Meet the Malaysian Filmmakers Following In Roger Corman’s Indie Footsteps
B-grade films, profit share and a money-back guarantee to the audience are just some of the innovative strategies adopted by Kuman Pictures, a company inspired by Corman's seminal autobiography 'How I Made One Hundred Films in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.'
Roger Corman’s influence on Hollywood's greatest filmmakers is well documented, with the maverick director having mentored the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron to name just a few. But now, the man dubbed the "pope of pop cinema," has gained a new crop of enthusiastic disciples in Malaysia.
Corman's seminal 1998 autobiography How I Made One Hundred Films in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, which documented his filmmaking career, has, rather unexpectedly, become something of a bible for a Malaysian indie producer behind a production company that is shaking up the local industry.
“We have been inspired by Corman and his book,” says producer Elise Shick, before rattling off some of Corman's core filmmaking philosophies: “High concept, low cost, high entertainment. It’s a completely new concept for our film industry.”
Shick and filmmaker-book publisher Amir Muhammad are the driving forces behind the newly formed and innovative Malaysian production company Kuman Pictures. Launched near the end of 2018, the production house's name is a play on Corman’s as well as the Malay word for “germ" (a nod to viral content).
Hewing close to Corman's indie filmmaking blueprint, Kuman has developed a unique profit-share arrangement that offers 10 percent of the film’s general income — box office, international sales, VOD, TV, festival screening fees — to be shared according to prorated basis for five years. In an industry that produces around 80 films per year, few of which have traditionally turned a profit outside a few annual blockbusters, Kuman's profit share scheme would be a boon to local film industry workers.
“We pay royalties to all our cast and crew, even if the film flops,” explains Shick, who also counts Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions as an inspiration.
“Amir wanted to adapt the royalty system from [book publishing] into the film industry,” Shick says. “In Malaysia you cannot make a living acting full-time. Acting is always a side job in Malaysia. We want to improve the industry. We also want to encourage the Malaysian audience to support local films, which is something that doesn’t really happen at the moment."
She adds: “You pay the same ticket price to see a Hollywood blockbuster so that is what people choose. So if you see one of our films and you don’t like it, we give you your money back … but only on opening day.”
Up against Hollywood tentpoles as well as movies from China and India that appeal to sizable Chinese and Indian diaspora in Malaysia, Shick and her partner see some potential in exploiting the current lack of original Malay films from streamers. “Our royalty system runs for five years and comes not just from box office but overseas sales and from [streamers],” Shick says. “[Streamers] are skirting around Malaysian films at the moment. [Our films], perhaps the budget is too low for them. But we are just starting and we have hope. This is just the beginning.”
True to the Corman template, the first production from Kuman is the James Lee-directed horror Two Sisters, made for approximately $72,000 (300,000 ringgit). The film tells the tale of a haunted house that reveals some dark family secrets.
Two Sisters was released in Malaysia on April 18, but struggled in the face of competition from Avengers: Endgame. “We’re a bit bitter about this — what hope did we have?” Shick says of going up against a Hollywood event movie. “It’s a huge battle for local films to even get in to a cinema, but there’s not much you can do at the moment,” she said.
But Two Sisters did create a stir on the festival circuit, and picked up a best actress award nomination for its lead Emily Lim Pey Chi at the Malaysia Film Awards, where it also won the award for best score. It also had an international premiere at the 21st Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, at the end of April.
Not to be deterred, Kuman currently has two more horror films in production, with the plan to sell them as a package with Two Sisters by mid-2020.