Sunday, May 31, 2009

STI: Acting on ambition

June 1, 2009

the monday interview with Mike Wiluan

Acting on ambition

Gutsy and persuasive, Mike Wiluan, boss of Infinite Frameworks, believes he's building icons

By john lui 


Everywhere you turn in the film and TV industry in Singapore, the name Mike Wiluan crops up. And it is not just because he is the managing director of Singapore's largest and probably only company of its type.


It is because, in an industry notorious for big talkers, wannabes and dreamers, he has that rarest of qualities: He is a risk-taker who actually follows up on his promises.


'Why wait? If there is an opportunity, why not?' he asks.


The animation studio arm of his company helped take over the long-delayed and troubled full-length animation movie Sing To The Dawn and delivered it to cinemas last year after its original studio abruptly dropped the project.


From providing 3-D and high- definition production facilities to taking up space in the state-of-the-art soundstage at the just-announced Mediapolis hub, to the setting up last month of fright flick label Gorylah with film-maker Eric Khoo, Mr Wiluan's Infinite Frameworks appears in industry press releases with alarming regularity.


It is all the more remarkable when one considers that he appeared on the trade radar just five years ago and he is only 33 years old.


Today, he has a finger in, or plans to be involved in, almost every project the Media Development Authority (MDA) has put forward to create a movie industry.


He has become the poster boy of good private-public sector partnerships. The description makes him smile but he offers a correction.


'I have a commercial approach. I am also driven by an immense sense of ambition,' he says.


His aggressive strategy of expanding from post-production work and into creating content just happens to be in line with the Government's plans, he says.


Still, Mr Christopher Chia, chief executive officer of MDA, considers him to be a 'leading champion' of the media industry here, thanks to the firm's commitment to Mediapolis and other recent growth spurts.


The Mediapolis@one-north is a billion-dollar project that will include advanced soundstages and film production facilities built in the Buona Vista area by 2020.


Mr Chia says: 'Mike Wiluan has grown Infinite Frameworks over the years from a small post-production house, providing supporting services to production companies, to one of the biggest players in the industry, moving up the media value chain.'


Of course, there is the fluffier stuff that often makes people wonder if Mr Wiluan is all he is made out to be.


His pan-Asian good looks and connections to Singapore's upper crust make him and his Korean-American model- photographer wife Laurie high-society magazine staples.


The overnight birthday parties held at the Batam beach resort owned by his family are legendary for their theatrical flair. Previous themes have included Indiana Jones and Grease.


And consider his pedigree. He is the middle child of Indonesian engineering, property and resorts magnate Kris Wiluan, chairman of Indonesia's Citramas Group and listed as the country's 35th richest man in the 2007 Forbes magazine ranking, with a personal net worth of US$185 million (S$267 million).


Speaking to Life! last week at the Infinite Frameworks office in the chic shophouse district of Chinatown's Bukit Pasoh area, the younger Mr Wiluan is the picture of creative-professional chic with his white Gucci shirt, Hugo Boss jeans and Paul Smith shoes.


He speaks in a melodious and somewhat posh English accent and regales this writer with one anecdote after another.


But when it comes to talking about work, he is all business. He does not flinch when discussing the troubled Sing To The Dawn project.


In 2003, with some hoopla, development began on the MDA, MediaCorp Raintree Pictures and Singapore company Silicon Illusions studio joint project to animate the 1975 novel by Singaporean writer Ho Minfong.


But by the following year, work on it had faltered, an event some attributed to money running dry at Silicon Illusions.


Then, in 2006, Infinite Frameworks stepped in to do the work. Mr Wiluan admits the decision was met with some scepticism.


'Why did I do it? It is a question I have been asked many times, even by my father,' he says with a smile.


In any event, the film proved to be a disappointment at the box office here, he admits, and is now being tweaked for non-English-speaking markets, where he hopes it will turn a profit.


But it was necessary to make it as it serves as the calling card that will let Infinite Frameworks into 'the big boy's club', he says.


Getting the company on the global map was one key reason he and his partners bought Infinite Frameworks in 2004.


Set up in 1997, the post-production house, then part of a listed company, was well-established and well-regarded. In 2004, Mr Wiluan, representing a consortium, bought over 96 per cent of it.


Around $1.75 million was pumped in to refresh the technology. Soon after, the company became the first high-definition-ready post-production facility in Singapore. Then came the animation pipeline, which grew to accommodate over 100 digital artists.


Today, with facilities in Bukit Pasoh and a 40,000 sq ft animation studio in Batam, the firm is profitable and has a revenue of about $8 million yearly, roughly double what it was when he joined, he says.


An interest in films and acting has been in his blood from boyhood, he says, dating back to the days when his mother took him to the now-closed Capitol Theatre to watch horror movies.


Studied at Dragon School


Born in Singapore, the Indonesian citizen with permanent resident status here was sent to a boarding school with the forbidding name of Dragon School in Oxford, England, at age 10.


The school is more than a century old and its alumni include tennis player Tim Henman, writer Pico Iyer and actor Hugh Laurie from the TV series House.


He later went on to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree in film and television from Kent University, making several student films along the way.


One summer in England, he worked as a telemarketer selling long-distance call credits. He saw the job as a natural extension of acting and grew to love it.


