It’s all about the buck. Credit crisis or not, when it comes to making a film in Asia the most ideal location is foremost the country that provides the best overall financial incentives: exchange rates, travel costs, cheap labor, tax breaks and feasibility of production financing are all vital elements for getting your project off the ground. The scenery, people, culture and overall cinematographic experience run a close second once all of the financial necessities have been locked in. With these factors in mind, we have chosen the top three filming locations in Asia.
Singapore is the hub of choice for many global media brands. The cosmopolitan island metropolis is an ideal east-west gateway on which to stage any major cinematographic adventure. You can soak up the city’s old-world charms along with its state-of-the-art production, content sourcing and one-stop broadcasting facilities. In one centralised location you can find pure natural vistas and diverse cityscapes, ranging from colonial outposts to futuristic skyscrapers and, of course, beautiful beachside islands. Singapore also offers cutting-edge technology, highly efficient production facilities and a thriving market of creative talent.
Singapore is located in the heart of the Orient, and many media companies have taken notice –– BBC World, HBO Asia, Nickelodeon, and Walt Disney Television are just a few of the companies that have strategically set up shop in the city. Citizens of this expatriate island colony are fluently bilingual in English and Mandarin and infused with multinational influences. This cultural diversity enables Singapore’s creative industries to tap into the vast spectrum of ethnic traditions and knowledge, and easily interface with the global film community. Singapore offers strong intellectual property-rights protection and enhances the quality of film content for an international market. All this helps to make Southeast Asia and China the perfect locales for producers to stage cinematographic masterpieces.
The Media Development Authority (MDA) is the first port of call that will help you to prepare your film. Mr. Seto Lok Yin is the company’s assistant CEO of the Industry Development Division. He’s proud of the MDA’s ability to facilitate contacts with media companies, cast and crew and facilities, and to provide information on locations, regulations and other issues, so filmmakers can seamlessly complete an entire production during their visit.
The MDA has also developed a comprehensive ecosystem comprised of funding efforts, co-production initiatives and government-to-government agreements (most notably with New Zealand, Canada and Australia), so that co-productions can benefit from filmmaking initiatives as if their projects were produced in their individual countries. This enables companies to more freely pool their resources and create a larger distribution network for quality exportable media content internationally and in each other’s domestic markets. Producers can easily apply for benefits or assistance programs, which include investment and tax concessions. Productions are also treated as “local content” in each country for the purposes of audiovisual regulations.
Complementing the MDA’s efforts is the invaluable aid by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), which administers the Film in Singapore! Scheme. This $10 million fund subsidises up to 50 percent of qualifying expenses incurred by big-name international film companies during their shoots in the country. STB also assists in facilitating on-ground logistics requirements and applications for filming permits while working closely with relevant government agencies and industry partners.
Having upped the ante of incentives to expand their global attractiveness, Singapore currently has a slate of international co-productions: One Last Dance by Brazilian director Max Makowski (creator of the U.S. television hit “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”) liaising with China’s Ming Productions; House of Harmony (a German/Singapore telefilm co-production); Secrets of Battleship Yamato (a U.S./Japan/Singapore production); Dance of the Dragon (starring Korean heartthrob Hyuk Jang); Hollywood’s Emmy Award-winning “The Contender, Season 4”;and the Korean television drama “Worlds Within.”
Singapore’s latest effort, The Digital Content Development, provides seed funding to animation projects, which encourages the development of original animated TV series pilots and trailers for animated feature films. Open to Singapore-registered companies, the locale now houses Asia’s most advanced technology and has just released its first full-length 3-D feature, Zodiac: The Race Begins,and Asia’s first made-for-cellphone Mandarin serial drama, “P.S. I Love You.”
Hot on the heels of Singapore lies a filmmaking enigma: China. Whether it’s the film The Last Emperor or the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, China is the sort of country where filmmaking miracles can manifest. With infinitely more shooting locations than Singapore and significantly cheaper everyday costs, China has cleaned up its filmmaking act with a spate of big international productions over the past few years. The Painted Veil, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and The Kite Runner have all enhanced China’s industry professionalism, production facilities and crew skills while curbing under-the-table payments, though there is still a limited number of Chinese production crews that speak English.
China has opened their borders to western production with relaxed restrictions, and their modified censorship system can better accommodate production needs. However, Chinese authorities still maintain close scrutiny on the final editing of films to ensure a positive “China perception.” (Note: this doesn’t happen when shooting in Hong Kong.)
China’s vast range of remote natural settings are effectively resourced by quality equipment houses, such as Cinerent, and they are well equipped for fast replacements and repairs when necessary. Film studios in Tianshan and Xi'an enable easy access to remote mountainous terrain –– the majority of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was shot in a desert just a three-hour drive from Beijing.
