After raising its profile by hosting high-profile productions including Crazy Rich Asians and TV series Strike Back and The Singapore Grip, Malaysia fell quiet during the pandemic as a two-week quarantine and other Covid restrictions deterred international shoots. Now the country is back open for business — its borders having allowed quarantine-free travel since April 1 — and has finetuned and increased its Film In Malaysia Incentive (FIMI).
Launched in 2013, Malaysia’s 30% cash rebate is a major draw for international producers, along with tropical locations, cityscapes and facilities including Iskandar Malaysia Studios (IMS) in Johor, near the border with Singapore. FIMI is now being increased by an additional 5% for productions that promote Malaysian locations and cultural values and/or employ Malaysian key cast and crew.
As the country was not hosting offshore production during the pandemic, Malaysia’s National Film Development Corporation (Finas) used this time to upskill the workforce and support local production through a series of grants. “Finas has been running programmes that train line producers on budgeting, using software like Movie Magic, as well as the craft side, which is really helpful and feeds into people like me,” says Zainir Aminullah, CEO of Malaysia’s Revolution Media (formerly Ideate Media), which produced Netflix’s first Malaysian original series The Ghost Bride and also offers production services.
“There’s an awareness that Malaysia needs to move people up the value chain, because local production is booming,” continues Aminullah. “But the requirements for international work are obviously different. As production increases globally, there should be an opportunity for our crew to get involved in bigger shoots.”
Strike Back and The Ghost Bride filmed at IMS before the pandemic, and the studio has kept the lights on since with local productions and three Chinese-language series — The Little Nyonya, The Ferryman: Legends Of Nanyang and Sisterhood — produced by Singapore’s GHY Culture and Media and Chinese streamer iQiyi.
GHY undertook a major set build on the IMS backlot for these productions, recreating period architecture that still exists in Malaysia, but would be impossible to dress and lock down for shoots lasting several months. “It worked well to have the sets at IMS, as they have supporting facilities including world-class soundstages, workshops, deep pools, excessive land, jungle and forest areas,” says GHY’s director, production and distribution Pui Yin Chan, adding that these sets are now available for other international productions to use.
As FIMI had some teething troubles in its early days — mostly related to slow access and dispute over qualifying spend — IMS launched a mirror incentive in 2017, FIMI Plus, which was used by GHY, Strike Back and Chinese action film Skyfire. But as FIMI is now operating smoothly, FIMI Plus is being slowly phased out. Finas is also looking at further refinements to FIMI and negotiating more co-production agreements, following the signing of a treaty with Australia last year.
First people to contact
Zokifli Abu Bakar, Film In Malaysia Office (under Finas): firstname.lastname@example.org
Rashid Karim, Iskandar Malaysia Studios: email@example.com
International producers are spoilt for choice when it comes to locations. There are highlands and tropical rainforests, including Lata Berkoh National Park, Raban Lake and the Sungai Palas Tea Plantation; islands and beaches, such as Kapalai island with its clear blue waters and the floating village in Sabah; as well as modern cityscapes, most notably Kuala Lumpur City.
“From metropolitan cities to green paddy fields, the options are endless,” enthuses Lin Vin Tan, rental manager at local outfit Asia Film Equipment, to KFTV. “Kuala Lumpur is a highly convenient place to shoot films/TV/commercials as most cast and crew are based in the city, and all the major equipment rental houses are close by.
“For cities or towns famous for their heritage buildings mostly from the British colonial times, Penang and Ipoh top the list. The UK’s ITV recently filmed TV drama The Singapore Grip in Kuala Lumpur and Penang for 16 weeks, the heritage buildings doubling for Singapore of the 1940s.”
Key architectural locations include the colonial Cheong Fatt Tze mansion and the E&O hotel, both in Penang; Carcosa Seri Negara — the colonial mansions of the British High Commission in Malaya — and St Regis Hotel, both in Kuala Lumpur; and beach resort Four Seasons resort in Langkawi.
“A good thing to keep in mind is that Malaysia is still considered a strict Muslim country where there may be many religious rules in place,” says Tan. “It is a good idea to engage with local production and rental outfits to facilitate a smoother filming process.”
Malaysia doesn’t have a city-by-city government film commission, location shooting permits are usually obtained by building owners, business owners, or the city council. “The process can be relatively easy if you engage with location managers who have already established relationships with local companies,” says Tan.
Iskandar Malaysia Studios (IMS) offers five soundstages with a total area of 100,000 square feet; 24,000 square feet of HD-ready TV studios; 37,000 square feet of workshops and support facilities; three indoor and outdoor water tanks; and six acres of period standing sets with 22 customisable buildings.
As Malaysia has been hosting offshore production since 2014, the country has built up an experienced crew base, mostly around capital Kuala Lumpur, but probably cannot handle more than four or five big productions simultaneously. Production services companies include Biscuit Films, Revolution Media, Landmark Films and Filmforce Studio (which specialises in Chinese productions).
Malaysia has an efficient and cost effective transport infrastructure. It takes around 90 minutes to fly from top to bottom of the Malay peninsula where Kuala Lumpur and IMS are located. From Kuala Lumpur it takes two-and-a-half hours to fly to the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.