On the morning FILMART opened its doors in Hong Kong last month, Andy Serkis’ London-based The Imaginarium Studios and a Malaysian government fund announced a new mocap facility to be built and operated at Malaysia’s Pinewood Iskandar Studios (PIMS).
It was by no means the only deal Malaysian companies announced at FILMART, but was the major one involving strategy rather than content sales.
The other major strategic presence from the ASEAN region at FILMART was Film ASEAN. Launched late last year, and having had its first international run out in February at the Berlinale’s European Film Market, Film ASEAN is an umbrella organisation for screen production bodies in the 10 ASEAN nations. The organisation was formed out of the broader Asia-Pacific AFC, of which Film NZ, Film Otago Southland and Screen Auckland are members.
Film ASEAN will undertake promotional activity within and without the region, some indusrywith the broad goals of offering professional support and training to filmmakers, promoting ASEAN titles and attracting more business to the region.
It’s not unfair to note that many outside the region would have difficulty naming a feature title from several of Film ASEAN’s 10 member countries. Recent titles that have drawn international awareness, Singaporean Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo for example, have mostly done so off the back of successful festival launches. Ilo Ilo won Cannes’ Camera d’Or. Rithy Panh’s Un Certain Regard winner and Oscar nominee The Missing Picture put Cambodia back in the frame after several years of mostly being known in filmmaking circles as the place Tomb Raider was shot.
In the same way that much international awareness of New Zealand film culture is limited to Peter Jackson’s work, Filipino film is known mostly as the festival output of Lav Diaz, Jun Robles Lana and Brillante Mendoza; Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendour) does a similar job for Thai cinema although, among genre aficionados, Thai horror has a solid reputation.
Indonesia-based Welsh director Gareth Evan’s The Raid and its sequel did well internationally, achieving a successful crossover between critical appreciation and box office, but most people would be hard-pressed to name another title from Indonesia.
In several ASEAN countries, governments restrict or ban foreign ownership of property and businesses. That hampers international investment, especially in infrastructure, which in turn impacts on both local and international production. Shortly before FILMART opened, Indonesia announced changes to its laws around foreign ownership of screen industry infrastructure including cinemas.
Among the other ASEAN nations, the Philippines produces more romcom fare than is good in a balanced diet. Not much of it travels, although recently Chris Martinez’s films (including Status: It’s Complicated and You’re Still the One) have begun to get international exposure, especially in countries where there are large expat Filipino populations.
There remains very limited global awareness films from Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam. Even within the region there’s limited awareness of the product of other ASEAN countries. One of Film ASEAN’s early initiatives is a loose touring roadshow (presently in the Philippines) of ASEAN films and filmmakers.
At FILMART, Film ASEAN was one of a number of stands repping national and multi-national film commissions. This year, the Los Angeles-hosted AFCI Locations Show has pushed back from March from April, creating more opportunity for FILMART’s Locations World pavilion to attract organisations which might otherwise have been exhibiting in the US.
Servicing international productions
For international productions looking to shoot in the region, the incentives offer varies wildly – as does the quality of support. Singapore has long had an effective state infrastructure to support and promote screen production both local and inbound. At the other end of the spectrum Laos doesn’t have a film office at all (although the country does host one of the more respected ASEAN film festivals, Luang Prabang).
After some delays in getting it across the line, Malaysia now has an effective incentive offer, the Film in Malaysia (FIM) grant. The country also boasts a world-class facility in the form of Pinewood Iskandar Malyasia Studios (PIMS), whose CEO Rezal Rahman was in town to promote the facility and present on a FILMART conference panel.
The Imaginarium-PIMS announcement has put in place another piece of the jigsaw that Pinewood has been assembling over several years, bringing the studio closer to its aim of offering comprehensive services for productions heading into Malaysia.
The plan has been refined since PIMS was first mooted. At various points since then the plan has focused on various positions along a continuum from offering dry hire studio space only through to offering a complete suite of in-house services, capable of taking a production from greenlight to release.
The deal with Serkis’ Imaginarium reflects the present intention: to offer a solid suite of production services in partnership with companies already established and well-regarded internationally.
Some of what’s been happening at PIMS is particular to Malaysia, some of it seems familiar across much of the ASEAN region and beyond, as various entities attempt to keep abreast of or ahead the curve of attracting screen production to their own locale.
For those looking to shoot away from their hoe countries, the challenges and opportunities of screen production are pretty much the same everywhere: can a production earn more than it cost? The relative costs and benefits of various territories are weighed, and an obvious question to ask is: where’s the free money?
