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Behind the dimming of Malaysia’s silver screen

While budget is one of the main problems, there are also other hurdles to propelling Malaysia's film industry to greater heights.

Danisyah Dalily
4 minute read
A film crew prepares to shoot a scene at a site in Hulu Langat, Selangor, in this file picture taken after the government lifted restrictions on the creative industry last month.
A film crew prepares to shoot a scene at a site in Hulu Langat, Selangor, in this file picture taken after the government lifted restrictions on the creative industry last month.

While Malaysia was among the first in the region to develop an established film industry, the question today is whether its golden era ended with the likes of P Ramlee or if its best days are still ahead.

While the Malaysian film industry has made significant advances in terms of technology and reach, it still lags behind international productions, giving rise to the question of whether it will be able to meet the challenges posed by overseas films from Bollywood, Hollywood and, the most recent wave to hit the local cinema market – South Korean dramas or Hallyu.

Lina Tan, who sits on the board of the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia or Finas, said one of Malaysia’s perennial problems is that of budget.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow, she drew a comparison with the budgets allocated in international film industries like Hollywood.

“They make films with budgets of over US$200 million because they want to sell them to the world. In Malaysia, though, the average film budget is about RM1.5 million to RM2.5 million per film,” she said.

In other words, while talent and creativity counts for much, at the end of the day, money still matters.

“People think that film is just an art, that we can do it easily and pay our industry players lousy wages but it’s not,” Tan, the founder and executive producer for production house Red COmmunications, added.

“We still need to be professional, especially in making sure that they have a career.”

Scriptwriter and director Afiza Asram agreed that Malaysian film production suffers from a lack of budget.

“Our films have gone so far,” she said, giving the example of entertainment icon P Ramlee.

“P Ramlee films, for instance, have reached a global audience. We can go much further but we have a problem with budget.”

This is not to say that Malaysia has not made do with what it has.

“We can do low-cost films,” Afiza said. “I have seen a few low-cost films that are very good. But in order for us to reach a global market, we really need money and other incentives for film production.”

Normally, funds for film production come through the company producing the film, through sponsorships or through the application of subsidies and grants from the government.

But while the government plays a big role in supporting and extending the specialised creative industries, both Tan and Afiza said filmmakers cannot rely on government money alone.

“I have been producing for 30 years but I’ve only received two incentives from Finas,” Tan said.

“You can’t rely on incentives. If you do, you won’t go anywhere because you will not be accountable for what you do.”

She spoke of films that had received support from Finas ending up as flops because filmmakers did not put their full effort into producing a high quality product.

“When filmmakers have the mindset that they don’t have to give their best because they get free money, that is a problem,” she added.

This is related to another problem in Malaysia’s film industry: finding people with experience.

“We still lack experienced producers in Malaysia,” Tan said. “We need experienced people who know what to do with a given allocation of money.”

There is also the problem of finding good directors, writers and actors. While there are some who are talented enough to reach international levels, Tan said there are also many who do not try hard enough.

Those aspiring to make it in the film industry must have a competetive mindset, she said, always striving to improve and never settling for “good enough”.

Censorship appears to be less of a problem as Malaysia does not block the creativity of filmmakers even though it is less open than other countries, Afiza said.

The issue is rather the different censorship levels on different platforms such as television stations and online streaming services such as Netflix.

A case in point is “Sa Balik Baju”, a local film about six women which gained praise from industry players and audiences for its storyline and messages. It climbed the charts in Netflix Malaysia, eventually becoming the most-watched film and remaining among the top 10 in the country.

Afiza, who was a scriptwriter for the film, said one of the goals in making it was to break down walls and to bring real issues to the fore.

“We didn’t think about which platforms we were going to. This gave us more freedom to explore things that involve censorship, and we tried a lot of things that we never had before,” she said.

The move paid off, although the film was also criticised by those who said that it was too open and involved topics considered “taboo” for Malaysians.

This, too, is a problem of sorts for filmmakers.

“One of my biggest problems is having to deal with the mentality that we have to ban everything that we are uncomfortable with instead of trying to have a discussion and to educate ourselves as well as the society around us,” Tan said.

“Creators are not trying to do something insulting. They just want to educate people and to show the real world as it is.”

For her, art is about being open-minded.

“If we do not open our minds, it will restrict our thinking and we will always be getting offended over small things,” she said.

“There are so many difficult areas that we have to climb over before we can make a film, right down to getting the money.”