From local to global
Film production houses Ace Pictures and Feisk Productions are taking an international approach to their projects, to ensure growth in the Malaysian film industry.
HOLLYWOOD actress Alfre Woodard’s performance as a prison warden overseeing executions, in the film Clemency,
has been getting high praises from the industry since its release last year. The drama, which won the Grand Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, was produced by Malaysian company Ace Pictures.
A subsidiary company of Ace Holdings formed in 2017, this media and film production investment firm aims to produce high-quality films through international partnerships, especially from Hollywood where the world’s film experts reside.
So far, Ace Pictures has backed eight films of different genres. Other than Clemency, it has funded thriller Daniel Isn’t Real featuring Patrick Schwarzenegger, and Color Out Of Space, a film based on the short story by HP Lovecraft, starring Nicolas Cage.
Daniel Isn’t Real got Adam Egypt Mortimer the Best Director trophy at South Korea’s Bucheon International Film Festival 2019, while Color Out Of Space premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Canada.
There is also Come Away, a drama-fantasy headlined by Angelina Jolie, Michael Caine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, that’s described as a prequel to the stories of Peter Pan and Alice In Wonderland.
According to Ace Pictures’ president Peter Wong, 44, he chose this route for the company as he wanted “to understand the best possible work culture, practices and opportunities in the film industry”.
The long-term plan is to then apply what the company has learned, and advance the local movie-making process.
Wong elaborated: “The collaboration with international partners enables Ace Pictures to explore different paths that allow us to achieve greater creativity and innovation. The Malaysian film industry clearly needs more exposure to the world’s best practices, and some of these working cultures need to be imported.
“An openness to collaborate will allow us to take on a ‘global outlook’ to better access growth opportunities and new platforms.
“Our strategy is to establish a strong presence in the international arena. By doing so, we can raise Ace Pictures’ profile and attract more quality content sourced from around the world, and eventually, we hope to integrate local talents in this overseas film portfolio.”
Another production house Feisk Productions – founded by brothers Feisal Azizuddin, 34, and Iskander Azizuddin, 35, in 2010 – is slowly but surely finding its footing in filmmaking, despite many teething challenges it faced.
Since its formation, the brothers have been exploring projects on a small scale – from shooting wedding and corporate videos, to producing and directing reality shows as well as short films.
On Jan 9, it released its second full-length feature film titled Suraya at cinemas nationwide, with the third one currently in post-production.
And it has been one steep learning curve for Feisal and Iskander, who have no prior experience or relations to the film world.
Iskander said: “Everything that we’ve done is through research, lots and lots of research. And the way we do our films – the way we shoot, produce, all of it – have been through self-learning.
“We have produced over 30 short films, and we use our short films as a form of experimentation – to test out stories, the art style, directing styles and also cinematography. Majority of these short films are of horror genre.”
Feisal continued: “I think one of the biggest takeaways from making low-budget films is that it teaches you to be resourceful, in every sense of the word.
“And because we work with non-existent budget, it has taught us to be smart.
“If you see the path we’ve taken – family videos, silly videos for YouTube, corporate videos, wedding videos, reality series, and for the past three years we’ve gotten onto films – we have been slowly elevating (our profile).
“Suraya is extremely low-budget (RM40,000), but the quality is there. We just find ways to make do with what we have, like double the duties of our crew and so on.”
Next up, Feisal is directing Ceroboh for the film company Kuman Pictures (Two Sisters), with a budget of RM200,000 which Feisal described as “a huge jump for us”.
Besides scoring this co-production gig with Kuman, Feisk’s tenacity has also caught the notice of a couple of international film festivals for horror genre such as Crimson Screen Horror Film Festival and Wreak Havoc Film Festival.
In 2019, Iskander was selected as a participant at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film School programme, where experts from international film industry share their knowledge with emerging film professionals in the region.
Iskander recalled his 10-day experience at Bucheon: “We had a crash course with different people from the film industry including those from Hollywood, giving us lessons and insights into filmmaking. It was quite an experience.”
The trip resulted in Feisk becoming part of an omnibus project, which is a collaboration among four filmmakers from four different countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore) to produce four films in the horror genre, that’s packaged as one.
Can You Love Me Most? is Malaysia’s contribution to the omnibus, which will be directed by Feisal and produced by Iskander.
While the project is still in the midst of looking for financial support, South Korea’s production house K-Dragon has signed on as one of its backers. On top of that, the team got Filipino independent director Brillante Mendoza (who won Best Director at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival for his film Kinatay, and is a known name at prestigious film festivals) as its adviser.
Most recently too, Feisal and Iskander went to Busan International Film Festival to pitch the omnibus idea to possible investors.
“An independent film takes a bit more work to be realised,” said Iskander. “The idea behind this project is not to make a lot of money, but it’s to elevate the standard of films that can be produced in each country.
“Through this, and with the help of Brillante as well, we’re hoping to put the omnibus project into a diverse set of festivals and get recognition. Because once you have recognition, it’s easier to get funding for other films that you want to do.”
Likewise, Feisal was chosen for a fellowship programme at the Busan Asian Film School under the International Film Business in March, 2019. He was there until October, attending classes with 18 other participants from Asia, Iran and Afghanistan.
Feisal shared: “For the past six months, we developed our (individual) projects by meeting with different industry professionals – directors, producers, from Korea and from the United States, who are part of the programme – and they teach us everything from creative conceptualising and scriptwriting to the business side of filmmaking.”
The idea that landed him into the programme is a story for a film titled Angkat.
Feisal, who got the idea when he went for his grandmother’s funeral, said the film revolves around three estranged brothers who come together for their father’s funeral. While transporting their father’s body in a van, the transport breaks down 30km from the burial site.
