We have our very own Pixar animators, who also tell a great story. They are well on the way to conquer Indonesia and India. Considering our multimedia industry, which can only be said to be still in its infancy stage, the fact that 3 guys, Mohd Nizam Abd Razak, Mohd Safwan Abd Karim and Muhammad Usamah Zaid, can still summon the courage, vision and tenacity to pull this off, is all the more remarkable. Of course, now that they are almost famous, our brilliant politicians will make sure that vast amount of funds will be made available to them for their future projects. Heck, I am sure there will also be an opportunistic politician voicing out the need to set up a Lucas Studio like project to nurture our talents. Why must we Malaysians have to strive so hard to deliver? Why can't our planners and the people who govern think more cohesively and plan more strategically - these are creative industries that are basically left to survive or die on their own. Yes, we do have our Multimedia University, but we need more follow through projects to ensure a viable career path, r&d and proper tax incentives to lure the relevant players to create a hub like melting pot for ideas to germinate.
SHAH ALAM, May 2 — Twenty thousand ringgit. That's about how close three young 3D animation filmmakers came to breaking the local box-office record for made-in-Malaysia movies with their very first feature-length film “Geng”.
The movie ended up taking in RM6.31 million at the end of its run in March, coming within a whisker of all-time champion “Lagi Lagi Senario” which grossed RM6.33 million in 2001.
Merchandise sales of the movie characters have been brisk and, as a sign of its popularity, have also been pirated and are being sold in pasar malams and even hypermarkets.
When met at their modest but comfortable corner shoplot studio in Shah Alam, the boys — Mohd Nizam Abd Razak, Mohd Safwan Abd Karim and Muhammad Usamah Zaid, all just 26 years of age and casually dressed — made it clear that with their next movie, they intend to see the record for the local movie box office not only fall but smashed — by opening the sequel to the family-oriented “Geng” during the school holidays in 2010 instead of outside it like with their first film.
They are feeling confident that the sequel could take in as much as RM12 million.
“Geng”, however, may well set the record for overall box office for a Malaysian movie as it is slated to open in Indonesia in September and India and Brunei some time later.Their partner in India plans to dub the Malay-language feature into Tamil and Hindi, and has put out a conservative forecast of US$4 million (RM14.3 million) in box-office takings, although it could be several times that.
The trio also found themselves with a hit TV series on their very first try — “Upin & Ipin” — now in its second season on TV9 and the second-highest-rated cartoon series on television with an estimated 1.5 million viewers. That puts it ahead of “SpongeBob” (800,000 viewers) and behind only “Doraemon” (1.6 million viewers). It is also being shown in Indonesia.
Such commercial success was far from certain when the three film and animation coursemates and friends from Multimedia University (MMU) formed Les' Copaque Production Sdn Bhd together with a husband-and-wife investor in December 2005.
While it now appears they have something of the Pixar touch in that everything they have worked on has been a hit, although on a much smaller scale than the US-based studio behind “Finding Nemo” and “Toy Story”, the reality is that it involved hard work and a great deal of risk as some RM4 million was poured into making “Geng”.
To make ends meet, they had to do unrelated projects like video montages for golf club openings and television advertisements.
"Imagine if ‘Geng’ was not a hit, we would have had to close down," says Nizam, the more vocal of the three filmmakers and the trio's natural frontman.
"You can try your best and still not achieve success. Sometimes you just have to pray," he adds philosophically while fingering pirated soft toys of Upin and Ipin, the cute toddler characters from “Geng”.
Less than four years ago, Nizam and Safwan, now executive director and production director respectively, were jobless after having quit their first job at an animation studio in Damansara, Petaling Jaya.
Meanwhile, Zaid, now animation director, was feeling depressed while working the grind at an advertising firm.
"We were not happy at the Damansara animation company as they were not focused on quality. It was very demotivating. We tried talking to the boss but he told us that we don't understand the business," recalls Nizam.
Feeling desperate but unwilling to go back to doing what they felt was mass-produced, low-quality animation, Nizam and Safwan were introduced via a classmate to Burhanuddin Radzi and his wife Puan Ainon Ariff in late 2005.
The couple were simply looking for a project to occupy their time as Burhanuddin had just retired from his job as operations director at oil and gas company Dayang Enterprise Holdings Bhd and Ainon had left her career in banking to be a housewife years earlier.
The match, though unlikely at the time, has turned out to be one made in animation heaven.
It gave the three talented graduates a platform to immediately start creating their own intellectual property rather than working for others, while allowing the oil and gas veteran and his wife a chance to do something fun, different — and profitable.
The mix of creativity with business experience and acumen has proven to be a winning formula.
