Good times for Malaysian film industry?

Local films are setting new box-office records, with Cantonese movie The Journey, which was released earlier this year, earning an astounding RM17 million and counting.Local films are setting new box-office records, with Cantonese movie The Journey, which was released earlier this year, earning an astounding RM17 million and counting.

By Palau Shavin

If quantity is a measure of how well an industry is doing, then you’d be forgiven for thinking that the local film sector is booming. The total number of local films produced has increased substantially over the years, from 39 in 2010, to a high of 76 in 2012, and 71 last year, according to statistics from the National Film Development Corporation (Finas).

Local films are also setting new box-office records, with Cantonese movie The Journey, which was released earlier this year, earning an astounding RM17 million and counting. Malaysian movies appear to be going through a renaissance.

This upward trend is expected to grow further over the next five years, with Iskandar Malaysia Studios Sdn Bhd Chief Executive Officer Michael Peter Lake stating that it is timely and in line with the government’s aspirations to further develop the creative content and communication media industries.

The increase in the number of local movies being produced can be attributed to the various incentives given by the government via Finas, as well as the Skim Wajib Tayang (Compulsory Screenings Scheme) which guarantees filmmakers that their movies will be picked up by cinemas.

The scheme, which came into effect in 2005, is intended to protect and nurture the local film industry by giving Malaysian-made films a guaranteed space for screening.

“Before this, there was nothing to compel movie chains such as GSC and TGV to screen local productions. So filmmakers would often find themselves with no venue to show their work. But after the Skim Wajib Tayang came into effect, suddenly, there was all this avenues for them to screen their movies. At least, the movies had a chance to find an audience,” said a local film critic.

Another major reason for the increase in local productions is the introduction of Astro First in January, 2011. Astro First is a movie-on-demand channel that was meant to widen the distribution of local content and enlarge the overall revenue pie.

Astro First allows viewers to subscribe to movies within two weeks of their theatrical release.  This means that producers can make an additional revenue of RM500,000 by releasing their movies to Astro First, a sum far greater than what DVD sales general bring in, and sometimes more than even the box-office taking.

Astro COO Henry Tan said they were increasing the revenue base of local movie producers. “With more funds, they can invest more in developing better local productions.”

When more is less

Unfortunately, more local productions don’t necessarily translate to better movies, and the poor overall box-office takings reflect this.

According to Finas statistics, the gross revenue of local productions has actually gone down from 2010 levels. That year, the 39 movies produced raked in RM85.85 million, compared with RM85.34 million for 71 movies in 2013.

So despite 32 more movies produced, the box-office takings remained flat. This means the average revenue per movie has actually fallen since 2010, from RM2.2 million to RM1.2 million.

When you consider that last year’s four top grossing movies – Husin, Mon & Jin Pakai Toncit, KL Gangster 2, The Wedding Diary 2 and Once Upon a Time – collectively took in about RM20 million, that means the remaining 67 movies earned about RM970,000 on average. That is far below the RM1.96 million average production cost.

One reason for the poor box-office takings is that the quality of the majority of the movies is poor, says the film critic.

“We’ve had some really bad movies being made that in no way strike a chord with the audience. The producers use the incentives given by the government to make films that they know won’t do well in the cinemas. Instead they depend on the Astro First deal to make money,” alleges the critic.

The critic also points out that the lack of quality movies is also impacting on our presence in the international film festival circuit.

“The last time we won anything of note was in 2008, when Liew Seng Tat’s Flower in the Pocket won a Tiger Award at the 37th International Film Festival Rotterdam, and Bunohan, which was a recipient of a Netpac Award at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and the Golden Hanoman at the 9th Netpac Asian Film Festival (JAFF) in 2012,” said the critic.

To that end, the local film industry is severely missing the talents and consistency of the late Yasmin Ahmad whose regular output of movies, including Sepet, Gubra, Mukhsin and Talentime, not only challenged the boundaries of local filmmaking, but also managed to appeal to a larger cross section of the audience.

“Don’t get me wrong, we do have some talented filmmakers, but they don’t seem interested in producing more movies. Take Dain Said, who made Bunohan. He’s been awfully quiet since then. The same is true of Liew Seng Tat. Why aren’t they producing more movies?” asked the critic.

Future direction

But there may be one bright spark in the horizon. The establishing of the Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios (pic below) may be set to spur the local film industry to greater heights.

“I am very bullish now over the potential of the industry within Iskandar,” said Iskandar Malaysia Studios CEO Lake, referring to the fully-integrated facilities within Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios include five film sound stages over 100,000 square feet, the broadest range of post facilities under one roof, two 12,000 square feet high-definition equipped television studios and other support services.

The hope is that the facilities will encourage both foreign and local production houses to use Iskandar as a base for their projects.

To this end, the government introduced the Film in Malaysia Incentive (Fimi) in 2013. The incentive offers a 30% rebate to foreign production houses that spend a minimum of RM5 million in Malaysia. Local production companies that spend at least RM2.5 million will be entitled to the same benefit.

Among Fimi’s stated objectives include to encourage Malaysian film producers to produce high quality creative content for both domestic and international markets.

Hopefully, the new incentive and studio facilities will help improve the quality of the local movies and give filmmakers here that much needed push to stretch their boundaries and creativity.

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