Man at His Best

Lights, Camera, Malaysia

Why the Malaysian film scene has been in a slump, yet everyone wants to be a director.

BY sim wie boon | Mar 1, 2016 | Film & TV

Lina Tan, managing director of Red Films. Photographs by Jeremy Choy


If you pull out numbers from the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS), you’ll see that the Malaysian box office is doing really well. In 2006, there were only 27.69 million cinema visits, but last year, we hit 61.8 million. Gross takings at the box office stood at RM233.51 million in 2006, and last year, they tripled to RM760.26 million. A real bang-up job, one would think. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that the rise in cinema visits has almost entirely been linked to international films, while Malaysian movies have seen a steep decline. Statistics from FINAS paint a sorry picture. In 2006, locally produced films had a gross of RM79.77 million. Box office takings peaked in 2011 at a total of RM349.26 million, but have since plummeted to almost half—a mere RM187.01 million in 2014. To put this in perspective: Furious 7 alone made RM55 million at the domestic box office. Film Business Asia reported that although the number of local releases increased to 84 in 2014, their market share fell for the fourth consecutive year to only 10.2 percent in terms of revenue, and 9.48 percent in terms of admissions.

The statistics suggest that the Malaysian film industry is facing a crisis and increasingly unable to attract a domestic audience. What is the problem exactly, and is there a solution? I spoke to several local filmmakers who represent a range of voices (the definitive range of voices in the diverse Malaysian film industry remains elusive) that I felt could offer a clearer understanding of why local cinema is failing, despite the advent of technology and an increasingly urbanised audience. The first was Jared Lee from GRIM FILMS, who first ventured into filmmaking and commercials via the most millennial of platforms: YouTube. The second was Quek Shio Chuan from Reservoir Production, whose short film Guang won Best Film at the BMW Shorties Malaysia 2011. He is considered one of the industry’s rising stars and has a client list that includes Petronas, Samsung and Digi. And I also spoke to veterans such as Lina Tan from Red Films (whose works include 3R, Gol & Gincu, KAMI, Pisau Cukur and Lelaki Komunis Terakhir), as well as Dain Said whose critically acclaimed film Bunohan bagged eight awards at the 25th Malaysian Film Festival. Together with his partner Nandita Solomon, he is presently in the post-production stage of his latest film Interchange.
I began by asking them the simple question: what’s going wrong with the Malaysian film scene?

The social network
Jared Lee is a perfect example of the new wave of filmmakers currently emerging in Malaysia. Despite his start in a newer medium such as the Internet, he believes that local filmmakers suffer from the most common of problems: an adequate budget. “Budget is a big issue with filmmakers in Malaysia. But for me, the main struggle is finding a distributor to put your film in cinemas and advertise it as well. A lot of indie filmmakers I know don’t have the budget to advertise,” he says.

Lee points out that the local movies we see in cinemas are heavily advertised, and a hit movie is usually the result of a strong marketing campaign. “The cost of putting your work in a cinema is so high. It’s around RM7,000 per cinema, depending on the location and the company. There are hundreds of cinemas around the country; can you imagine [the cost of] a nationwide release? And this is before advertising like billboards and commercials. For all you know, making a film costs the same as marketing it,” mulls Lee.

He believes this is why many indie directors who have made feature films often admit that they would never want to go through the experience again. “Most of them feel that it was so much hard work and money spent, but for no returns, and sometimes, even loss. Movie grants by the government should take into consideration the distribution and the marketing of a film too. FINAS has been improving over the last two years with a new pitching centre. But the system is still the same; they approach it in a manner where it’s like, ‘Oh, your idea good?’ Okay, here’s some money,’ rather than ‘Your idea good? Here’s some money and let’s work out how we’re going to release the movie.’”
“I honestly feel that the government is partially responsible for the destruction of the whole industry,” says Lina Tan of Red Films. “I was one of the recipients of the government’s first loans for producers to make their films. It was RM50 million in total to be given through Bank Perbangunan to help the industry. The loan was allocated to many producers, but over the years, only a few have ever paid it back, and now, these producers are on the brink of bankruptcy. In between all of this, the government decided to raise the fund from RM50 million to RM500 million for the creative arts industry. Everyone applied. It’s great; it helps people like Dain and us, but how about the others? None of them are able to pay back their loans.”

But as film critic Aidil Rusli notes in “A Thousand Words on Culture” in this issue, the movie KL Gangster made RM12 million at the local box office. Surely then, a local movie can make money, so why can’t local filmmakers pay back their loans? Tan points out that recent years have seen a doubling of the number of Malaysian movies being made. “In 2005, there were about 40 to 50 films made. Last year? Ninety to 100 films were made, including Chinese language ones. But how big is the audience? And how many of these films were good? The majority were crap,” she says.

Jared Lee, co-founder of GRIM FILM.

