsor the screening but I declined so I donated the first night's ticket sales to them. With five screenings and a seating capacity of 110, we needed to sell 550 tickets.
Zhang Wenjie, Substation's then-film-programmer, drew up a publicity and marketing plan for this mini-release, along the lines of:
18 May - Prepare press release
27 May - Publicity collaterals (website, posters, postcards) done, send for printing
7 June - Distribute postcards, disseminate press release, send stills to press, invite press
10 June - Press screening
13 June - Tickets go on sale/send first email blast through Substation's mailing list
27 June - Second email blast
I was to get the posters, postcards, banners designed and printed, and also put together the press kit and press materials. This entailed writing, re-writing and long conversations with the designer. We got good blurbs from the press so we leveraged our whole weight on those few lines: We put in "Singapore GaGa will send you guffawing till your sides split" in all our collaterals. Meanwhile, Hatta Moktar the marketing manager and my friend Jasmine Ng, called the press to impress upon them why they needed to cover this video at the press screening (a job best done not by me). Reporters from AFP, AP and also South China Morning Post (Hong Kong) came. We got wide coverage in the international press--Singapore GaGa's review was reprinted in The Bangkok Post and even The Taiwan Times. Meanwhile, the local media weren't interested in reviewing GaGa because they would only cover cinema releases and five screenings at the Substation did not constitute as one. I bore this in mind.
All 550 tickets were sold out.
For all the work we put in, could I have wrangled for a longer run so that there would be better economies of scale, with the same amount of work put in but with more tickets sold? Perhaps. I took a slower approach because—the solid response at SIFF notwithstanding—I wasn't sure whether GaGa could obtain an audience for five screenings. I was finding things out as I went along, testing the boundaries of myself, my video, my crew. We all rose to the occasion.
During the screenings, a few teachers came up to me and asked to screen GaGa in their schools. One teacher said "The students need to know that there is another Singapore that is outside the one represented by the mass media". So quite by accident, Singapore GaGa became distributed as part of the schools' screening programmes and I was the lead vaudevillian. I showed Singapore GaGa to the students and answered questions about it afterwards. Some schools used Singapore GaGa to talk about what it meant to be Singaporean. The students were first asked to write out what Singapore meant to them (most would write about the clean streets, the crime-free environment, and the good government), then GaGa would be shown to them to counterpoint and corroborate what they have written. My most memorable school tour moment was when Singapore GaGa was screened as part of the National Day celebrations at Madrasah Aljunied (one of the schools featured in GaGa). One thousand kids were cloistered in the dimmed school hall and they started to scream when they saw themselves on screen.
I wanted to take Singapore GaGa out of cinemas and to the "the people", but I did not imagine that this entailed screening it in stuffy school halls with hundreds of students sitting cross-legged watching it, singing along to it. In some schools the video projectors and sound systems were shoddy. But I got used to these less-than-ideal conditions for there was something very special about seeing the students peering curiously at the screen, watching themselves. The question that capped it for me was one asked by a young boy from Bedok View Secondary, "Excuse me Miss Tan, does this mean I can make my own film about Singapore with just any camera?" Somewhere during the screening, it had dawned upon him that Singapore was waiting for him to define it with something as simple as a handheld camera. I hope he never lets go of this thought.
The school tour is still underway. It is managed by GaGa's Singapore distributor Objectifs Films, who markets it to the schools.
I continued to talk with exhibitors, but negotiations fell through once we talked about the number of screenings I would like for it. I wanted them to commit to more screenings than they felt they could afford. They in turn were daunted by my meager marketing budget. I could read their minds: how does she think she can pull in the crowds? However, in my negotiations with the Arts House, I found that they were keen to screen Singapore GaGa three times a week for five weeks, which was perfect for the word-of-mouth marketing plan I had in mind. They were also open to increasing the slots if it was popular. The only snag was that most Singaporeans don't associate the Arts House with being a screening space. It is a new venue more known for its theatre space. I found their 75-seater screening room comfortable and it had a great projector and sound system. They gave me a split that was more reasonable than what I was offered before. Moreover, I could screen GaGa in mini-DV format, so I did not have to make expensive transfers to film or encode it for Barco digital projectors as I would have had to do for the cinema chains. Separately, we had to rent a mini-DV player because the Arts House did not have one
By the time it arrived at The Arts House in March 2006, about 7000 people had already seen Singapore GaGa, so this cinema release was the end point, rather than the start, of GaGa's journey. I had, without intending to be contrarian, inverted the whole distribution paradigm. This would also have been a good reason not to have a theatrical release since so many people had already seen it. To supplement the work done by the Arts House for this run, I hired as publicist Teng Qian Xi, a college junior who was bilingual, enthusiastic, and very independent. Two months before the release date, we threw ourselves into publicising Singapore GaGa.
Our primary target audience were people who cared deeply about Singapore. Their patriotism is tempered by worries about Singapore's political process's inability to accept different and discordant voices (Singapore GaGa is after all about sounds and music that are ignored or forgotten). This audience had a healthy skepticism about the Singapore presented to them by the mass media and would go out of their way to seek an alternative, independent and more truthful representation of Singapore and of our life here. They would not be put off by a documentary shot on video which was experimental. In fact, this would be a selling point. Even our choice of venue, though slightly out of the way was ironically suitable because it required viewers to go out of the way to seek it out. No, it was not going to be shown in a Cineplex near their home.
