Malaysia’s burgeoning film industry gets a huge boost with next month’s opening of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios. Liz Shackleton reports.

Just eight years ago, the region of Iskandar in southern Malaysia was best known for its oil and gas industries and as a shopping mecca for Singaporeans, who head en masse at the weekends to the hectic border town of Johor Bahru. But after being designated as a development region in 2006, Iskandar is now populated with swanky new leisure, retail and residential developments, universities and hospitals, a media village and the Asia Pacific region’s newest film studios — Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios (PIMS), which officially opens its doors in June.

Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional, struck a licensing and management deal with UK powerhouse Pinewood Shepperton back in 2009 to build the studios, pitching in most of the $120m (rm400m) construction and fit-out costs. In addition to five sound stages, with a total area of 100,000 sq ft, the site also houses two 12,000 sq ft HD-equipped TV studios, a green-screen water tank, backlots, digital post-production facilities and support services including production offices, catering, dressing rooms and workshops.

Although the studio has yet to open officially, the sound stages are already full with historical drama Marco Polo, a Netflix original series produced by The Weinstein Company. “I’m a great believer in television when you’re starting a new facility or building an industry because of its ongoing nature — a big series can go on for four to five years,” says PIMS CEO Michael Lake. “I liken it to how Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules helped build the New Zealand industry before Peter Jackson came along with The Lord Of The Rings.”

International draw

Also driving interest in Malaysia as a shooting destination is the country’s 30% cash rebate on production and post-production spend, introduced at the beginning of 2013. Already tapped by Marco Polo and Michael Mann’s Cyber, which filmed in Kuala Lumpur last summer, the rebate is triggered by a minimum spend of $1.5m for foreign feature films and $118,000 per episode for TV.

‘I am a great believer in television when you’re building an industry because of its ongoing nature’

Michael Lake, PIMS

Lake says he has received a stream of calls from US and European producers who are interested in both the studios and the rebate. But while PIMS is working with the Pinewood network to bring in Western productions, the studios are also focused on the region, targeting countries with large local production industries, such as India, China, Korea and Japan. “A lot of Indian producers are making films in the $15m-$20m budget range, so it makes sense for them to come here,” Lake explains. “When the co-production treaty with Australia is signed, we see opportunity there as well.”

Malaysia is a slightly more expensive country to film in than neighbouring Thailand or Indonesia, but Lake says it becomes cheaper when you factor in the new incentive, which its neighbours don’t offer. In addition the studios, inter-connected with fibre-optic cable and fitted out with the latest digital post-production technology, are marketing themselves on quality rather than cost. “We aim to have a situation where a producer can walk through the front door with a script and, if needed, could walk away with a product that is ready to go to broadcast TV or the cinema,” Lake adds.

Outside of the studios, there are other advantages to shooting in Malaysia. The country boasts a wide range of rainforest, beach and modern cityscape locations and has a well-developed digital and logistics infrastructure. And while the Malaysian government may have been criticised by China for its handling of the Malaysia Airlines flight 370 tragedy (sadly a member of Marco Polo’s stunt team, Jun Kun, was on board the plane), the country is politically and economically stable.

Building infrastructure

The missing link, which Lake speaks about frankly, is the country’s production infrastructure. Malaysia has a growing local production industry in the capital Kuala Lumpur (see sidebar), but there is no industry in Iskandar and the country as a whole is a relative newcomer at servicing international productions, which means a lack of experienced crew.

In order to address the shortfall, PIMS has been working with the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) to run local training courses covering all aspects of production from wardrobe, make-up and set construction to location management and production accounting. The first batch of students have already graduated and PIMS has teamed with the UK’s Met Film School on the second batch of courses, which will turn out around 700 graduates later this year. “The international side won’t work unless we have a vibrant local industry,” Lake notes.

‘In the short term, we may have to juggle production dates, but in two to three years there’ll be more experienced crews’

Nandita Solomon, producer

Separately, Malaysia’s Multimedia University is working with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts to develop a film degree course at its new campus in Iskandar. Meanwhile, local authorities have recognised the need to attract equipment and facilities companies, in addition to experienced crew. Attractive incentives, including a 10-year tax holiday on corporate profits, are among the factors that have persuaded Japanese post-production company Imagica Corp and Australian VFX outfit Absfx to set up companies in Iskandar.

This drive towards developing the local industry should go some way to allaying fears, raised in some quarters, that the studios will raise costs and draw resources away from local production. “In the short term, it means we may have to juggle our production dates, but in two to three years there will be more experienced crew,” says local producer Nandita Solomon.

In the meantime, foreign producers have the option of bringing in crew from Thailand, an experienced production hub, or even Australia, budget permitting. Local authorities are also examining how to develop the business side of Malaysia’s local film industry, including distribution, financing and international marketing. And in a move that should interest international producers, Khazanah has recently established a subsidiary, Rhizophora Capital, which will offer loans to cashflow the 30% rebate.

The big question for any new studio is whether there will be enough production, either from the region or globally, to sustain it and whether producers shooting outside their own country want to film on location or on a stage. Time will tell — but the combination of facilities and rebates has proven to be a successful formula in countries such as Canada, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

Like those countries, Malaysia is an easy place to work; English is spoken widely, immigration and customs clearance is reasonably straightforward and Iskandar has remained a green and pleasant land thanks to careful development.

“The first question everyone always asks me is where are the cast and crew are going to stay,” says Lake. “We already have plenty of options and there will be many more in five years’ time as this area is growing at an exponential rate.”

On the hop: local titles set for an international audience

Malaysia’s box-office has more than doubled in recent years, cementing its place in the top 20 international territories. Liz Shackleton reports.

Malaysia is growing as both a content producer and a box-office market. Rapid cinema development has resulted in box office more than doubling in five years to reach $211m in 2013, making Malaysia a top 20 international territory.

In terms of local production, Malaysia produced 71 features grossing a combined $26.3m (rm85.3m) last year, accounting for a market share of 12%. In 2010, Malaysia produced only 39 features, but the higher production volume is not resulting in higher box office, which hit a high of $39m (rm126.5m) in 2011 and has been declining ever since.

Ironically, this is because government funding and growing box office resulted in a glut of production, with an oversupply of low-quality comedies and horror movies. Malaysia also has a compulsory screening system, which requires cinemas to keep local movies on screens for at least two weeks. The scheme has not necessarily been effective in raising production standards or convincing Malaysian audiences to watch local films.

Yet at the top end of the industry, Malaysia is producing some impressive hits and projects with the potential to travel. KRU International’s upcoming animated feature Ribbit, directed by Chuck Powers, has sold to more than 80 international territories. Earlier this year, Astro Shaw scored a major hit with Chiu Keng Guan’s romantic family drama The Journey, which grossed $5.3m to become the highest-grossing local film of all time. Asia Tropical Films is another successful local producer creating hits such as The Wedding Diary franchise and co-productions with Singapore and Hong Kong.

Malaysia also has a thriving arthouse scene with film-makers such as Liew Seng Tat, Tan Chui Mui, Ho Yuhang and Dain Said working in Chinese and Malay. Liew Seng Tat’s Men Who Saved The World, a co-production with the Netherlands, France and Germany, is nearing completion.

Following its success with Bunohan, Said and producer Nandita Solomon’s Apparat is now working on two projects to be directed by Said — supernatural thriller Interchange and fantasy adventure Drakula: Journey To The East. Both projects are being co-produced with Primeworks, the film arm of Malaysian broadcaster Media Prima.