Friday, January 3, 2014

Where Do We Go Now: From a Writer's Perspective (or, 5 More Ways to Improve Local Cinema)

Another year, another string of losses. I am, of course, talking about local films that saw release throughout 2013. I don't know, man. I mean, I talk a lot of smack about the quality of our films, but I don't revel in their failure. Not all of 'em, at least.

It doesn't seem like we'd be off to a good start for 2014 either, with movies like Rumah Sewa RM50 leading the way, which I'm sure will tank at the box-office. I mean, just look at it. Everything about it just screams of incompetence; the poster, the translation (might I suggest, "You wouldn't last a single night"?), the aspect ratio of that trailer on YouTube, and how I couldn't feel a damn thing watching it - granted, in part due to how desensitised I've become with horror flicks, especially local ones.

Going back to the subject at hand, 2013 wasn't altogether a bad year for local movies. There's KIL, for instance. Calling it a game-changer might be overstating it, but you can't deny it caused quite a ripple and got people talking about how much of a difference real talent can do to a movie. And it's good to see that it's being acknowledged for it.

In actuality, though, there's nothing groundbreaking about it. The visuals are spectacular, of course. But other films like Songlap [2011], Bunohan [2012] and Istanbul, Aku Datang! [2012] stand out for the same reason: people behind them actually know what they're doing. But what sets KIL apart from the rest is how it kinda came out of nowhere, from a bunch of people who, up until that point, nobody has ever heard of. In addition, they worked on a shoestring budget of about 100k in Malaysian Ringgit; a stark contrast to the average local flick which costs in the neighbourhood of RM 1.5 million.

In a way, they proved that a bunch of our favourite excuses are exactly that: excuses.
They say, "Oh, you can't compare us to Hollywood because they have all the money in the world."
"But Hong Kong cinema doesn't have that kind of money, yet they make good movies."

They say, "Oh, you can't compare us to Hong Kong either, because they have a lot of talent."
"Actually, we have a lot of talent over here too. Just that you guys keep looking the other way in favour of keeping pretty people with no personality whatsoever in front of the camera."
"Ugh, where do I even begin...?"
However, you shouldn't take this to mean that we should scrap whatever movie-making templates we have. It's a tried-and-true formula for them, and if there's an audience for it, let them be. Perhaps they would only watch a film if the stars are pretty enough. Let them be.

A few conversations I've had with Rewan Ishak, right now best known for having produced KIL, who also wrote and directed the viral hit Pasport Ekspress, kinda steered me to a new conclusion: we can't change the market, and it's presumptuous to tell the masses that they have been watching the "wrong" movies.

What we should do instead, is add variety to what we already have, akin to what independent book publishers are doing for our literary scene. A massive challenge, no doubt, but impossible it isn't. Which leads me to today's list, where I think we should go from here;

#5 Change our attitude

Amir Hafizi, writer of such movies as Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa [2011] and 29 Februari [2012], once said that at the end of the day, entertainment (films included) is a begging medium. I guess I've always known this, just that I've never phrased it that way. You see, I too never believed in chastising the public for not seeing a particular movie. It's a movie, not some kind of a life-saving vaccine, so you gotta sell it.

Give the public a reason to spend time and money on something you've put together, talk it up (though hyperbole is generally not a good idea), and most importantly, create awareness - and not wait until two weeks prior to the release date to do just that, then ragequit saying, "There's no support for quality films anymore!" a la Hans Isaac.

As stated above, you're not providing food and water in some third world country while teaching ex-child soldiers to read on the side, so why the high horse? I get it, selling movies is hard, especially in this economy. You can't help but feel frustrated sometimes. But if I may suggest, perhaps it's high time we stop pandering to just one demographic?

#4 The other 28,670,000
The opening line for one of my all-time favourites, Lord of War [2005], is as follows;
There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That's one firearm for every twelve people on the planet. The only question is: How do we arm the other 11?
When I said the other 28 million, it was of course, just a figure of speech. Cinema attendance in Malaysia can amount up to 330,000 (though I should stress that this data is ten years old and definitely not proportionate to our current population) and might not even be half that amount for local films. KL Gangster [2011] broke new grounds when it managed to pull more than 100,000 in attendance, and studios continued to work on the notion that people love genres as opposed to stories.

Check out Item #1 on this Cracked article
The rest? Well, you'd have an easier time filling up seats for an awful movie like 47 Ronin than a decent one like Kolumpo. It's true. It was full house when I saw it. It's like people are more willing to gamble on anything from Hollywood than ours. You can't blame them (read: us), they just have a really jaded view of our stuff. Thanks to, in no small part, the way we run things over here. More on this in a minute.

I often say that I feel like an abused housewife: I keep giving chances to local movies and end up disappointed 99% of the time, so what else can I do but go and weep to my lover, Mr. Hollywood, who often knows how to treat me like a proper audience: explosive but sometimes nice and slow for about an hour-and-a-half, before he'd send me on my way.