Our marketing strategy (I call it that only in hindsight since we made this up as we went along) sought out these people in different ways where the Internet played an important part.
1 We organised the first ever press screening for well-known Singapore bloggers (not film critics, just blogs which captured the zeitgeist of the segment of Singapore they represented). Because the blogosphere was not monolithic and was perceived to be independent, there was a lot more room for conversation and discussion between the readers and the bloggers. Online conversations are just a more efficient way for word of mouth to spread. The bloggers' screening was held in Qian Xi's living room and it was a very informal affair, consistent with the spirit of the video and its marketing efforts. As a result, GaGa became a discussed topic in the Singapore blogosphere thanks to a few influential evangelists who promoted us by recommending us. For example: http://www.toomanythoughts.org/blog/2006/03/listening-to-singapore.html.
Margaret Leng Tan (one of the performers in the video) and myself were even featured on mrbrown's podcast (http://www.mrbrown.com/blog/2006/03/browncast_singa.html)
2 In tandem with our online marketing efforts, Singapore GaGa's e-flyer and poster could be freely downloaded from our singaporegaga.com website so that people who liked it could hang it up on their blogs/websites.
3 We played the GaGa trailers everywhere: indie screening spaces, like the Substation, university screenings (In exchange, I would play their trailers before GaGa's screening). The trailers were even played at non-film events like talks and presentations not connected to film.
4 We blasted egroups and listservs with news of the screening, groups that weren't film-related but had some relationship to the following topics: music, civil society, politics and various subcultures who might identify with GaGa. Many helped us with the publicity by posting for us in their listserv too.
5 We approached smaller magazines like university newspapers, design magazines, and other press which catered to a niche audience.
Of course we sought publicity from the traditional media too and their help was vital to Singapore GaGa's success. The press, who did not want to review GaGa during its short run at the Substation, now supported us in full force. From 8 Days to The Straits Times to Today to Zaobao, we had the equivalent of four stars. The press also wrote profiles of our cast members in connection with the Singapore GaGa screening. We had articles on Margaret Leng Tan (toy pianist), Gn Kok Lin, (juggler), Victor Khoo (ventriloquist) in different settings. Meanwhile,
1 We found an ad sponsor in Maxell Professional Media so with their help, we bought ad space in The Straits Times and IS Magazine. We also made 10,000 postcards that were distributed at various venues; all these materials had the Maxell logo on them.
2 We made a very concerted effort to reach out to the Mandarin-speaking audience. Chinese subtitles were specially commissioned for this screening, and I took some question-and-answer sessions in Mandarin and English so that those who didn't speak English could have their questions answered. I also went on Chinese radio no less than four times to publicise the screening. In addition, as a result of the bloggers' screening, GaGa was the subject of an editorial column in Lianhe Zaobao, the main Chinese newspaper.
It is hard to quantify which of these methods amongst the many that we tried was most helpful. In the feedback forms, a third of the respondents came to know of GaGa through their friends. Others had heard about it through the press, many from blogs as well as the Arts House publicity.
In absolute numbers, the number of people who saw King Kong definitely outnumbered those that saw Singapore GaGa. But I feel that we reached our optimum audience numbers for this video. With our limited resources, we could not afford to target the general public. We targeted a very specific group of viewers and we managed to reach them. With their help, they told more people about this screening so more people came to know about this work.
Did the Singapore GaGa tour make money? We did not lose money, but we did not make money either, if we quantified all the time and effort everyone contributed. It was a labour of love, not just for me but for many of those involved as well, from the usher who volunteered during Substation's screening to the relative who hung GaGa's postcard in her car's rear window.
By the end of Singapore GaGa's run, it had been seen by more than 8000 paying audiences. It became the first Singapore film to be released outside the cinema chains. It was also the first Singapore documentary to have a theatrical run. Moreover, it was the first time The Arts House became an exhibitor for a Singapore film. GaGa was also the first video in which school tours were an intrinsic part of its distribution strategy. This is more than I can wish for a mongrel video that was a labour of love, that was an experiment in a way of filming, a way of living.
The Arts House may be approached by other Singapore filmmakers from now on. A tiny caveat though: this method of releasing films over a long period at non-traditional venues and marketing in alternative ways is suitable mainly for work that does not cost much to produce, is relevant to Singaporeans and is very singular in its vision. There must be a compelling reason for people to trek out of their way to see it. It may not be as suitable for genre pictures (horror/gangster/romantic comedy). Why travel out of the way when you can see the same at a Cineplex near your house? Furthermore, if it is a genre picture, it may not appeal to one's sense of having made a discovery. There must be something unusual about the work (beyond it being Singaporean) which compels others to want to blog or talk about it with their friends.
It has been a year since Singapore GaGa premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival. Now that it is in the safe hands of a distributor and a sales agent, I am letting it go and moving on to my next work about spaces in Singapore. A DVD of Singapore GaGa will be released in 2006. Look out for it.
Singapore GaGa distributed in Singapore by Objectifs Films
Singapore GaGa is distributed by Focus Films: focusfilms.cc outside
Tan Pin Pin, Director and Producer