Malaysian Film Industry Looks to Cast Off Shadow of 1MDB Scandal
In the wake of the multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal, Malaysia's new government-appointed film chief is working to boost transparency and revamp the incentive scheme at the country's flagship Iskandar Malaysia Studios, while local film festival organizers are showcasing the growing achievements of their industry.
It’s been four years since Malaysia’s multi-billion-dollar 1MDB corruption scandal first broke, but its shadow still looms large over the domestic film industry — and indeed the country as a whole — no matter how hard those in power might pray that it goes away.
“If we’re going to continue looking back, we’re not going to move forward,” says Hans Isaac, who was appointed as the new chairman of the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS) in April.
But there’s no escaping the scandal's imprint in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, as one of the pet projects of now disgraced former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak — the 1,600-foot, 106-floor Exchange 106 Building — remains under construction, an imposing presence over the city's downtown districts.
The building, which will be the country’s tallest upon completion, was originally one of the signature developments instigated by Razak’s 1MDB fund — until the money started vanishing. Too much work had been done by the time Razak was voted out — and later charged with over a dozen counts of corruption — for the project to be scrapped. So now, as the scandal continues to drag on Malaysia's economy and international reputation, Razak's legacy still towers over the heart of the city like a giant middle finger.
Local investigations into the estimated $5 billion stripped out of the 1MDB fund continue, and have reached deep into Hollywood, thanks most recently to charges of money laundering laid on July 4 against Razak’s stepson, Riza Aziz.
Aziz was co-founder with Joey McFarland in 2010 of the L.A.-based Red Granite Pictures, co-producer of the 2013 box office hit The Wolf of Wall Street. Aziz is suspected of funneling tens of millions of illicit funds from 1MDB into his studio to bankroll its brief, high-profile foray into Hollywood. That gifts allegedly purchased with the tainted cash were showered on The Wolf of Wall Street's star, Oscar-winner Leonardo DiCaprio — including a Pablo Picasso painting purchased for $3.28 million and Marlon Brando's best actor Oscar for On the Waterfront — hasn’t exactly helped keep investigations low key.
But the reputation of Malaysia's small, domestic film industry has become embroiled in the scandal more by association than by direct involvement. Although it remains to be seen where and to whom continuing investigations by the country’s anti-corruption commission will lead, Isaac contends that the ill repute Aziz brought to his country by throwing stolen money around Hollywood has little to do with the work Malaysia's real filmmakers have been doing for years.
A former actor, producer and director, Isaac says there is urgency in his office to turn a page on painful events of the past few years. "We have a very strong and independent board now and it’s all about the future," he says. "We’re cleaning up a lot; we’ve taken on a lot. We’ve looked at the bad things that have happened and there is nothing to cause those [failures] anymore. The job ahead is to create opportunities, to create jobs and to make sure people see the films that we make.”
Isaac said that under his watch there would be a concerted effort for greater transparency. Central to that push will be the more efficient management of Malaysia's flagship production facility, the state-backed Iskandar Malaysia Studios.
Built for an estimated $150 million, the Malaysian studio project was launched with high hopes in 2014. But aside from hosting two seasons of Netflix's short-lived period series Marco Polo, it never really reached the heights, nor drew the Hollywood tentpoles, it was designed to service. There have also been complaints from international producers over how long it has taken to receive the country's Film in Malaysia Film Incentive (FIMI), which offers a rebate of 30 percent on local spend. On July 11, the studio's reputation took a further hit when it broke off its longstanding partnership with British film facilities giant Pinewood Studios.
Isaac says his office is overhauling the country's incentive processes to address the problems that were discovered during Iskandar Malaysia Studios' inevitable growing pains. Whereas international production companies previously had to wait over a year to receive their promised rebate, "now it will either take six months or three months,” Isaac says. The minimum spend to qualify for the incentive also has been dropped from $2.5 million to $1.5 million to attract more local and regional productions.
"FIMI has taken a hit, branding wise, so we are solving these problems," Isaac says. "We’ve lost a few major productions, but we are willing to say, come and try us today. We know now it is all about results.”
On the domestic film production front, Isaac has started his term at FINAS with plans for the sort of basic infrastructure the emerging industry in Malaysia has been lacking, such as requirements for basic insurance and retirement plans. “Once the business is in order, the house is in order, and then creative people can come in and take over this legacy and create,” he says.
Isaac also points out that the Malaysian film business has notched several notable achievements, despite being overshadowed by the international embarrassments of 1MDB. Three local films broke the 30 million ringgits ($7.2 million) barrier for the first time in 2018, with Syamsul Yusof’s horror title Munafik 2 becoming the highest-grossing Malaysian film of all time with a total gross over $9 million. Production output hit 84 local films, up from an annual average of about 10 titles as recently as a decade ago.
“We had a great year, but it was only for a certain small pool of producers,” Isaac says. “We’re still worried about the other 97 percent. How do we make sure their stories get told. We want to have a pool of different stories, and maybe they can then go outside Malaysia.”
While Pinewood might have pulled out, Iskandar Malaysia Studios recently has pulled in some sizable business by hosting productions from the regional neighborhood, such as the Chinese disaster-themed tentpoll SkyFire, helmed by Simon West (Con Air, Tomb Raider), along with the production team behind the first Netflix original series to be shot in the country, the ghost-murder thriller The Ghost Bride, adapted from the pages of the New York Times best-seller.
The biggest local hit of 2019 so far has been the latest installment from the animated Upin & Ipin franchise, which follows the daily exploits of two Muslim boys. The latest feature in the series, The Lone Gibbon Kris, has brought in $6.3 million — the most ever in the country for a domestic animated film. The producers also have notched a deal to release the film in China before year's end.
The local industry also came out in force this year for the Malaysia International Film Festival (MIFF), which concluded its third consecutive edition with a red carpet awards ceremony last Saturday night. The event was held over six days in the capital and was initiated, organizers said, with the goal of inspiring diversity in content while forging links with the international film community.
Director Ramtin Lavafi’s taut thriller Hat Trick picked up the award for best film. A slow-burning Iranian drama, the film charts the rising tensions between two couples after they're involved in a car accident with a mysterious victim.
MIFF founder and Jazzy Pictures managing director Joanne Goh said she took inspiration from the success of other regional festivals — such as the Korea's Busan International Film Festival and Taiwan’s Golden Horse — and hopes Malaysia's young event will help showcase what is going on in her country.
“You can see how much those festivals have helped their countries in inspiring filmmakers and making that connection with international filmmakers,” Goh says. “We think this is one of the ways the Malaysian film industry can grow. Box office is growing. We are trying to take Malaysian films international and hope that we can become a hub for Southeast Asian film. That is really the main aim for everyone.”