A large number of countries (NZ included) offer production support to local fare for cultural reasons, so people can see themselves on screen. Beyond local productions, many countries (again including NZ) offer incentives for inbound and co-productions to do some or all of their work in country. NZ has done well from this, building businesses, creating employment, and hosting all or part of the international production on many high-profile film and TV titles. Such schemes are also common in many European countries, the US and Canada.
The ASEAN region is different. Some countries have well-established, sophisticated government agencies providing funding for local work and support for inbound projects. Others offer no incentive other than their low-cost, low-wage economies, and some spectacular scenery.
Somewhere between the two ends of that spectrum sits Malaysia. In recent years the country has struggled with promising and then not delivering, on major film market and festival events, on the arrival dates for its incentive scheme and the opening date for PIMS, in which government is a partner. Currently, it’s back on track and steaming ahead.
“Tourism on steroids” was how Rahman described the effect of Malaysia’s present FIM incentive, worth up to 30% of in-country spend. It’s allowed PIMS to create jobs, upskill crew, leading to better paying jobs – all of which is a good return for the government investment in the studio facility.
It’s an approach that’s also worked elsewhere, here in New Zealand around the turn of the millennium for example. The combination of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and American TV shows Hercules and Xena employed several thousand people over a number of years, growing very competent production crews from what their American counterparts initially described as “Mexicans with cellphones”.
Indeed some of the New Zealanders involved in that period of growth here acted as advisors in Malaysia as PIMS and the FIM incentive were being developed. Rahman described the plan as one that was working, citing Netflix’s PIMS-shot Marco Polo as an example.
Graham Aston and Jan Carter ran the plaster shop for Marco Polo. On the show’s first season, the crew was around 50% local, 50% imports. One of the locals, Leila Louise Fitton, demonstrated so much potential Aston and Carter brought her to New Zealand to be lead plaster hand on Disney’s Pete’s Dragon. Fitton returned to Malaysia for season two of Marco Polo as floor supervisor, by which time the only non-Malaysian in the plaster shop was the HOD.
“We picked the low-hanging fruit to start with,” Rahman explained. “We took carpenters and trained them to build sets, electricians and trained them to do lighting, seamstresses to make costumes.”
It was the quickest way to start getting runs on the board for local crew, although not an approach that’s likely to continue longterm. “We may do more,” Rahman said, “but only to fill a gap.”
Sometimes, however good people’s skills might be, it’s about who you know.
“We recognise that a lot of choosing partners in screen business is skills- and reputation-driven,” Rahman explained. “You’re not going to go through production and then give your film to someone you don’t know to screw it up.”
Sharing the load
Hence deals such as the one with the Imaginarium, which deliver a known brand able to inspire confidence. PIMS is presently also in discussions with an international VFX company to see it locate a branch at the studio.
As well as Marco Polo and a five-year agreement with local pay TV provider Astro, which delivered 260+ shoot days in its first year, PIMS hosted feature Michael Mann’s globe-trotting thriller Blackhat (which also shot in Hong Kong).
The most prominent British production to shoot there so far has been Channel 4’s currently on-screen Indian Summers, which also used Malaysian locations in and around Penang to double for pre-independence India.
Rahman’s pleased with the breadth of productions and sources of production PIMS is attracting.
As other speakers on FILMART’s conference programme noted, the global aspirations of SVOD services such as Netflix, able to commission high-quality, high-value production, were encouraging for the production and production services communities everywhere.
Pan-Asian broadcasters, OTT and SVOD services are an established thing in a way that pan-European ones aren’t. While Malaysia and other ASEAN nations might still be upskilling some of their crew, they already understand how to service multiple territories from a single base. That’s the model for some TV shows PIMS hosts, like Asia’s Got Talent (pictured, top): one studio, one set, one crew, participants flown in, one show for a potential audience of over 2.5 billion.
Wherever its eventual borders may lie, Europe can’t deliver such a large potential audience, but multi-territory shoots like Sky’s The Last Panthers from Warp Films (’71, This is England ’90), show there’s value in product which has inbuilt connections with a number of countries.
At a time when there’s a lot of attention being paid to doing deals with Chinese companies, a deal like the Imaginarium’s with PIMS is a demonstration of another way companies from elsewhere can interact with large Asian markets.
Season two of Netflix’s Marco Polo commences 1 July.
FILMART (14 – 17 March), ran as part of the 10-event Hong Kong Entertainment Expo, which also included film financing forum/project market HAF (14 – 16 March), and the Hong Kong International Film Festival (21 March – 4 April).