A fistful of dollars
There is a possible irony here: the loans that were seen as sweet salvation soon overwhelmed the industry with money for productions, but the industry suffered because of a lack of any form of long-term planning or strategic oversight. “You cannot do these kinds of things without thinking of the long-term repercussions,” says Tan. “This is why government policies in this country fail, even though their intentions are good. They are never thought through properly. Oh, you’ve got money? Quick, let’s do something. But they don’t sit down and think that if one were to put money into an industry, it has to have long-term planning.” Dain Said, whose movie Bunohan was set in rural Kelantan, turns to an agricultural metaphor to make his point. “It’s like sowing paddy; they give money to people on an ad hoc basis and at random without any real system. Yes, there’s policy, but no real thinking behind it or any strategic direction. You scatter a hundred seeds in the hope that some will germinate.”

According to the established filmmakers whom I spoke to, the policies created were in no way sustainable in the long term because there was a lack of training and planning for the neophyte filmmakers taking up the loans. While the intention was good, Tan believes that there is a lack of critical thinking. “Support the arts, yes. But if you do not have any idea how to do it, how are you going to support it? Throwing money at it is not going to help in the long term.”
Dain notes that with no real strategy, any focus starts to waiver. It’s as if, he believes, the local film industry is not being taken seriously. “You can talk about culture and content all you want, but if you don’t have a strategy to actually implement the scheme and have the controlling factors and monitoring system, it’s pointless.” Tan adds, “These directors are great and creative, but they have no knowledge of the business side of things. In order to sustain things, you need to have a business model. I ask them, ‘Great, I’ve just given you some money, and your film has gone to some festivals and won some awards, so what’s next?’ Good for the filmmaker, but I don’t get anything. You love your art, but at the end of the day, let’s be real. Creatives need to be paid.”

For Tan, the success of movies depends on creative minds being open to more commercially minded voices and always being aware of commercial needs. Movies have to be driven creatively, but at their essence, they are financial exercises. She adds that the financial endeavour has become more complicated in recent years because audience expectations have changed with the advent of the Internet and social media. Now the production of creative content has been “democratised” because anybody with a smartphone and a computer can make a movie. “Now, suddenly a kid in the bedroom is a producer or a star,” she says. “Companies aren’t just competing with other companies, but also competing with the kid in the bedroom. I cannot fight with them because the kid in the bedroom has no rent, no overheads, and no mouths to feed.”

The prime example of the “kid in the bedroom” is Jared Lee whose YouTube channel has over 100,000 subscribers and received almost nine million views to date. He agrees that it is easy for someone to call him or herself a director nowadays, and in turn, this has created a generation of filmmakers and producers who undercut companies. A clear example is commercials. Once upon a time, commercial budgets were in the high six digits, but now, they can be as low as a few tens of thousands because these smaller one-man-shows are willing to undercut the big production houses. “I guess it is our fault because starting from the bottom, we’ve not seen that kind of money before,” says Lee. “But later on, you realise that you harm the market. In the future, if we want to do a proper production, clients will still look to pay less.” 

But Quek Shio Chuan from Reservoir Productions doesn’t think it’s a problem. “I think it’s a good thing because it allows the younger generation to come up faster. Everyone can buy a camera and somehow learn how to shoot today. When a client goes to them for a job, the final visuals and production will still be different from a full crew when it’s made by a one-man show. Some clients know the difference and will actually still choose accordingly.”

Dangerous minds
However, Quek foresees a problem, and it lies with the filmmakers themselves. “Out of 10 films made, only two or three will be decent. It kind of makes the entire Malaysian film industry look bad to those on the outside looking in. The system doesn’t cater to the education of young filmmakers, as there is no proper institution that helps you. It’s not a clear path. We probably won’t be able to change it, but what we can change is our attitude. You start from the bottom, you get to know people, and you get to know the process and everything else that goes along with it. A lot of people just starting out don’t have that attitude; they want to take short cuts. After awhile, they just give up. From the 99 students that were in my batch when I was studying broadcasting, only about 15 of them, including me, remain involved in the industry,” he says.

Dain (a filmmaker since the ’80s) concurs, and his passions flow as he gives his explanation for the woeful quality of Malaysian directors: “The problem is the education. You are not taught to be literate visually or culturally. The exposure [from the Internet and technology] means f**k all if you’re neither. You don’t know theatre, you don’t know music, and you don’t know architecture. And the problem with filmmakers here is they know jacks**t. It’s not even a question of pretence. The point is they don’t know, and even worse, they don’t know that they don’t know. They think that being a director means ‘I need to watch films’, but they don’t know that the great directors know art, painting, literature, music and architecture.”

The acclaimed director’s critique probably sounds all too familiar, but is it due to a lack of quality education, and therefore, an absence of what should lie at the heart of education: teaching people the basic tools, which is critical thinking and an interest in arts as a whole? Dain illustrates his point with a refreshing clarity: “You want to call yourself a director? Here, take a camera, point and shoot; any f**ker can do that. But does that mean everyone is a director? In the era that we live in today, yes, they are. That’s the problem.”

