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Quality matters: Iskandar Malaysia Studios transforming into a world-class screen productions hub

By Juan Foo

Spectacular designs, authentic looking sets, and crowds of performers all add to the believability of movie magic for viewers as they look in wonderment at the scale of the stories playing out on their screens. For those hungry for more, behind-the-scenes videos showcase stunt work, fight co-ordination, and technical visual effects productions where intensely focused movie professionals work on perfecting their craft. When it comes to grabbing the attention of today’s viewers, production quality clearly matters.

What many viewers may not know, however, is that South-East Asia has played host to many commercial, Hollywood studio productions for the past decade.  Production resources in South-East Asia are considered an alternative facility and resource for international productions. Hollywood films such as Sky Fire (2019), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Agent 47 (2015), and Bourne Legacy (2012) were shot in Malaysia, Singapore and The Philippines.  

Season 1 and 2 of the Netflix series, Marco Polo (2014 & 2016), was also produced in Malaysia at Iskandar Malaysia Studios, a soundstage complex based in the outskirt of Johor Bahru; and became one of the first of its scale and kind to catalyse and grow a production hub in the region. 

Formerly associated with Pinewood Studios in the UK, Iskandar Malaysia Studios (IMS) is now operating on its own since the former was privatised by a real estate company and changed its focus. IMS continues to attract production from in and around the region and the greater film production world to produce films in Malaysia. The established reputation and sheer ‘newness’ of the facility in this part of the globe has seen follow up productions from UK, US, China, Malaysia and Singapore. 

IMS is a soundstage complex totalling 80 acres of film stages, TV studios, standing sets, backlots, water tanks and extensive production support facilities and digital post-production facilities. Aside from provision of facilities and equipment, IMS often advises on issues concerning regulation, incentives, logistics for motion picture productions who are producing work in Malaysia. 

Other than film and dramatic work, IMS provides studio support for international reality TV productions such as talent show competition Asia’s Got Talent, which is produced by AXN Asia and Fremantle Media Asia.

Paul O’Hanlon, Managing Director, Fremantle Media Asia, said, “We were looking for a world-class  screen production facility, with a lot of space and a lot of additional services that we could use to create Asia’s Got Talent. IMS gave us the opportunity to create a product that could stand up on the global stage, which is effectively what we’ve managed to do.”

Curiosity with shooting in a controlled environment continued to pique independent movie producers and in 2019, IMS welcomed a Singapore movie, Circle Line, into using its facility. Promoted as Singapore’s first foray into creature and visual-effects production standards the movie, produced by Taipan Films and mm2 Entertainment, was shot utilising a 20,000 square ft soundstage to replicate several sets of a lair, sewers and subway tunnels, and an added a set of a control station of a subway station.

Like all businesses, the pandemic threw a wrench in the works. IMS secured some very large productions but for different reasons, some of these productions were cancelled or had to move to other countries. Due to pandemic travel arrangements and restrictions, a production had to switch to Australia as a key location as many of the cast were Australians and it was difficult for them to travel. 

Turning predicament into possibilities, IMS took the opportunity to do some house-keeping. Rectification and maintenance work was prioritised during the pandemic to increase efficiency of their services. For instance, IMS built and put into place a rain water harvesting system to efficiently supply their water and paddock tanks, saving water consumption. 

IMS also took advantage of the lockdowns to design and build standing sets with Chinese studio G.H.Y. Culture & Media. The joint venture of standing sets is built over six acres and depicts dozens of buildings of the old streets of Penang and Singapore Chinatown. This was a natural progression to address the rising demand for period productions from G.H.Y. Culture & Media and other prospects. Since completion in early 2020, the standing set has hosted productions for over-the-top (OTT) platforms such as iQiyi and Viu, with current bookings until Q4 this year. 

This partnership is a testimony of forging long-term partnerships for screen production, as Chan Puiyin, Director of Production & Distribution at G.H.Y. Culture & Media attested, “Our synergy was so strong that we decided to collaborate with IMS and build permanent film sets that will last for the next 10 years.

“It is a multi-million co-investment with IMS encompassing 6 acres of land at the backlot. They are sets created to mimic the bustling city life of Chinatown in the 1950s.”

In line to make itself a screen production hub, IMS put in place skills training to boost production manpower skills competencies in art, design and production management. Training was provided by IMS and IRDA (Iskandar Regional Development Authority) trainers, movie professionals in Malaysia who have worked on international productions with names such as art director Leslie Ewe (HBO’s Westworld) and line producer Magen Appathurai (Crazy Rich Asians).

The programme also offered a 9-month industrial placement followed by employment opportunities. Up to 70 professionals graduated from this training programme. 

Opportunities for screen production projects at that scale do not come regularly, so IMS also put a lot of effort to market and promote their services to international clients. This was evident in IMS being part of the large Malaysian contingent at the recent Cannes Film Festival and Cannes Film Market in May.

Rashid Karim, CEO of IMS, recalled, “Cannes was a breath of fresh air, to finally be able to meet old and new clients physically again. And I think the Malaysian presence there was quite inspiring.

“We are having far more active conversations with prospective producers, the most notable thing being the announcement at the Cannes Market on the improved FIMI (Film in Malaysia Incentive) from a 30% flat cash incentive, to now up to 35% incentive if the project fulfils a cultural test. This makes FIMI easily one of the best incentives globally, and that has generated a lot of interest by producers.”

Looking forward, the screen business South-East Asia’s content creation business is likely to continue to be infused with a ‘can-do’ spirit that will encourage more partnerships with regional and international producers. For the latter, a combination of the scale of support and government incentives such as FIMI is set to entice more international productions into the region.

There is also anecdotal chatter of experimenting and expanding into virtual sets and harnessing digital high-end rendering and screen technologies likened to Hollywood productions like The Mandalorian. This is where virtual backgrounds are shot live during principal photography without extensive compositing work, and IMS is keen to explore the possibilities of partnerships with broadcast and post-production providers to realise this service. 

As productions get more complex, the next essential step to improve production quality is for content producers to learn about how controlled environments can bring more convenience for production work. IMS, as a pioneering production company in the region, believes that this mindset will emanate to more regional producers as South-East Asia’s stature as an international content hub continues to grow.

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