Malaysian Film Industry

30 August 2018

How do Malaysia’s film studios make the difficult decisions that lead to a successful project?

The movie industry is often depicted as glitzy and glamorous, full of starry eyed celebrities. But this vision often belies the crushing difficulties of making it in the film business, which is built atop long-standing networks, and personal and financial struggle. Producers, directors, distributors, and actors, all have to make difficult economic decisions in order to thrive. This is as true in Malaysia as anywhere else. 

According to National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS), Malaysia’s film market has experienced positive growth since 2015, growing from USD222 million to USD251 million in 2017. Though the Malaysian film industry is still dwarfed by contributions from foreign films (domestic film only contributed USD12 million out of an overall USD196 million in 2017), local productions are slowly, but surely, garnering more and more international critical acclaim, such as hits like Redha, Jagat, and Ola Bola.

Malaysia.my spoke to three industry insiders to explain what it’s like to get a film made today.  

Greenlight for go

First up, production houses have to decide what they’re going to make, a decision that relies heavily on the storyline of new projects.

“At the moment, when we want to invest in a film, we will first look at the storyline to see if it fits the demands of the audience. We have to specifically determine what target audience we are looking at,” says Shahila Shah, the head of Primeworks Studio’s film and production arm.

“Is it going to be an award type of movie? We will look at trends as well – maybe we will want to focus on action, or horror, maybe even family, wholesome types of films.”

Finding talent with fresh ideas for projects is another aspect of the business. Often, production houses may reach out to writers or producers they have existing relationships with, or they may open opportunities to upcoming talent via open pitching sessions.

“We have an open day that we call “greenlight pitching”, where the producers, regardless of how well-known they are, are given the opportunities to submit their proposals. If they are shortlisted, they will be invited to pitch directly to us. They provide us with the storyline, proposed cast, and maybe a draft budget,” says Shahila.

Partnering up

When planning the production, studios like Primeworks and Astro Shaw may engage other partners such as studios specialising in CGI or special effects. These co-productions have the added benefit of spreading risk across many other partners, but doing so will have the added stress of spreading profits, which is calculated based on each party’s percentage of investment.

“[Some films] are 100 percent made by [Primeworks], and there are also ones made in collaboration with other production houses, investors, and commissioning producers,” says Shahila. “[In those cases] we will approve all the storylines and details, and commission a different production house to produce it on our behalf.”

According to Shahila, Primeworks is actively working with international partners as well, particularly those in Singapore and Vietnam, to produce feature films and local television content.

Najwa Abu Bakar, head of Astro Shaw, says that the group is focusing on international co-productions, particularly within Southeast Asia. In 2015, Astro Shaw helped produce Cemetery of Splendour with a Thai production house, and the film went on to the screen at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Astro Shaw also co-produced the critically-acclaimed Indonesian flick, Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, partnering with Cinesurya and Kaninga Pictures.

“We feel that our place in the film industry is not limited to just Malaysia. We have ambitions beyond the country,” says Najwa. “We are not just fulfilling domestic demand but also bringing the Astro brand to audiences across the region. We want to be a meaningful film studio in Southeast Asia.”

International collaborations could become increasingly common in Malaysia, especially with the arrival of the massive Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios complex in Johor. The complex, which opened in 2016, introduced world-class filmmaking facilities to Malaysia and is helping to establish the country as a filmmaking hub.

“Pinewood Iskandar has contributed to the success stories of government led-initiatives, Film in Malaysia Incentives, in attracting inward investment into Malaysia,” says Dato’ Fauzi Ayob, the Director General of FINAS.

Major foreign blockbusters have been drawn to shoot in Malaysia, such as the box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, as well as premium television content from US producers, like Marco Polo and Black Hat. The entry of these players into Malaysia’s borders is having the benefit of bringing not just money, but also opportunity and knowledge into the local industry.

Balancing budgets

Funding a film is not a game of small potatoes. Shahila says that the cost of a feature film could range anywhere from a comfortable RM2.5 million budget to as little as RM1.5 million. Factors such as genre, cast, location and special effects can all play a major role in determining the final cost.

“The film industry is very volatile and it’s hard to say what will be the ultimate numbers,” she says, “Timelines can span from one year for smaller dramas, to two, even three years for massive blockbusters.” This may have the added effect of raising costs.

Production houses may choose to fund projects entirely on their own, or they can reach out to other investors such as banks or private individuals. In the case of Ola Bola, the Astro Shaw film received some government funding via FINAS.

However, Najwa explains that the profit margin is often slim – especially with a 25 percent entertainment tax slapped onto every project. At the end of the day, a producer may only recoup 30 cents for every ringgit they’ve invested.

“Film sounds really sexy but it’s got the worst business model ever. Everyone wants to show how many millions they get the at the box office,” says Najwa. “If you want to make money, then you should go do something else.”

However, FINAS does have various incentive frameworks in place to draw international investors and producers to Malaysia, including a 30 percent cash rebate of the total production cost. FINAS funding is also available to filmmakers and producers on a case-by-case basis.

Ola Bola was the right sort of story with a national interest which meant that we could apply for funding with FINAS,” says Najwa.

Moreover, ticket sales are not the only sources of revenue for production houses. Shahila explains that “secondary revenue” streams are more lucrative for production houses, who sell repackaged content to distributors. Other production houses also tap opportunities in merchandising or theme parks, an example being Animonsta Studios’ wildly popular Boboiboy franchise.

However, both Shahila and Najwa believe that at the end of the day, the fiscal success of a film is not the only indicator of a project’s success. On occasion, passion projects like arthouse films, which may not necessarily find purchase among wider audiences, may be worth the investment because of the boost for the house’s reputation and the country’s talent.

“If we’re looking to produce an art house film, our focus would be on providing an opportunity for upcoming filmmakers. We want to invest in their talent, give them an opportunity to push their potential. We want to support the industry,” says Shahila.

“Ideally, of course we want the big hits that will make RM10 to 15 million so that we can fund these smaller passion projects.”

Find out more about film funding and incentives by FINAS at www.finas.gov.my

By Samantha Cheh
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi

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