He says: 'I was sitting with a row of people who never saw sunlight, but when they were on the phone, they had the most amazing confidence. They were acting, but through the phone.


'I was enthralled by how they sold the product. I would invent names and characters and have fun.'


One of his alter egos was a salty soldier called Major Windybottom.


Mr Wiluan proceeds to deliver a spot- on and hilarious impersonation of a blustery, stiff-upper-lip army man with a foghorn voice trying to selling telephone credits.


The call centre episode led him to believe that sales acumen depended on the same skill set as performing. That was why, after dabbling in acting and modelling in Singapore for a few years after graduation, he decided to go into the family business, looking after its resort and marina interests on Batam.


He says: 'I knew to progress in my life, I had to leverage on what my father had created. I could learn faster and get the contacts. Also, I was able to learn from a very successful person. My father created business through hard work and clever strategy and I was in a position to learn from the very best.'


His drive, he says, comes from a love of the medium of film and a strong desire to succeed at whatever he sets out to do.


His passion for hamming it up and knack for verbal improvisation is noted by his friend and now business partner, writer-director Eric Khoo.


The film-maker cast him in a cameo in the 2005 movie Be With Me. Khoo, 44, needed a suave and good-looking Romeo character for a seduction scene and Mr Wiluan was a natural pick.


Khoo's Zhao Wei Films and Mr Wiluan's Infinite Frameworks have come together to launch Gorylah Pictures, a label specialising in the horror and thriller genre. Its first movie, Macabre, has already been pre-sold for international distribution and is due for release in October this year.


And Mr Wiluan himself is set to direct his own script, The Nail, under the Gorylah banner.


Khoo says his friend has a gift for the pitch. He is the complete package of looks, charm and verbal dexterity so vital in a creative industry, he says.


'Throw Mike into any situation and he will win people over,' he says.


Indeed, Mr Wiluan's poise and green eyes - his mum Elizabeth is Vietnamese- English while father is Chinese - netted him acting jobs on his return here in 1997 after graduation.


He had a short stint as a VJ on MTV Asia and if he looks familiar, it is because he has also been on the long-running sitcom Under One Roof and the Growing Up drama series.


Writer-director Royston Tan, maker of the films 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008) was a teenager when he first met Mr Wiluan on the set of a TV commercial shoot for a condo. As a crew hand, Tan was at the bottom of the pecking order, while Mr Wiluan as the actor was in the highest.


'Unlike the other models, he was friendly. He appreciated everything we did for him,' he says.


One of the founders of Infinite Frameworks, Mr Freddie Yeo, 39, started the tradition of helping young film-makers on tight budgets by lending facilities and giving advice. The tradition continues to this day.


The busy Mr Wiluan spends a fair amount of time in Batam, where he is managing director of the Citramas- affiliated Nongsa group of resorts comprising Turi Beach, Nongsa Point Marina and Nongsa Village, all located on the Indonesian island.


The two organisations under his care have a lot more in common than meet the eye, he says.


'In the hotel business, we are selling a vision and dream. It is very similar to the film business. It is all about image. It is all about selling the right product to the right audience.'


The Infinite Frameworks animation studio in fact takes up space in Turi Beach Resort.


Despite having so many balls in the air, he still finds time for hobbies, which include racing speedboats and sailing. He does, after all, run the Nongsa Point Marina.


Now that he is a father of two one- year-old twin girls, Naomi and Simone, he wants to spend more time with them and his 33-year-old wife.


Home for the family of four is a terrace house in the eastern part of Singapore, which, he says, is also home to 'dogs and fish and a stray bird once in a while'.


Older sister Angeline, 35, is a former stage actress and younger brother Richard, 31, is group general manager of Citramas-linked KS Energy, an oil rig refurbishment firm. Both also live in Singapore with their families, as do their parents.


Meanwhile, listening to him talk about long-term business goals, it is hard not to be a little swept away: such is the power of his vision and the soaring persuasiveness of his speech.


Ultimately, he hopes to make Infinite Frameworks into nothing less than the world's leading digital studio.


He says: 'We are building brands and icons. We are building, literally, a lighthouse for the rest of the world. We will be bold about it. This is who we are and this is what we believe in.


'If you believe in yourself, people will come.'


my life so far

'I wanted to send out the message that I am not a cowboy coming in the middle of the night to take the horses away'

Mr Wiluan on how he had to be careful not to scare away clients after his consortium bought Infinite Frameworks in 2004


'A pitch is not necessarily about the content. It is about how you engage someone'

On how he manages to win over sceptical clients and investors


'My mother took me to Capitol Theatre to watch Night Of The Living Dead 2 when I was seven or eight years old and I was terrified. But I loved horror. I was always drawn to monster movies'

On how his fascination with horror and visual effects started at a young age, a fondness that would carry over to the founding of Gorylah


'I have been hosting parties at our hotels for many years. I thought since our guests were travelling all this way, we should do something interesting for them to remember. We also have the advantage of a sprawling estate and lots of resources to produce complex party themes... Our parties can last as long as 10 hours so overnighting is a must'

On his famous birthday parties with movie themes such as Pirates Of The Caribbean, Van Helsing, Miami Vice, Indiana Jones

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