While the cinemas claim about half of “Geng's” earnings, government financial incentives, sales from overseas screenings, merchandise and DVDs will put the movie solidly in the black.
The studio has set a target of RM8 million in revenue this year.
"We never thought that we would have our own company so early," says Nizam. "It was only a dream. We thought it would be another five or six years before we could start our own studio."
While he and Safwan started the company, Zaid, longing to return to more creative pursuits, would quit the advertising company and come on board only a few months later.
Ainon, who had initially thought of indulging her passion of writing scripts for live drama productions, didn't even know what 3D animation was.
"When a daughter of a friend told me about the boys, I had to ask, what is animation? The boys then showed me their final-year university project and I was convinced. The boys did ask me, why do you trust us? But I saw their drive and their passion and I believe in giving people a chance and thinking positively."
The couple were forewarned that 3D animation was an expensive business.
"The boys told us it would cost RM2 million but we ended up spending RM3 million," Burhanuddin says with mock indignation. On top of that, the film also consumed an additional RM1 million grant from the government's e-Content fund for digital content.
Burhanuddin, who is the studio's managing director, also told the boys that this was "their first and last chance" and it was make or break for them.
Taking it to heart, the boys decided to name the studio Les' Copaque, a play on “last kopek”, which is Malay slang for a “last chance”.
While they were somewhat prepared for the expenses, the amount of work required and the swift success caught Burhanuddin and his wife off guard.
"I thought I could play golf everyday but now I only get to play on Saturdays," Burhanuddin says.
"I knew I could build the business but didn't expect to it to grow so fast. When we first started we had to go looking for sponsors for our movie but now people seek us out to ask for licensing rights and offer sponsorship."
Ainon, meanwhile, saw her dreams of relaxing and travelling the world with her husband evaporate.
Burhanuddin, a savvy businessmen and marketer, says that with Upin and Ipin, he is close to his goal of creating a Malaysian Mickey Mouse.
To him, movies are just a way to showcase iconic characters which can then be parlayed into sales of merchandise and even theme parks.
When the government's investment holding arm Khazanah Nasional paid him a visit recently to find out how it can participate in the animation industry, Burhanuddin proposed that they form a joint venture for a theme park in Iskandar Malaysia.
Two theme parks were initially planned for Iskandar Malaysia, with only Legoland Malaysia currently confirmed.
"The ‘Geng’ movie was designed to be inspiration for a theme park," says Burhanuddin. "We want to do a theme park. It now just depends on whether it is an outdoor or indoor theme park."
A famously outspoken member of the digital content community, Burhanuddin is also critical of marketing efforts by the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDec), the government agency responsible for promoting digital content.
He thinks MDeC should do more in terms of funding and promoting screenings of Malaysian movies at film festivals and conventions as well as conduct and distribute more market research.According to him, at a recent Cannes film convention, India and Singapore had huge billboards and banners touting their content and screenings but he did not see the same being done by Malaysia.
"In Cannes, Singapore had a big 'Made In Singapore' billboard and India screened their ‘Manikantan’ animated movie," he says.
"MDeC needs to help with funding the cost of screenings and getting the big bosses and decision makers to come and watch. The industry also needs help with market research. This is where trade missions should not just go abroad to exhibit products but they should also gather market intelligence and disseminate it to the industry."
He also suggests that the government's e-Content fund be used in a more discerning manner and the grants be broken into two categories. His idea is that filmmakers first be given only RM200,000 or so to create a trailer and only if it was well received, would they be able to apply for million-ringgit grants.
"You need to test your trailer first, put it on YouTube and get reactions. Only if the public is convinced should you be allowed to apply for the next level of grants," he says. "They have to prove themselves. People should not be allowed to apply for RM6 million worth of grants directly."
Slowly but surely, the up-and-coming filmmakers are absorbing the advice of their two mentors and have set an ambitious goal to reach Pixar-like levels of quality within 10 years.
"We understand that Pixar is a moving target but we will try our very best. ‘Geng’ is just a symbol of what we can do," says Nizam, who like Safwan studied at Malacca High School.
"We do watch how Hollywood does things but instead of just being influenced, we find ways to do it better," says Zaid, an alumni of SMK Lembah Keramat.
Their next 3D animation feature, tentatively called “Upin & Ipin Angkasa” is budgeted at RM6 million. It will have both a Malay and English version and will revolve around the universally appealing theme of space adventure.
For Safwan, whose father initially insisted that he study computer science at UiTM until he rebelled, the Les' Copaque journey has been a vindication.
"My father is very supportive now," says Safwan with a happy smile.
p/s photos: Mandy Lieu