Independent producers in Asia have never had this much opportunity to tell their stories. But there’s still a lot standing between the current situation and celebration for indies in Malaysia & Singapore.
The indie production environment in Malaysia and Singapore is pretty much developing outside the influence of global streamers. While these may be acquiring rights in volume in both markets, lo-focus on originals means production investment in these two markets has not been impacted so far as it has elsewhere.
As Netflix and Amazon/Prime Video for now focus on Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, domestic and regional streaming platforms have stepped up in Malaysia and Singapore, albeit with lower production budgets.
Meanwhile, the film/theatrical environment is lively and on its way to post-Covid recovery, adding to opportunities for local indie producers.
At US$54.7 million as of 25 November, this year’s box office in Malaysia so far is 26% higher than 2022’s US$43.3 million for the same period and 893% higher than 2021’s US$5.5 million, even if still about 50% down on 2019’s US$112.5 million.
In Singapore, this year’s box office is US$35.8 million, about level with last year and way up on 2020/2021, but still half of 2019.
“We’ve come a long way,” says Vision New Media Group CEO, Min Lim, who made the Malaysian version of All3Media’s Liar for local media giant Astro in March 2023.
“Budgets are getting better... and we’re able to push the boundaries on topics, especially with streaming, so that’s a good thing,” she adds.
Film investment in Malaysia has made a difference to local producers, says Shamin Yusof, managing director and producer at Skop Productions, whose movies include Polis Evo, Abang Long Fadil 2, KL Special Force and Misteri Dilaila.
Skop is also benefiting from Astro’s commitment to original production.
In April 2022, Astro premiered Kuasa, an eight-episode glamour/greed/power/betrayal story about an entertainment mogul and his three children.
The series, created by Yusof and directed by Kroll Azry, was the first TV drama series co-production between Astro Shaw and Skop Productions.
In Singapore, Mocha Chai Laboratories (MCL) makes good use of local grants, says co-founder Michelle Chang.
MCL’s film projects include Wonderland, directed by MCL founder Chai Yee Wei, starring Singapore comedian Mark Lee as a single father who sends his daughter to study overseas. MCL was also responsible for sound design/post-production on Vietnamese film-maker Pham Thien An's Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell.
Recent successes don’t mask the struggle indies face in moving out of the work-for-hire zone into creating lasting value for themselves.
A key component here is ownership of rights.
The frameworks in place elsewhere in the world are patchy across Southeast Asia. In Singapore, creators are able to retain underlying rights. In Malaysia, not yet.
“We’re fighting for it,” Yusof said during the ContentAsia Summit in August 2023. “We definitely need our government’s help,” she added.
“It’s a question of perspective,” Lim adds. “I’m not sure broadcasters see us as true partners right now. If you ask them, ‘why are you keeping all rights? What do you do with them?’ The answer is nothing. They don’t sell them, they don’t use the original IP. So why couldn’t there be a partnership? We could share that IP, but that option isn’t even on the table.”
While they hunt for a win-win, being adequately compensated for development remains among the challenges facing indies.
Lim divides development into two parts – development of the concept/core idea and the script. The first, broadcasters tend not to want to attach a dollar value to. “I think that’s wrong and that’s not fair,” she says. Development funding tends to be focused on scripts.
If Singapore is too expensive, low domestic budgets are contributing to a brain drain out of Malaysia to fill crew gaps in neighbouring markets. Plus, the creative industry is finding it difficult to attract new talent.
“You’ve got to want to get people interested in the creative industry and to see the creative industry as a viable way of making a living,” Lim says.
“In L.A., a writer on Criminal Minds earns between US$90,000 and US$110,000 an episode. Lawyers, doctors leave their jobs to become writers. In Malaysia it doesn’t happen. You would never have a lawyer leave their job to become a writer,” she says.
“It boils down to how much our industry appreciate our talent,” Yusof says.
“As producers we can only offer as much as much as the budget is. We have certain limitations. It’s not that we do not appreciate talent... what’s happening now is we can see our talent pool from Malaysia leaving Malaysia for Thailand, to Singapore, Indonesia. Even our great actors...”
Whatever their domestic issues, Malaysia’s indies are benefiting from global shifts, including audiences more open to foreign content.
The advent of streaming and the globalisation of content is “definitely positive,” Lim says. “The world is open to content from different places and that can only be a good thing – streaming platforms did that, and the pandemic helped,” she adds.
Chang says streaming platforms have paved the way “to work with some of the best writers from Thailand and also Indonesia... they have given me that opportunity to be able to do premium content”.
Storytellers are still feeling their way through an uncertain space between broadcast, with all its restrictions, and streaming, which is more cutting edge. “I think everyone is trying to be on the safe side,” Yusof says.
For her, that exploration is part of the creative process. “It’s our job to keep challenging our audience. It’s our job to keep introducing new content to the audience, it’s not the other way around, she says.
“If we keep putting this restriction on ourselves then we’re never going to move forward. I think it has been proven in Malaysia this year especially. We have a film called Imaginur that we distributed and nobody thought that it would make it but it made RM6 million/US$1.3 million box office and it premiered at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF). I think now everyone can see that we’re not, as producers, limited to a certain type of content that they expected the audience to receive,” Yusof says.
“What we are trying to do collectively in terms of the content is trying to raise the bar and that’s never been done before,” Lim adds. “It’s trying to make the bigger market sit up and take notice and that’s difficult”.
“We are looking at creating new things and sometimes these don’t work but we’re all kind of saying, ‘hey let’s take a chance together. It’s not just your head, it’s our head too’. It’s our reputation, our name, because, really, you’re only as good as your last project. So we care about it just as much as you do. So let’s take that chance together,” Lim says.
But, she adds, “we seem to be in a very conservative environment [at the moment], a risk-averse environment, which is terrible for creativity.”
▶ Published in ContentAsia December 2023 magazine