It was in 2000 when the Digital Video technology that revolutionizes the world of film-making worldwide and of course Malaysia. Prior to the emergence of DV technology film-making was a very expensive hobby, unless one works in the industry, one might take a couple of years to save enough to make a short film due to the high cost of the medium. Film stock and cameras are expensive and beyond the reach of everyday folks.
Rarely international audiences have any idea what a Malaysian movie looks like. And the local movies made are mainly for the Malay audiences; even Malaysian of other ethnicity rarely watches local films in the cinemas.
The first independent Digital Video feature film was Lips to Lips directed by Amir Muhammad. The movie travels to numerous international film festivals as it was fresh and original coming from a country with little known for its cinematic works.
Lips to Lips inspired a lot of other young people to go out and make films and a lot of them are not even formally trained in the field. Between the years 2000 to 2008, a slew of very raw and original films were being made on DV for very low budget mainly with money from the filmmaker themselves, sponsors or government grants and in later stages with foreign funds.
At the same time all these films begin to attract attentions among film critics and film programmers from all around the world mainly with the Singapore International Film Festival as the launching platform for the new undiscovered South East Asian works. It was an exciting time as there were never been so many Malaysian made films being screened in international film festivals. The young filmmakers traveled and build a network with other filmmakers.
The films were produced and made with a small crew mainly friends and sometimes professionals from the industry, the first post production house that actively supported the earlier indie films was Add Audio. The support from the professionals help improved the quality of the films and managed to transfer knowledge to the self-taught filmmakers.
It was also in this period where non-Malay language films begin to flourished made by filmmakers from a specific community based on their ethnicity and language, it brought out previously unseen problems and even till today it's constantly questioning those decade old national film policies. This brought the question of what is a national film. Local films are exempted from the entertainment tax and what qualified as a local film need to have at least 70% Malay language spoken if not it’ll not eligible for the tax rebate. And since most of the independent films are mainly in the filmmakers’ mother tongue, most did not qualify.
One of the major problems back then is distribution; due to the nature and style of most of the indie films it was very difficult to secure theatrical releases even locally. Films were shown in private screenings organized by the filmmakers in education institutions and film clubs. The reach of the films were limited, so the hope of recouping the production cost is impossible even for low-budget films made under RM 100,000 (USD$ 23,000). Combined with the lack of interest from local audiences it was a clear sign how we market and distribute small independent films are not working.
So a lot of this small independent films are made for the artistic reasons rather than economic. In long term only a few who are established and known internationally in the festival circuits continue to make films with the prize money, grants and funds. While the rest goes back into short films and some completely stop making films. At the end indie film-making has turned into a hobby for a few passionate filmmakers.
Cinemas in the next 3-5 years will no longer be a suitable venue for independent films, as it'll only cater to Hollywood box-office superheroes tent-pole movies. And the indie filmmakers must be creative and able to innovate with technology to produce and distribute their films. Getting films into international film festivals will be much difficult due to the increasing number of films being produced.
Producing and making your films will get easier in time to come, but to get people to buy or watch your films will be eventually harder as the world is getting noisier and distracting.
This is where another technology revolution becomes very important, it’s no longer about cameras and software as they becomes more powerful and affordable, but the ability for the filmmaker to distribute their own films and content, YouTube.
YouTube now allows everybody in the world with even a smartphone camera to produce and make films. Creating another generation of filmmakers which produces short form content and at the same time creating other formats that once will never could believe it'll find it audiences or seems not fit for traditional TV stations. On top of that, there are no censorship rules for content makers on the internet, which is another reason why the local millennials are consuming more online content than the traditional media like free TV, cables and cinemas.
Traditionally stations and studios decide what works and what won’t; they set the format and duration of a content or film. But with YouTube it was a crazy period of experimentation that allows new forms to be established, like vlogs, gaming videos and various other genres. But the filmmakers and producers in Malaysia are too slow to embrace this new trend. Some industry players back in 2012 think YouTube are for kids, not professional and is not an industry. This is always the mindset of the old guards who had passed their prime and refused to accept changes and reality until it's too late.
The filmmakers on the YouTube platform are called You Tubers or content creators. They start to build their audiences and identity where 10 years ago it was impossible. And like the early batch of DV indie filmmakers in early 2000, this generation too are not schooled or trained formally in film-making. And during the DV era, there were two distinct groups, the independent filmmakers and mainstream filmmakers. Today the You Tubers comprise as the third group. But as time progress and the fact a You Tuber generally produces more content constantly, the quality of their films improves gradually. The best way to learn film-making is to constantly making them.
That’s why I think in another there to five years the distinction between a filmmaker and You Tuber will disappear. All the roles will be mixed into one, as the You Tubers could be very resourceful directing, writing, shooting and producing a film by one person. Filmmakers whom only market their services and make content when it’s funded will lose out, like traditional production houses, they don’t create strong content that they could not brand themselves like You Tubers. Production houses only produces content the brand or agency wants them to with very little input on the creative input and in long run it’s just a service provider. Where else a filmmaker or You Tuber whom has a strong identity and brand will always be much more appealing to the brands. Which is something I feel will benefit the creative industry in long run; we are not just technicians, craftsmen but also creative story tellers.
With internet as one of the distribution channel for local independent works it also stand a chance of gaining audiences from other countries which was impossible ten years ago. And this will also put local content directly competing for eyeballs with the rest of the world, so they need make better quality films and tell more universal stories.
And with the growth of Netflix and finally our very local iflix, the whole distribution and consuming content and media has change. These streaming services does not only provide better quality content but at the same time allow audiences to watch the content whenever and wherever they want. In the meantime as the numbers of local features films has increased it doesn’t meant the industry is improving and in a healthy state.
Even though in my opinion independent films will never be able to become a sustainable industry on its own, it’s still a very important component to the country. It’s with these alternative voices and stories, that’ll continue to enrich the local films where we can see more daring ideas and expressions. The spirit to be able to make a film and tell a story without strict censorship and commercial restrictions is an important form that makes what it’s to be an independent filmmaker in Malaysia.