Managing Asia

Wiluan sees infinite possibilities in Asian film industry

Reporting by Christine Tan | Written by See Kit Tang
An ASEAN Hollywood? It's coming

Despite having a surname that is closely tied to Indonesia's oil and gas industry, Mike Wiluan has made a mark for himself in an entirely different business: film-making.

The 39-year-old is the middle child of Indonesian magnate Kris Wiluan, chairman of conglomerate Citramas Group. While having a successful businessman as a father is a hard act to live up to, the younger Wiluan has established himself as an equally shrewd entrepreneur by transforming a small production house he acquired in 2004 with the help of his father and some partners into a multi-award-winning media company called Infinite Studios.

Asked why he ventured into the film industry, Wiluan Jr. told CNBC: "Film is what drives me [and] it started at a very young age when my dad was in the business of oil and gas based in Jakarta. One of the things that we'd do was to supply home videos to all the oil-riggers that were in the Java Sea. My brother and I grew up with these videos stacked around our house and we would watch three to four videos every day after school…I think that imbued a creative spirit in me."

The film studio, now widely known for its capabilities in post-production visual effects and animation, also owns two film production premises, in Indonesia's Batam as well as Singapore. While the former is touted as Southeast Asia's largest studio, the latter is a state-of-the-art sound-stage in Singapore's Mediapolis that has paved the way for two big-budget Hollywood films to be filmed in this part of the world.

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Last year, sci-fi film "Equals" starring Twilight franchise star Kristen Stewart and action thriller "Agent 47" featuring Zachary Quinto, were filmed in the Singapore facility.

For putting the Southeast Asian city-state on the map as new location for international film production, Wiluan Jr was number three on a 2014 Power List, an annual list of Singapore's top players in the fields of arts, entertainment and lifestyle compiled by Singapore's daily newspaper The Straits Times.

Infinite Studios chief executive Mike Wiluan.

"Just like an artist on his deathbed, he would look back at his work and say 'This is what I accomplished in my life.' For me, I'll look back at all the films I was involved and helped produced. My children and grandchildren will see them and I think it's a great legacy to leave behind," said Wiluan Jr.

But despite being born into a powerful family, success hasn't come easily for the film-maker.

His first project "Sing to the Dawn" – dubbed Singapore's first animated feature – was a disappointment at the local box office in 2008. But according to the oil magnate's son, the project was the stepping board for Infinite Studios to get into "animation's big boys' club."

"I won't say what went wrong, but we achieved in creating the first animated product out of this region and at the same time, the first animation studio in Singapore and in Indonesia. No one told us how to, we basically started from scratch," Wiluan Jr. said.

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"It was an expensive learning curve… [but] it got us noticed. People always say when you join the animation business, you join a club and sometimes you have to pay membership fees or go through [an] initiation process," he added.

His dues paid, Wiluan Jr. is now leading Infinite Studios away from being a services company that specializes in digital production and movie-making services, into the realm of content creation. The businessman is confident that this new venture has the potential to surpass in less than five years the success of the services business that is the company's bread and butter.

"We want to produce content that would be differentiated from other studios so our mission is to try to find a way in how we could have a pan-Asian influence in all the films we produce," he told CNBC.

This interview with Mike Wiluan, CEO of Infinite Studios, is the first of a five-part special series called "Managing Asia: The Next Generation". CNBC's Christine Tan will be speaking to leaders from the second- to fourth generation in Asia, to find out what it takes to transform family businesses to new levels of growth.