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Emily Hoe on How the Singapore Film Festival Planned its Way Through a Virus Hit Year

Patrick Frater
·4-min read

Emily J. Hoe took over as executive director of the Singapore International Film Festival just as the world was waking up to the coronavirus as a full-on pandemic. A calm head helped prevail and deliver a slimmed down, but still familiar, event that is presented in physical form and partially online.

Variety: You have a background in arts management. What did you bring to the festival.
Emily Hoe: I’ve worked in the arts in Singapore since 2007. I actually started as a marketing manager for a small, independent multidisciplinary organization called The Substation. And at that time we had a really strong film program. Then I went to the Esplanade, with the National Performing Arts.
I came to the Singapore International Film Festival and started the day before the circuit breaker (Singapore’s stay-at-home reaction to the coronavirus) began.

I’ve had three careers. My first was actually in retail management, which gave me a lot of insight into customers. How you deal with them, how to put them first and how to engage. Coming into the Film Festival, obviously it’s very fun, front-facing.

How did the planning go?

We went through multiple planning contingencies, breaking it down into the different programs, and making contingency after contingency plan as the environment changed. So, it feels like we’ve actually programmed the festival a number of times over.

What were the decisions that led to this particular format, which is a hybrid format?
Doing just the normal physical festival was obviously quite dicey. Then we looked at a hybrid and then fully online. And we had to really evaluate, should the show go on. For us it was also hugely important to continue to be that platform that is present and current and able to support the film makers, to continue to be that ground for development, and to allow the industry side also to continue.

We’ve never done online screening screenings before. So that leads us down into a rabbit hole of trying to work out what platforms we use, what these different platforms offer. One of the main priorities was making sure that the filmmaker’s works were as protected as possible. Unfortunately I don’t think any of them are foolproof.

Which system did you go with in the end?
We are actually working with our Singapore partner, the independent cinema called The Projector. They actually built their own virtual platform called Projector Plus.

How much smaller is the program?
We are at about 70 films, instead of around 90. When we first did the call for entry earlier in the year, we did not know what we’re going to get back. That’s because the independent film industry (saw production very hit by the coronavirus). And even the big studios were struggling, titles were getting pushed out and delayed. So it makes us even more grateful to know that more than 90% of the films that we have in the festival are actually 2020 releases. We’ve been pleasantly surprised.

Do you have to limit how many people are going to see the film and pay the rights accordingly?
Yes, there’s restrictions on all cinemas depending on the size of the cinema and these safe management measures that have been put in place. At the moment the maximum number of people in any cinema in Singapore is 150. We’ve got some films that are only theatrical screenings, and some that are both online and physical. None that are online only. If you’ve got a filmmaker that says, you know I envisaged this film to be on the big screen with a lot of audience, we try to respect that.

How are the Q&A’s with film makers and panels being handled?
They’re all going online. They will actually be recorded. What we’re doing is we’re collecting questions from audience members before the screenings. Many of the questions will then be posed to the filmmakers. We would love to do it live. We thought maybe we could do it live-streamed in the cinema, but that’s just encouraging people to hang around, which we don’t want these days.

What are your current thoughts on the state of Southeast Asian cinema?
We have a Southeast Asian focus. We want to make sure that we continue with the South and Southeast Asian short film competition. We’ve got our Asian features section and, with the producers, the Southeast Asian Film Lab. It’s very much an area that we want to continue to support and develop. The potential there is enormous.

You have this weird situation where you kick off the festival, but there’s no red carpet. How do you know it started?
When we realized we couldn’t do red carpet we were actually exploring whether we could do a drive-in cinema, reworking that beautiful classic. But in the end, we couldn’t. It’ll be on social media, so there’ll be photos to prove it (laughs).

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