So going back to the subject at hand, even though the statistic linked above doesn't reflect our current cinema attendance, but for the purpose of this article, let's just say there are about 50,000 to 100,000 (at most) people who flock the cinema for "cerita Melayu". So the question is, how do we appeal to the other 230,000? I haven't the slightest notion, but there is one thing we could try;

#3 Bigger ideas on a slightly smaller budget
For lack of a better term, don't you think it's a very Melayu thing to not care about details as long as it looks good from a distance? Same goes to our films. "Oh, we spent this much on it. Oh, it's really star-studded. Oh, it's a drama-comedy-horror-thriller wrapped up in a romantic story." They'd make it look all fancy from afar, but once you take a closer look, everything about the film either falls apart or evaporates like a mirage. Like a man with a tiny penis who overcompensates by driving a Ferrari.

Though this guy might be okay.
There is one prevailing misunderstanding whenever I say I'm looking for something else in our cinema. When I say I can't stand the likes of Adnan Sempit, I don't mean that I want us to go to the other extreme end of the spectrum and make a bunch of Bunohans, Mulholland Drives, Only God Forgives', etc. Even KIL is kind of pushing it, though just like Bunohan, I could enjoy such movies in small doses.

In short, I could only take so much "quiet" and "sparse" movies before I'd crave for some mainstream Hollywood flicks.

Every time that happens I'd wonder why can't we do what they're doing? Of course, anything that resemble a Michael Bay movie is out of the picture, but again, that's not what I'm asking for. I'm talking about something more along the lines of Hot Fuzz [2007], Midnight Run [1988], Rocky [1976], Just Like Heaven [2005], Taken [2008], Disturbia [2007], i.e. just "normal" movies with good stories.

Which is to say, a contrast to the common practice of today: pick a genre, throw RM 1.5 million into it, attach big name stars before there's even a script, rush the script, get it made and get it out there as soon as possible, then hope for the best.

"Dear God, I've stepped on too many people for this to fail..."
I think we should shake things up a bit. Put big ideas down on paper, all the while making sure that it could work without the need of a blank check. Sounds a lot easier said than done, which is why Afdlin Shauki deserves a lot of praise in this respect, whose film Baik Punya Cilok [2005] remains one of the best movies I've seen in ages. See? Who says it can't be done?

You see, while money get movies made, it's really ideas that get movies done well, if you know what I mean. So why are good local movies so few and far in between? That might have to do with #2, and relatable to Afdlin Shauki's career trajectory.

#2 Give content providers a real reason to stay

Passion can lead to the creation of something you can sell. Passion alone, however, doesn't put food on the table; film-makers often learn this the hard way. You see, studios and TV stations often give too much emphasis on the cast, which is understandable. But when the income disparity between them and the people behind the camera is too much, that's when we have a problem, especially if the creative workforce isn't properly compensated for their effort.

Simply put, they seem to be willing to pay people to say the lines, but the people who provide them, not so much. It's the reason why Afdlin Shauki comes up in this article. If you look at his career trajectory, his movies started out good, but in recent years they get progressively worse. You could say he simply ran out of ideas, but a more probable cause, I think, is he has grown disillusioned with the industry because racking his brain is often more trouble than it's worth - financially.

No one can be sure of this but him. But you could make a hypothesis saying that it explains his business ventures. Regardless, he remains in this writer's mind a Hall of Famer in our film industry.

Also, Afdlin Shauki is just an example. Truth is, it happens all the time. A star can command a salary from RM 30,000 upward while writers would have to fight tooth and nail for less than half, and absolutely nothing else. By right, RM 30,000 basic + 3% of total gross should be standard practice, something I'll always fight for.

What about the stuff I just said in #3? It still stands. I'm saying the people who provide the big ideas should be properly compensated because of course they should. Like I said, the issue here is the income disparity between producers, cast and writers. You see, the creative workforce have no problem with racking their brains as long as money is not an issue.

It's not the same with other crew members like the cameraman, for instance, who can get work as long as they have the skill. In contrast, writers and directors can only work as long as they have ideas, which isn't always a regular thing. But of course, it goes without saying that crew members shouldn't be mistreated or shortchanged either.

What I'm saying is, a better deal for writers would attract more writers. As a result, you'd have more screenplays to choose from, and only the good ones will get made. Which, by the way, will improve the overall quality of our releases. Isn't that what we all want?

#1 More creative control to people who actually know what they're doing

Had KIL been made by a big studio, it would have probably starred Aaron Aziz, there will be a number of out-of-place acrobatic fight scenes, and the sound design would have been downright horrid. Also, they might change the title to Bro, Gua Nak Bunuh Diri (credit: Aidil Rusli). But, they didn't have to do any of those things. Guess why?

Yes, KIL saw release via Grand Brilliance, but it was already made by the time director Nik Amir met GB head honcho Tengku Iesta. Yes, it ended up not being a box-office smash hit. But seven months later, people still talk about it. Can you name any other local film that had this kind of attention? Even with KL Gangster 2 people only talk about how it was leaked. Ouch.

Yes, you could argue that intervention is sometimes necessary. But unless we have a Michael Cimino over here, I say we give a much longer leash to the creative workforce of film-making. Let them fulfill their vision and not, for instance, dismiss a director's casting choice just so you can cast someone prettier but not a good fit, and has zero talent to boot. Oh, you'd be surprised by how common that is.

The list of creative stifling goes on, but I'll just stop here for now. Bottom line, this is something we need to change. If that's too much to ask, then maybe we shouldn't have a film industry at all. Or, stay where we are today, and get left even further behind from the rest of the world.

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