Why Malaysian films aren't attracting moviegoers

Younger Malaysians prefer Hollywood flicks to locally-produced features, which often do not include Malaysian elements

The Journey, an example of a Malaysian film that reflects the true spirit of Malaysia, collected over RM13 million in ticket sales. PHOTO: CATHAY CINEPLEXES

KUALA LUMPUR • The Malaysian film industry produced 59 films for the cinemas last year. Yet, admissions were only a dismal 4.5 million.

The figure, supplied by the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia, revealed a marked decline when compared to the 7.16 million admissions for Malaysian feature films in 2016 for 47 movies.

This is perhaps unsurprising because when it comes to selecting what movies to watch at the cinemas, many Malaysians still prefer Hollywood flicks to local features.

This is proven in a 2012 study by the private Help University on the movie preference of Malaysians, particularly the younger generation.

According to former entertainment journalist Ku Seman Ku Husain, local films by young producers over the past five to six years have diverged from the thought and production process of film-makers in the 1980s and 1990s.

This new breed of film-makers received formal or semi-formal education in movie-making from institutes of higher learning and this influences the shape and direction of movies they make.

"To me, their films have a long way to go before they can go out into the industry. It is not industry-material, but merely a production work," he said.

He said factors that contribute to the success of a local film include the storyline and a cast that is popular with the younger generation.

Another issue that many local film-makers have failed to address is the inclusion of Malaysian elements in their movies.

He said, for instance, that almost all films by Malay directors revolved around Malay people, instead of Malaysia.

"These films do not even reflect the true socioculture of Malays and are merely social fantasies copied from Hollywood or Hong Kong movies," he said.

Mr Ku Seman said The Journey (2014) is an example of a local film that reflects the true spirit of Malaysia.

The film, directed by Malaysian Chiu Keng Guan, collected over RM13 million in ticket sales.

"The film is set in Malaysia and features a multiracial cast. It illustrates the interaction of Malaysian Chinese with other races and highlights good moral values," he said.

Being a multiracial country means that the Malaysian market is more segmented than those in other countries, as some movies would appeal more to audiences from a certain culture or race, said creative consultant Amiruddin Karim.

The challenge lies in creating content that would pique not only interest from across the races, but movie financiers as well, he said.

He agreed that Malaysian films created purely for entertainment purposes tend to garner more profit than those with a message.

The reality is that the bottom line matters, so local film producers prefer making movies that appeal to mainsteam audiences.

The formula for Malaysian boxoffice hits tends to revolve around the same themes - love, the Mat Rempit (illegal street racers) life, horror and comedy.

That is why local movies usually cover light genres and skin-deep issues, never truly able to cater to an increasingly discerning audience, said Mr Amiruddin.

Mr Ku Seman also said that Malaysians generally prefer films with light content, but that are heavy in pop culture. That is why local films rarely make it to international festivals and almost all flop at the cinema.

This was partly due to the low level of appreciation for films as an intellectual piece in Malaysia, he said. This attitude applied to novels and Hollywood films, which highlight major issues in their storylines.

"This is something that is worrying to me. As an industry, filmmakers will succumb to the audience's palates," he said. "This means there would be fewer chances of quality films being produced."

Another issue plaguing the local film industry is the lack of promotion.

In addition to having a poor understanding of the importance of promotion, the industry also tends to start the promotion of upcoming movies too late.

The Malaysian film industry focuses on promoting a movie only after the product is done, instead of building excitement about the upcoming feature long before its release, said Mr Amiruddin.

Hollywood does it right, he said, with movies like Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018) being promoted nearly a year before it hit the cinemas.

The film was unsurprisingly a huge box-office success as it was a much-anticipated sequel, but having an official trailer coming out as early as a year before helped generate buzz and sustained the excitement until the day of its release, he said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2018, with the headline Why Malaysian films aren't attracting moviegoers. Subscribe