E-Village: Malaysia goes Mollywood

Posted on August 13, 1999 
Filed Under CNET, Julian

By Julian Matthews

You will be forgiven if in five years’ time, you visit Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) expecting dust-free cleanrooms teeming with white-smocked scientists and engineers hunched over tiny electronic components, only to find otherwise.

Instead, if Charmaine Augustin of the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDC) should have her way, the MSC would be filled with pony-tailed men in shades rather than bunnymen in masks.

As senior manager of the Creative Multimedia Cluster, the newest division of the MDC, Augustin is eager to transform Malaysia’s 15km by 50km digital corridor into an area more akin to Hollywood and Disneyland combined, rather than a clinical and sterile technopolis.

“There will be studios and sets for movie-makers, theme parks and resorts for the tourists, and digital animation labs and film schools for students,” she said.

The MSC will be abuzz with the stuff of stars. In it you can expect to find directors and producers, cameramen and editors, actors and actresses, gaffers and grips, special-effects crew and stuntmen, animators and digital effects artists–all involved in the creative process of churning out blockbuster movies, hit TV shows, and popular cartoons.

In short, it is hoped your future visit to the MSC will leave you both shaken, and stirred.

Cue the Entertainment Village or E-Village, backed by managers with James Bond-like guile and history. The heart of the Creative Multimedia Cluster.

Public-listed company Datuk Keramat Holdings Bhd (DKH) pitched for and received the go-ahead last month to be the anchor tenant for the E-Village.

In its first phase a US$60 million studio and entertainment complex is planned on a 480-hectare piece of land bordering Cyberjaya, the MSC’s host city for IT companies.

DKH was a shoo-in for the project. Together with associate company George Town Holdings, DKH owned the Leavesden Studio in Britain.

Five years earlier, it had swooped down in a dramatic last-minute bid and bought the Watford-based studio during the filming of the James Bond movie “Golden Eye”. Leavesden’s biggest coup since has been George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode 1–The Phantom Menace”.

Headed by Disney veterans Norman Doerges and Robert McTyre, DKH convinced the MSC Implementation Council that it had the expertise to pull off such a project as the E-Village–and the force was obviously with it.

When completed, the E-Village would have not only film and TV studios, but also a world-class theme park, holiday resort, and business and residential townships.

The Creative Multimedia Cluster now moved from the abstract to something tangible.

It takes a village

The idea for the cluster was incorporated in the three-year-old MSC Masterplan only last October. “We found more and more investors applying to do content development and entertainment projects rather than purely IT-related ventures,” said Augustin.

The rationale was clear. Entertainment would be a key driving force of the digital age. The digital delivery of music, sound, films, animation and games over the Internet is an emerging trend that should not be left to chance. The MDC saw that it needed to leverage such creative endeavors to make the MSC work.

In a dramatic, no less Oscar-worthy turn, MDC now reclad its Silicon Valley intentions with Hollywood-wannabe dreams.

When 20th Century Fox was scouting around for a new location last year, after Thailand booted out the Jodie Foster-Chow Yuen Fatt vehicle “Anna and the King”, MDC quickly lobbied for Malaysia.

Ultimately, the chosen locations–Penang, Perak and Langkawi–were outside the 750 sq km MSC zone, but MDC didn’t mind. It played gopher in processing visas, easing custom clearance for props and equipment, and facilitated security.

More importantly, MDC even obtained a blanket tax waiver for cast and crew. Said Augustin: “The benefits to locals far outweighed any tax considerations. The job created over 1,500 positions for locals as supporting cast, extras, technical crew and craftsmen. There was also definitely an increase in tourists throughout the three-month shoot.”

MDC also worked tirelessly for another 20th Century Fox production, heist thriller “Entrapment” which starred Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Key scenes were shot in Malacca and the capital city using the MSC’s northern-most point, the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers, as a backdrop.

Augustin said the production used three local directors as understudies to film director Jon Amiel. MDC also managed to get a real-life local SWAT team to play themselves in the climactic chase scene. The corporation also provided a telecommunications uplink to send daily rushes electronically to Britain, but the filmmakers opted to use traditional mailing means.