But there are film schools in Malaysia, and Dain was invited by one such institution to judge a bunch of student works. It was an experience that left him feeling complicit in the system’s failures: “You know what? Fifty percent of the students there didn’t even want to make film. Most of them wanted to do engineering, but it was oversubscribed. Two or three of them might end up falling in love with film, but the rest, I failed. But then, I began to think, ‘Who the f**k am I to fail them? When the system has already failed them. Their parents are waiting, spending money for three years, hoping their kids are going to come out and work in TV and such. Who the f**k am I to just blow them away?’”
Dain readily points out that the Malaysian film industry has many strengths, including great actors and technicians, but he remains concerned that a lack of critical thinking poses a threat to any future potential that it might have. He also worries that the ultimate solution might always elude the Instagram generation: “Everything is hard work and discipline—which are old-fashioned words. It’s not cool. It’s not hip.”

Quek Shio Chuan of Reservoir Productions

Trading places
Tan believes that there is a solution: a detachment from any institution. “Look at the Thai and Indonesian industry; do they get any support from the government? No, but look at their industry, they’re doing well because they are competing. The only way for any industry to do well is for you to compete. Competition is key. That’s why, in essence, to get bigger and better you have to be better. Don’t rely on the government. The future of movies is people who don’t rely on the government and people who compete well, because we’re not just competing with each other, we’re competing with the world,” she says.

Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side, but Quek agrees, saying that outside Malaysia, in countries like Thailand and Indonesia, the works created are more daring and the audiences more open. “You can see really great work over there. In Malaysia, people play it safe, partly because of the audience. This doesn’t help filmmakers grow. If you really sit down and watch works in Malaysia, it’s all very safe and formulated. A lot of young filmmakers give up too quickly. It’s how you work with the ways of your people because this is your audience. If they are sensitive to some stuff, it will determine how good your film is. At the end of the day, are you a director who wants to make films for yourself or for your audience?” he questions.

Quek has been doing a lot of research and courting investors to finance his hopes of turning his breakthrough short Guang into a feature-length film. He notes that the challenge faced by Reservoir in the production of the film is the fact they are so used to doing things the commercial or short film way. “We have to study in depth how to do it in a feature film way, and how to package everything into a steady timeline as well. We are figuring out things along the way. We actually approached a few studios, but realised the deals that were being suggested were not that good,” Quek reiterates, perhaps reinforcing Dain’s belief that hard work and discipline make the true filmmaker.
“I always see myself as someone who is very new to the film industry,” says Lee, the unintended defender of this newest generation of filmmakers. “My knowledge is still very shallow. As a filmmaker, the only strength that I can share with people is that I can come up with good content. That’s what makes me push on every day.
“I’ve written a lot of stories, which I want to see materialise into a feature film, but I won’t do it now because I don’t want to be making mistakes and learning from them via my dream movie. I’m actually considering going back to school to study film in a place like the Vancouver Film School,” he adds.

Shawshank redemption
The problems faced by Malaysian filmmakers are deep rooted and long term. But some of the arguments offered above might not be unique to Malaysia. No filmmaker has ever complained that his budget is too big, and the problem of money exists everywhere. Kevin Costner spent USD9 million of his own money to fund Black or White and up-and-coming Bollywood star Kiran Rai recently stood outside a train station in London for four weeks to raise GBP15,000 to fund his movie. So what then? Has the education system really failed our youth? If so, then why do we have young and successful producers like Jared Lee and Quek Shio Chuan? Were they merely the lucky two who managed to beat a broken system, or have they stumbled onto a formula to attract the attention of a portion of an increasingly atomised Malaysian audience?

Admittedly, the last Malaysian film that I saw was The Journey. It left me with a sense of hope and pride, and yet, I wouldn’t put it in the same league as the Grand Budapest Hotel, Lord of the Rings or the Godfather, which remain my favourite films ever. Perhaps I should stop imagining the renaissance of Malaysian films and accept that I am not now and will never be the target audience. Directors and producers might be content to put whatever they want out and audiences happy with whatever that’s being fed to them. None of us can speak for the 27 million or so Malaysians out there with their diverse tastes and aspirations. KL Gangster might not be my thing, but it did rake in a spectacular RM12 million.

Perhaps Malaysian filmmakers will find their audience with the help of steadily improving digital technology, which has made filmmaking a considerably less expensive process, and online streaming media like Netflix. But surely nothing beats the allure of the real thing, sitting in an actual cinema, and seeing your film projected in a darkened room for people to ride the gamut of emotions that you created. That must remain the inspiration for why people want to make movies and why we watch them. As Jared Lee says, “Everyone wants to be or can be a director, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, right?” After all, you have to start somewhere.


First published in At The Movies Issue, October 2015, Esquire Malaysia.