Viddsee provides a much-needed platform for the online screening of local and regional films. Is this what the future of film distribution will look like?
It’s a Sunday a ernoon and Derek Tan and Ho Jia Jian are chatting with me via Skype (both of them are based in Singapore). Ho, the Malaysian half of the duo, informs me that the distribution network for short films within South-East Asia isn’t looking very robust. At best, only a couple of small shops are selling DVD compilations of short films from the region. And then things pretty much end there. Tan adds that “even at film festivals, only a handful of short films get picked up by distributors.”
Engineers by profession and lmmakers by passion, both Tan and Ho are in a unique position to help the short film industry. They’ve merged their interest in both fields to found Viddsee, an online platform designed to make some of the best South-East Asian short films accessible to the public. Viddsee is home to a variety of short films which have been either submitted by local filmmakers or curated from YouTube and Vimeo.
Derek Tan and Ho Jia Jian.
Tan and Ho have embraced digital distribution in the best way possible, having built Viddsee on the notion that films are discovered socially, especially through Facebook and Twitter. Ever since it was launched in January 2013, Viddsee has gone on to collaborate with various regional filmmakers. It has also partnered with the Singapore Short Film Awards, the Asean International Film Festival and the National Museum of Singapore, and has even launched a mobile application of its own. With around 30 lm submissions and 10,000 to 20,000 unique visitors a month, the Singaporean startup has certainly been making waves.
Currently, Tan and Ho have their sights set on Penang. Viddsee has partnered up with Tropfest South East Asia (Tropfest SEA), set to take place at the Esplanade in January 2014, as its online screening partner. I caught up with them to find out what they think of the collaboration, and why they search for stories in short films.
It isn’t surprising that you’ve now partnered Tropfest SEA after seeing Viddsee at Roughcut last June. How did Viddsee begin collaborating with the festival?
Ho Jia Jian: On Twitter [laughs]. Grace (Chin, who manages Tropfest SEA’s Partnerships and Communications) started liking our films on our Facebook page. When we saw her on Twitter, I said, “Hey, I think we should talk”, and we started chatting.
What does this online partnership entail for Viddsee?
Ho: So far we’ve been helping to drive lm submissions, but for the festival itself, we’ll be screening all of the short films on Viddsee. We really just want to reach out to our audience as well as content creators around South-East Asia.
Derek Tan: I think it’s interesting because Tropfest SEA’s philosophy is similar to Viddsee’s, which is to build a bigger short film industry within South-East Asia. Tropfest SEA allows filmmakers to submit their films for competition, and we’re supporting them by housing those films. So I think this is a really great collaboration.
It’s increasingly common to have to pay for digital content. One thing that makes Viddsee stand out is that its short films are available for free. This is obviously a good thing for the audience, but what do the filmmakers make of that?
Ho: I think the reason why filmmakers willingly submit their films to us even though they’ve never uploaded their films online before is because they see things the way we do. You have to think: what is the film industry going to be like 10 years down the road? Are we only going to be entertained by Hollywood films? Are we not going to see the value in our own cultures? I think that’s what filmmakers have in mind when they come on board – I think they see it as more than making that hundred dollars. But there’s still a lot of mindset shi that needs to take place when you talk about digital distribution.
One filmmaker that comes to mind is Anthony Chen. On Viddsee, there’s a channel for his short films. I read that his feature film, Ilo Ilo, was selected as Singapore’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars. The film did quite well at Cannes not too long ago.
Tan: I just discovered his work, actually. His interpretation of human life is really moving. As a filmmaker, that’s something I explore a lot – the development of a character throughout the film and his/ her relationships with other characters in the film. A lot of times, it’s hard for us to capture very plot-driven stories with such a short amount of time. But then, we get to really extenuate relationships and human emotions. I think it’s a good way of taking life and translating it on screen.
Is that what you look for in a short film?
Tan: I think we’re ultimately looking for stories because stories bring about conversation – people talk about them and that’s how they’re translated. So we’ve always been very conscious of curating short films whose stories can transverse the typical short film crowd to the larger market. We really want to allow conversations to take place not just on Viddsee, but in everyday life as well.
Ho: Less experimental stuff also, which you tend to get with a lot of short films. We didn’t want the audience to invest 20 minutes of their time and still feel totally puzzled at the end of the film.
Tan: Plus, people might have preconceived notions about short films. Being Singaporean, I know that there’s this notion of Singaporean lms being very artsy. So we wanted to use bite- sized content to develop an audience regionally and show them what short films from Singapore or Thailand or the Philippines can be like.
Viddsee’s got a heavy South-East Asian focus. Do you find yourselves limited to a certain kind of content because filmmakers from this region may tend to tackle the same themes, and by extension, make the same kind of stories? Is that the case, or would you consider South-East Asia to be a niche market?
Tan: I think if you look at it as a whole, the films we receive are pretty diverse. Although certain topics do come up more often, that’s only because we’re fundamentally human. We’re similar that way. Even if we start opening up to countries like Korea and China, I think the stories we get would still be alike. It’s just that the language, the culture and the people may differ. We’re working towards creating a platform to showcase content from Asia because the lack of platforms in Asia is really what makes Asian content inaccessible.
Ho: We’re starting off with South-East Asia because we want to raise the profile of content creators in this region. It’s easy to get submissions from Europe and the US, but South-East Asian films often get drowned in comparison to them. For instance, it’s actually really hard to find a good Malaysian film because there isn’t a platform to access them.
Whenever I come across Malaysian filmmakers currently making films in places like Taiwan, I keep on thinking about the opportunity cost. The trend of people leaving the country isn’t even specific to the film industry. Ho, since you’re a Malaysian living in Singapore, do you have any comments on that?
Ho: On why Malaysian filmmakers leave? I think filmmakers are beginning to realise that they’re not alone anymore. And it’s really because of the Internet that everybody’s getting connected. It’s funny, because Singaporeans filmmakers do leave for Malaysia as well – they find Singapore very stifting. It’s very weird. Everyone’s trying to find the grass that’s greener on the other side.
Tan: We were talking to a Filipino filmmaker who made one of her short films in New York, and now she’s based there. Filmmakers are ready to branch out and experience new things. at helps the country because it enables collaborations to take place, especially when the filmmakers have a tieback to their own countries. In Singapore, you hear of films being made not just for the Singaporean market, but for the Malaysian and Taiwanese markets as well. That kind of cross-pollination helps build the film industry in Asia, so I see it as a good thing.
Amanda Yeoh is a student, a writer and, of all things, a minimalist.