“The productions gave hands-on experience in technical and operational aspects and support services. It also provided much-needed networking and exposure,” said Augustin.

MDC staff also learnt a trick or two in how it could mobilize itself quicker for future productions. One post-mortem note was to prepare a standard rate card for payment of local supporting actors and crew.

A third coup came in the guise of Tarzan, the animated musical, which was translated into Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, one of five versions of the Disney film. Local translation, voice talent, singers and sound engineering expertise were used–a first for Malaysia–and the final outcome premiered here even before the original did in the U.S. in June.

The three back-to-back productions won brownie points in Malaysia’s favor. They also reinforced the need for the Creative Multimedia Cluster. If Mohamed can’t go to Hollywood, then Hollywood has to come to Mohamed.

Augustin, in true marketing spiel, announced that since the announcement of the E-Village, MDC’s phones have not stopped ringing.

Hollywood dreamtime

But not everyone is welcoming Hollywood with open arms.

The local film industry, which is mostly driven by TV commercials rather than feature films, is worried that MSC’s leeway for foreign filmmakers to bring in an unlimited number of foreign “knowledge workers” may eat into their end of the pie.

MDC back-pedaled on an early attempt to obtain exemptions for MSC companies from a Made-in-Malaysia (MIM) ruling, which insists on 80 percent local content and talent used in ads, after local advertising associations raised their ire.

“We genuinely feared that they were going to pull the carpet from under our feet,” said Chan Moon Kien, chairman of Post Production Association of Malaysia (Postam).

He said the MIM ruling afforded protection for the local industry and was responsible for a spike in investment in recent years for post-production and animation by both locals and foreigners.

“Today, we have a range of specialized services and an industry that can cater to local and regional needs. Locals now have technical know-how and are employed in positions that only expatriates were capable of holding in the past,” he said.

Chan said lifting the MIM ruling would cause a free-for-all and appealed for two more years “to consolidate the industry before we fling our doors open”.

Film producers are also of the opinion that the MIM ruling should stay in place, at least until 2003 when proposed world-free market laws come into effect and open the airwaves to foreign ads.

The Malaysian Association of Advertising Film Makers (Maaf) said the MIM ruling helped spur the tremendous growth of the industry in the peak years of 1996 and 1997.

“There were over 2,500 TV commercials per year produced by local companies to the tune of RM200 million (US$52.6 million),” said Maaf representative S. Mohan. But MDC counters that industry worries of job losses of locals to foreigners are unfounded.

“From the statistics we have it is the local companies that are applying to hire foreign staff, rather than foreign companies which mostly hire one or two key expatriates,” shot back Augustin.

Both Maaf and Postam members, however, are not against the E-Village concept, seeing it as a welcomed boost, particularly for the ailing feature film industry. But they are hoping that local companies can be as favored as foreign companies are by MDC to get past the bureaucratic red-tape–specifically with regards to immigration and customs.

“These departments tend to hamper our aim in bringing in foreign work into Malaysia and prevent us from becoming regional or international players,” said Chan.

Maaf’s Mohan also called for the setup of a Film Finance Corporation to offer loans to filmmakers under the auspice of the MDC as most local banks shy away from financing film projects.

Uncertainty also surrounds how Malaysia will handle incoming film projects given its track record on censorship. Malaysia has a snip-happy censorship board and has banned movies such as animated musical “Prince of Egypt”, the Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List”, and most recently, “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”, for varied reasons.

Although Malaysia guarantees non-censorship of the Internet in the MSC, it does not apply the same rule for filmmaking, animation, advertising and gaming, where the lines between the varied broadcast mediums are beginning to blur.

Quick, get that script doctor!

Ironically, it was the MSC’s No. 1 salesman, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who recently lashed out at “Entrapment,” for “distorting the truth” by splicing the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur as if it were rising from the slums of Malacca 150 km away.

Dr Mahathir was upset at what seemed like typical Hollywood creative license.