A vital key to filming successfully in China is obtaining a local fixer with the right knowledge and connections to organize permits. There isn’t any one-stop shop where you can get everything sorted out, especially considering China’s different provincial and central government requirements. I personally had a few run-ins with army and government officials when making my 4,000-kilometer trek along the length of the Great Wall of China –– a good translator or personal grasp of Mandarin is absolutely essential. A lot of time and resources can be expended in getting one’s head around China’s filming logistics, as was the case when scouting and shooting The Kite Runner near Kashgar in Xinjiang Province. Producer Walter F. Parkes reminisces on the experience: “That was as exciting and harrowing a ten days as I ever spent scouting a location, and I don’t think I’ve been to a place that felt more foreign.” In general, the China Film Co-Production Corporation is the official agency that renders initial assistance to overseas filmmakers.
If you can pull off filming in China, the rewards make it well worth the effort. Witness how the original Ming 16th-century village used in The Painted Veil added authenticity to the film’s depiction of the cholera epidemic. China’s culture and history are great benefits when shooting in one of the planet’s oldest civilizations (and there is always a supply of raw materials, like lumber, for constructing large exterior sets when ancient sites are not easily at hand). The price of isolated locales, however, can be having your cast and crew endure extreme heat and cold, exhaustion, snakes and other production nightmares.
China does not currently offer any tax breaks or other financial incentives, but Hong Kong features low-profit, Hong Kong-derived tax rates based at 16.5 percent for corporations and 15 percent for unincorporated businesses, as well as having no sales tax or tax on capital gains, dividends or interest. “This doesn’t make China any less attractive,” claims Chinese Whispers director Gin Kai. “I was shooting in the world’s biggest studio at Hengdian [World Studios] and the daily cost for extras was only $5US a day!” Savings like that only add to the benefit of Hong Kong’s 60-day visiting policy, where overseas employees are not liable for salary tax.
Generally, only a set number of international features are allowed to enter the country each year. But this enables aspiring international companies to team up with a myriad of Chinese co-production facilities that are currently flush with cash. Such relationships also create avenues for screening films in the lucrative Chinese market.
Korea’s main filming centers of Seoul and Busan have a difficult track record of attracting foreign productions because, like Japan, Korea is one of the most expensive countries in the world. However, its domestic film industry is still bustling with activity, and has been aggressively seeking international productions since the institution of the Seoul Film Commission (SFC) in 2007.
The SFC has laid out a plethora of location and filmmaking incentives to attract co-production dollars. Firstly, it operates the Production Cost-Support program, which rebates up to 25 percent on in-city spending up to a maximum of 100,000,000 Korean won. (With the decline of the won over the past six months, this rebate value has gone from $100,000US to $70,000US, but the production value is still the same, which makes it even cheaper to shoot in Korea.) Feature films, documentaries and television programs (running over 60 minutes) that are shot for at least a week in Seoul are eligible. This includes foreign productions and Korean/international co-productions. The refunds are allotted in accordance with the anticipated effects of publicity and economic impact.
The SFC also operates a Location Scouting-Support program that provides round-trip airline tickets and accommodation for Seoul location scouting. Foreign productions planning to shoot in Seoul can send up to two people (directors, assistant directors, producers, cinematographers and location managers) for three nights.
As of December 2008, 35 commercial features, 149 shorts, 4 commercials, 3 music videos, 6 TV movies, 2 documentaries, 5 international films and 6 miscellaneous projects have received Seoul Film Commission's location support in 2008. Among the international films that received location/production support in 2007 and 2008 are Treeless Mountain (USA/Korea 2008), directed by KIM Soyoung; Dream (Korea/Japan 2008), directed by Kim Ki-Duk; and three documentaries for the National Geographic Channel: Traffic in Seoul, Quick Quick Korea, and I Log In, Therefore I Am.
Seoul is a modern megapolis that offers modern architectural skyscrapers, high-end residential neighborhoods, lots of public traffic facilities and cross-city highways. It is also home to Korea's top-five ancient palaces. But Korea’s best features are the simple traditional dwellings and markets bustling with old people. These places are culturally unique and rarely shot in international films –– they possess a virginal quality just waiting to be discovered. Add to that the lush green mountains cascading around the capital, a one-kilometer-wide river that criss-crosses the city, and 25 bridges each with its own distinct illumination, all creating a stage for some great sci-fi locations.
Unlike other big cities, where obtaining film permits can be a real challenge, Seoul is very film-friendly. The SFC provides a simple online application to help international companies obtain permissions and requirements for locations, this includes assisting scouting and serving as a liaison with location owners. Supported by massive location databases for city shoots and traffic broadcasting, the SFC arranges parking lots and aids in mitigating any potential public grievance.
Overall, Korean crews are very professional (albeit lacking by U.S. standards) and the number of English-speaking film professionals is growing. Post-production-wise, the industry is very advanced, especially in CGI and special effects –– and all at a price that is comparably lower than in the U.S.
By Nathan Hoturoa Gray, author of Penguin Global Best Seller: First Pass Under Heaven – One Man’s 4,000 km Trek Along the Great Wall of China: www.greatwalldvd.com)
China Co-Production Corporation
General Manager: Ms. Zhang Xun. Project Manager: Helen Wang.
Hong Kong Film Service Office (TELA)
Seoul Film Commission
Singapore/Media Development Authority