After a 2015 that can only be defined as an annus horribilis, up was the only way for the Malaysian film industry to go in 2016. Although the quality of the local products released in Malaysia, compared to the global market, remains an issue, there were some comforting signs that meant 2016 drew to a close under more favourable conditions.

An analysis of the statistics of the local market published by FINAS (the state institute that deals with the development and promotion of national cinema) reveals that the Malaysian public has returned to watching local films. After a low of 6.6 per cent of total spectators in 2015, locally produced films sold 7 million tickets in 2016. That was the equivalent of 9.8 per cent of the total of 71.5 million, which was up 5 per cent compared to 2015.
In terms of earnings, the global growth of the Malaysian film market reached 5.1 per cent, for a total 914 million ringgit, equal to US$207 million, or 191 million euros. The most interesting and unusual aspect of this growth – moderate compared to previous years – is how diversified it is. Films in English suffered a slight downturn of minus 2.8 per cent in terms of tickets sold out of a total of 47.6 million sales, and minus 2.4 per cent in terms of earnings of 617.3 million ringgit. Chinese language films had a downturn of minus 3 per cent in terms of tickets, out of 7.9 million sold, and minus 2.6 per cent in earnings, or 100 million ringgit. National productions sold 55.9 per cent more tickets, and a 56.8 per cent upturn in terms of earnings, from 53 million ringgit to 83 million ringgit.
2016 was the most profitable year for Indian films (5.6 million spectators and 71 million ringgit, a growth of, respectively, 7.8 per cent and 8.1 per cent), and for Indonesian ones, which made headway into the Malaysian market with 550,000 spectators and 6.6 million ringgit. These are minor figures, but ones never before seen for big-screen productions from Malaysia’s nearby neighbours. The film My Stupid Boss by Upi was no doubt the main contributing factor. Films in other languages grew by 124 per cent in terms of spectators, or 2.9 million tickets, and 142 per cent in earnings, or 35 million ringgit.

The English-language slice of the market (Hollywood productions, to be more precise) remains huge, claiming 67 per cent of tickets sold and 68 per cent of the total earnings. But on an annual basis, the US domination of the Malaysian market has dropped by over five per cent. To this we can add almost 1 per cent of films in the Chinese languages. Although they seem like negligible figures, in the context of a market that has so far been rather closed, and suffered a lack of diversity, it is almost a tectonic shift. In particular, the doubling of the share of films in other languages signals the relative success of those who have struggled to bring international films to Malaysia, which in the past would have had a hard time finding a place on the big screens in the country.
Back to local products, where more comforting data comes from the production figures. After years of over-production which led to a drastic drop in profits, in 2016, the local industry seemed to have got to grips with the fact that an excess of low quality films creates disaffection in the viewing public. After bringing 82 films to the big screen in 2015, local production companies slowed down their output to 46 in 2016. That’s a drop of 60 per cent, which in other contexts may have led to quite a bit of head scratching. But in Malaysia’s case, it is a return to a more sensible normality. The average take for local films in 2016 was around 1.7 million ringgit (almost US$385,000 dollars, or a little more than 355,000 euros), compared to a paltry 650,000 ringgit (almost US$147,000 or around 136,000 euros) in 2015. Local films were therefore able to get decent showing times and durations on the big screen, avoiding the so-called cannibalisation of local competition

As already predicted last year from initial early data from January 2016, the film that topped the box office was the much-anticipated Ola Bola by Chiu, which was presented last year at the FEFF. Earning a total of 16.7 million ringgit (US$3.8 million, or 3.5 million euros), the football drama etched out a place as the third biggest earner of all time in Malaysia. But in February and March 2016, another two titles broke through the 15 million ringgit ceiling: the horror film Munafik by Syamsul Yusof (15.9 million ringgit) and the animated movie Boboiboy: The Movie by Nizam Razak (15.8 million ringgit). Like Boboiboy, the fifth highest earning local film, Upin & Ipin Jeng Jeng Jeng! (4.9 million ringgit), was an animated feature based on a TV series. It was produced by a renowned local animation company, Les’ Copaque, and released in November.
Directed by Ainon Ariff and Erma Fatima, Upin & Ipin Jeng Jeng Jeng! can boast that it is the first Malaysian film to mix animation with love. The fourth place on the list of top local earners goes to the third chapter of the Rock Bro! series started in 2005, which marks the return of Mamat Khalid. It took in 5.4 million ringgit. Both titles, released in autumn, took great advantage of this period of low competition between local films: Rock Bro! came out on the 27th October, following a week of no releases of nationally-produced films, while Upin & Ipin was released on the 24th November, after almost a month of no new Malaysian releases.
2016 was not all wine and roses. The thorniest issue was the release, after years of expectation, of the colossal Hanyut by U-Wei bin Hai Saari (who in 1995, with Kaki Babar, was the first Malaysian director to be selected at the Cannes film festival). Based on Almayer’s Folly by Joseph Conrad, shooting was completed in 2012, but post-production went on for years, officially due to a lack of funds. Finally arriving in the same week as Upin & Ipin, Hanyut took less than 76,500 ringgit (almost US$17,300 dollars, or slightly less than 16,000 euros), in no way offsetting production costs of 18 million ringgit. It is probably the greatest all-time fiasco of Malaysian cinema.
Another hugely ambitious title did only slightly better: Dain Said’s second feature film, Interchange, was the first Malaysian film to have the honour of premiering at the Piazza Grande at the Locarno film festival. The fantasy thriller, with Malaysian and Indonesian stars Shaheizy Sam and Nicholas Saputra, took 500,000 ringgit (around US$113,000 or 105,000 euros). Not a catastrophe of the same dimensions as Hanyut, but it certainly deserved better.
The positive fact remains that amongst the biggest grossing films are a dramatic sports movie, two animated features, a horror film, and a musical. This range of genres testifies to the diversification of productions, and a more encouraging demand than in nearby Indonesia.

Market statistics aside, 2016 was the year in which controversy raged over racial discrimination at the Filem Malaysia festival awards. The exclusion in the best film category of Ola Bola by Chiu and the acclaimed Tamil drama Jagat by Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, which were placed in the foreign film category, reopened old wounds caused by the discriminatory policies, which in Malaysia favour the Malay majority. This caused uproar in the local industry, with important Malaysian exponents making their voices heard. These included cinematographer Mohd Nor Kassim, who has been recognised twice by the academy at the national awards, who gave back the trophies he’d won, and refused a nomination last year.
This led to the abolition of the rule that only films which have at least 70 per cent of their dialogue in the Malay language can be considered “national films”. So the linguistic barrier fell for the categories of best film, best director and best screenplay, while the best film in national language award was created. In the end, Jagat took home the award for Best Film, becoming the first ever non-Malay language film to win a Malaysian Oscar.

Paolo Bertolin