The brothers then decide to carry the body all the way, on foot through river, heavy rain and other obstacles. “The biggest obstacle is for the brothers to put their differences aside and get along,” explained Feisal.
Describing the film as a high-concept idea, the brothers are keen to get it right. Hence, they are joyful that they have an opportunity to pitch it to people around the world for funding via film festivals.
Angkat garnered attention not only at Busan International Film Festival, but it also recently won financial support from Singapore Asian Film Financing Project Market (The AV8 Awards’ training prize is worth US$3,700/RM15,000) and the Luang Prabang Film Festival Talent Lab (the Aurora Producing Award worth US$10,000/ RM40,000). This ultimately brings Feisk a lot closer to realising Angkat as a film.
Iskander said: “It’s a far cry from when we started and we didn’t know anyone. Now, we have so many contacts we can reach out to, that we got from these festivals and the schools.”
Good support system
Through their participations, the brothers realised there is a huge market for films, when you think globally.
Feisal explained: “After leaving Malaysia and going to Busan and meeting other people like Palme d’Or winners (the top prize garnered at Cannes Film Festival), I realise that there’s a bigger, maybe nicer and gentler industry; a more supportive film society in the world.”
He cites his fellowship as an example of the harshness that exist in Malaysia.
While other students got some sort of financial support from their respective governments, Feisal said he had to fend for himself as his request for financial aid fell on deaf ears when he approached the Communications and Multimedia Ministry as well as National Film Development Corporation (Finas).
(A spokesperson from the ministry said such allowance is not given as there is no budget allocated for film school students.)
Feisal also pointed out the challenges to get funding, especially when one’s a new filmmaker.
He said: “Our government tries to support in terms of giving funds for films, and we have gotten funding several times which was fortunate. But I think in the past few years, Finas is at crossroads between pleasing the older filmmakers and supporting the younger ones.
“I personally believe, the older filmmakers shouldn’t ask for money anymore, because they are established. But the younger ones, they need guidance and support to get, at least, their project started.
“What I have encountered in Malaysia is that some filmmakers get envious of other people’s projects and they kind hope that project doesn’t do well.
“And this shouldn’t be the case. I observed in Busan, how everyone will try to support you no matter how good or how bad your film is, they will try to encourage you, to share their knowledge as much as possible and show you the way on how to improve, and get funding or backing for your film.
“But in Malaysia, it’s more of ‘I want that funding for myself’ mentality.”
(A Finas spokesperson said the body is indeed looking to improve the funding distribution system this year, especially films with strong storyline and marketing plan.)
Another challenge Iskander highlighted is that broadcasters, and powers that be in the film industry do not take a small production house like Feisk seriously.
“Because we’re not big names, we always get the same answer, ‘We want a famous director’. But what makes us less capable than a known director? It’s a struggle. We’re so used to rejection,” lamented Iskander.
Taking on a more positive attitude, Feisal said: “But that’s how we built our contacts and our character, through trial and error.”
These hurdles are something that Wong from Ace Pictures encountered as well when he made his directorial debut in 2016.
Wong shared: “It was extremely challenging because I was working with a tiny budget, and my film had bold ideas. I eventually ended up spending two whole years trying to make it happen, scoring the music, editing, sound designing and even working on some of the visual effects all by myself.”
Working on his film, Wong mentioned, made him realise that many other fellow filmmakers are facing the same problems like he did.
“When I eventually landed at Ace Pictures,
I couldn’t be more thankful that the company trusts my instincts and allows me to assemble the right team to deliver.
“And now, with a similar responsibility handed down to me, I need to find a way to support those truly genuine filmmakers who have been struggling and hoping they would step into the light and get the right attention they deserve.”
Getting on the same page
Definitely there are many areas that need to be looked at if we want the Malaysia film industry to grow into a caring and intelligent society.
Although mainstream Malaysian films like Ejen Ali The Movie, Wira and Pusaka are making money at the local box office, there are obviously many more Malaysian stories that should be told in a film format. And they need to be told to a global audience.
Feisal said: “While the situation may be discouraging, I feel filmmakers are the most versatile people because they worry more about creativity and not so much on the business side of things. It’s a difficult way to survive when we cannot recoup what we put in, but we persevere.
“While going to Busan has given me a better picture of what it’s like in other parts of the world, I also feel I cannot ignore the Malaysian industry because it’s my roots and I must explore this industry here no matter what.
“Being in the younger generation of filmmakers, I hope to put Malaysia on the map by making films that showcase and highlight our roots and culture, and yet have that universal appeal that can go beyond the borders of Malaysia.”
This is also Wong’s advice, to come up with good content.
“A filmmaker should have a strong sense of integrity, humility and professionalism.
“They make films not because of a fat salary, but instead they are doing it because they want their voice or others to be heard, and to leave a legacy behind that can inspire millions of audiences till the end of time.” Wong said.
Brothers Feisal (left) and Iskander Azizuddin formed Feisk Productions in 2010 and have been learning about filmmaking by tackling short films.
Clemency, starring Woodard, has been getting rave reviews since its release in the us last year. — handout Besides making their own films, Feisk’s Feisal also directs for other companies. Its newest project is Ceroboh for the production house Kuman Pictures that last produced Two Sisters.
Suraya is the latest film from Feisk that is currently showing in cinemas.
Wong (second from left) with Imaginary Order director debra Eisenstadt (centre). also in the picture are ace Pictures’ Emma Lee (left), Johnny Chang and Timur Bekbosunov. On the set of Clemency, which won the sundance Film Festival 2019’s Grand Jury Prize.
Iskander receiving a certificate for completing the Fantastic Film school course in Buncheon, south Korea.