Malaysia: Come produce with us

Animated series "Saladin" is a partnership between MDeC and Al Jazeera Childrens Channel

Country on offensive to be content provider, consumer

SINGAPORE -- About 10 years -- and a few false starts -- after they first started talking about ambitions to create a global multimedia supercorridor, Malaysia's media authorities have dusted off their plan to put the country on the international media map.

The newly aggressive strategy is designed to attract a share of what the Multimedia Development Corp. (MDeC) says is a $600 billion global industry for animation, computer games, mobile content and digital comics.

The bid is also part of Malaysia's national aim to become a knowledge economy by 2020.

So far, the multimillion-dollar charm offensive to convince the world that Malaysia is a worthy media partner appears to be working.

MDeC says deals worth $110 million were signed between Malaysian companies and foreign production partners in the six months from March to August.

This includes the first-ever "buyer fly-in" program, where MDeC set up "speed-dating" meetings in Kuala Lumpur between 20 foreign companies and 30 local production houses.

The idea was to "bring the world to us," MDeC vp Niran Noor says. "We wanted international producers to come and see, feel and touch."

MDec says the results far exceeded targets. "I believe Malaysia is now ready to offer its creative and digital contents to the world," MDeC CEO Badlisham Ghazali says. "Malaysians have the capability and are committed to grow the industry via strategic collaborations with foreign partners."

But still, MDeC realizes it has a long way to go before Malaysia really takes its place alongside Singapore in the international consciousness of media industries with clout.

Malaysia's digital content industry was estimated to be worth RM1.5 billion ($431 million) at the end of 2005 (the last available figures). This covers animation, games, training, content and education but excludes film and television. New figures are being compiled.

"We're starting to come up with separate figures for international investors," MDeC vp Kamil Othman says. Right now, he adds, "we're a big unknown."

The first big-brand international company to set up in Malaysia was Al Jazeera, which is already using the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur as a regional hub for English-language Al Jazeera International news channel.

In the past few months, the 2-year-old Al Jazeera Childrens Channel has joined the news channel in Kuala Lumpur, from where it will develop content and partnerships across the Asia region.

The first made-in-Malaysia co-production is a 26-episode animated series about legendary 12th century Arab warrior and statesman Saladin.

The $1.7 million series is a 50-50 partnership between MDeC and Al Jazeera Childrens Channel and is scheduled to air on the Doha-based channel by the end of 2008. The value of the relationship could top RM30 million ($8.6 million).

"Saladin," which will be made in English and Arabic, is being billed as creating a bridge between Malaysia and the Middle East.

People helping to build bridges in the other direction include North American producer Terry Thoren (one-time Klasky Csupo CEO), who set up Rocket Fish Studios in Malaysia.

Thoren has helped MDeC bring such U.S. companies as Archie Entertainment, DIC Entertainment, Vibrant Animation, Barking Cow Distribution, Big Bad Tomato and Zanymation Associates International to Malaysia to see the facilities first-hand.

Rocket Fish also is working with Cartoon Saloon from Ireland, Media Freaks from Singapore and Studio Baestarts from Hungary, and has set up animation training facilities in Malaysia.

"Our initiative is to support the government's ambitious plan to turn Malaysia into a regional hub for digital content," Thoren says.

Among the projects in development is a 26-episode animated production between Rocket Fish and Archie Entertainment that updates Archie Comics' characters Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead and friends "to adapt them for a new generation of tech-savvy children," Thoren says.

Rocket Fish also is producing "The Secret Millionaire's Club," with DIC Entertainment. The direct-to-DVD program introduces children to money-management tips from Warren Buffett.

One of Malaysia's media development stumbling blocks is a fragmented regulatory system, with four ministries dealing with media and digital content. Alongside his turbo-charged media efforts, Othman is pushing to streamline this policy legacy.

Why now? "From 2000 to 2006, all we were doing was making sure that companies had the right content -- 2006 was a watershed year. We began to see the results of building up the infrastructure and skills," Othman says. Last year, MDeC published its first catalog. "Finally," Othman says, "we are able to offer something credible."