“The distorted view of the skyscrapers will certainly make movie audiences in rich countries conclude that Malaysia is one of those developing countries which wastes public funds, perhaps even foreign aid, on useless grandiose monuments,” he reportedly said.

Detractors commented that Malaysia cannot hope to woo Hollywood if it continues to adopt such a non-liberal stance to filmmaking.

“Censorship will hamper our aim to become a film hub and prevent us from becoming a regional or international player. It deprives the young exposure to both local and foreign work,” said Chan.

It is also uncertain whether Malaysia will allow the making of, say, adult films or animation, creative ads or violent games, even if these are solely for export markets.

Rampant piracy may also be a serious obstacle to the E-Village. Movies are often obtained, illegally, in pirated VCD formats sold at popular night markets, sometimes days after their U.S. debut.

Another concern is whether or not the clustering of so many production houses and filmmakers in the E-Village will defeat its very purpose, due to duplication and excessive competition.

Bill Buxton, the chief scientist of Silicon Graphics Inc’s design software company Alias|Wavefront, suggested that it was only natural for such companies to congregate in one area.

“I cannot think of any industry where this kind of clustering does not take place. You can see it in fashion in northern Italy, automotive in Detroit, furniture in Michigan, mining in Toronto, and of course, film in Hollywood and high technology in Silicon Valley,” he noted.

Buxton conceded it would be competitive as other countries had the same idea. “But from what I have seen, Malaysia has the right business climate and technological infrastructure in place. The question is how can it differentiate itself? How can it have that special value add that makes it attractive and not vulnerable?”

Buxton said two critical factors needed to make Malaysians reach international standards are creating a pool of creative, artistic and technical talent; and building a track record. “The hardest thing to do is to get started. Begin by doing joint productions to gain experience, and develop a reputation as a quality place to work,” he suggested.

A fairytale ending?
Buxton also said that Malaysia has the potential to become a viable subcontractor, like India and the Philippines, for 2D, 3D and CGI animation and post-production projects from the U.S.

He plugged the Multimedia University, which he visited in March, as a prime driver. “This is one of the best schools that I have seen in the world. I have even been suggesting to my son who is going to Art School that if he wants to go into animation, he should go to Malaysia,” he said.

Located in Cyberjaya, Malaysia’s Multimedia University, launched last month, offers degrees in software engineering, film, animation, game design and media innovation and boasts digital and multimedia labs, 3D modeling and animation labs, and post-production labs.

“We will play a key role in industry-academic collaboration and hands-on training for those pursuing future careers in the MSC and E-Village,” said Dr Abu Hasan Ismail, the dean for the university’s Creative Multimedia Faculty.

“The skill sets we are developing are in such high demand that our pioneer batch of 60 students have already found placements for four-month training stints with local companies, as well as in Japan and North America, beginning October,” he said.

The faculty will produce incrementally 60 graduates in the year 2000, 100 in 2001, 180 in 2002, and 250 to 280 in 2003 and beyond.

A list of collaborations with MSC-linked companies on R&D efforts is also growing. PC giant Compaq Computer Corp and digital media solutions provider Avid Technology Inc, and Softimage Co have sponsored chairs, while SGI Inc, Motorola Inc and Autodesk Inc are doing research in animation, design and courseware development.

Even as these future E-Villagers are groomed, industry representatives hope that the MDC will get beyond its “textbook theory” of how the E-Village should work. “Unlike manufacturing where cheap labor and tax incentives attract investors, our inherent problem is that we’ve never had a filmmaking culture. That is something we have to develop or we will be totally dependent on foreigners,” pointed out Chan.

Maaf’s Mohan also noted that the focus on technology and state-of-the-art facilities alone was not enough to spur the film industry’s growth. “It is the human factor that makes films happen,” he said.

It is hoped that that same human factor will turn Malaysia’s celluloid hopes into reality, and the E-Village into a force to reckon with on the international platform.

Published in CNet Asia, Aug 13, 1999: Pg 1 | Pg 2 | Pg 3 | Pg 4 | Pg 5

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