It was great to be able to contribute to the Content Malaysia Conference 2014 held in Kuala Lumpur last week. I was invited by acting Director General of FINAS (the Malaysian Film Development Corporation), Dr Megat Al-Imran Yasin, who asked me to give two talks: one on the relationship between higher education research and the film industry, with specific reference to my experience in the UK; and the other on my experience of leading a media school – the then School of Media, Music and Performance – into the MediaCityUK development at Salford Quays in Manchester, UK. The latter was in direct relationship to ambitious plans by the Malaysian film and television industries to develop a Media City in Kuala Lumpur by 2020.
I hadn’t quite realised the scale and importance of the Content Malaysia conference until I arrived. The conference was taking place in one of the poshest hotels in Kuala Lumpur, The Mandarin Oriental, right next to the famous twin Petronas towers, and while this was a business to business event, attended by mainly people from the film and television industries, it was part of a larger public KL Converge event taking place at The KL Convention Centre next door. My first talk took place just before the arrival of the Minister of Communications and Multimedia, who was to formally give his blessing to proceedings. As a consequence, there must have been about 250-300 people there. My second talk, the following morning, was attended by about 150-200 people.
The fantastic attendance by both important political people and media entrepreneurs, filmmakers, producers, distributors etc, was an indication of the tremendous efforts Malaysia is making to have an international presence in film and television and to be the leading producer and hub for media content in the South East Asia region. They are pumping millions into this effort, including through incentive schemes to attract productions to Malaysia, the building of the Pinewood branded film studios at Iskandar, next to Singapore, and through their extensive efforts to sell media content at all the leading film markets across the world. They realise, rightly, that content is at the heart of every media industry, hence the title of the conference. (There was also a storytelling masterclass running alongside the conference.)
While there, I learned a lot about what is happening in Malaysia and South East Asia in general and met some very ambitious people. Of course I already know Dr Megat Yasin, the Director General of FINAS, but while there I had the privilege of making friends with Hassan Muthalib, the father of Malaysian animation films and the leading scholar on Malaysian cinema, and Sheen Singh, the CEO of Passion Productions, the leading service company for international advertising companies shooting in Malaysia. Both have a keen interest in working with new and emerging talent so we had many conversations about that, life and art. It was also great to be able to meet up with my PhD graduate, Nico Meissner, who runs the Cinematic Arts programme at Multimedia University. I suspect that this programme is going to become an important player in the ambitions of Malaysian cinema and look forward to following, and perhaps participating in, these developments.
My talks had two simple themes. First, I wanted to stress that research and development is a critical aspect of any successful industry and that a mature relationship between industry and higher education could provide an effective context in which new ideas and talent development are explored and nurtured. This is particularly relevant given the financial challenges that many broadcasters and film companies find themselves facing. Gone are the days when Higher Education was simply thought of as a training provider of fodder for media employment. Smart companies see universities are partners through whom they can explore and develop new talent. No one really knows what is going to happen next or what they even like – until they see it. Higher Education is about encouraging students to take risks, to develop creatively, to build critical rigour into their thinking and to develop their courage. The industry does not want us to deliver hacks, but graduates who are able to adapt to and shape the future. This is why our primary business is not training, but education. On the other hand, real engagement with industry provides students with an opportunity to more fully understand the challenges and opportunities open to their creative impulses and aspirations.
On the research side, many of us in the practice led academic world continue to be engaged with filmmaking or media practice, exploring and reflecting critically on what we are doing and as a consequence hopefully making a contribution to the industries and crafts we work in. Our engagement with, and guidance of, for example, our PhD students, who are themselves often from, and will be returning to, the industry also offers opportunities for the development of cutting edge new ideas and the creative practice of individuals.
Training is almost a separate issue, though not quite. A university will never be able to deliver a fully trained end product. This is not in the interests of a university and in any case, every company and producer needs different things and while organisations like Skillset in the UK try to standardise training across the sector, this has in my opinion not been a success. There are strong training outcomes as a consequence of a student’s education and these can form an excellent basis from which industry can build further training in situ. Invariably, when industry thinks of universities as training institutions, they are disappointed.
Actually, where most training occurs is in the independent and fringe sectors of the film and television industries. Hollywood, for example, relies on a deep hinterland of film production activity outside of the majors ranging from fairly large scale independent work to the fringe projects of small indies. This is where the talent gets trained, where they develop their unique visions and where Hollywood goes to find such new talent and new ideas. The majors cannot in themselves take risks, develop innovations or develop new talent. So in any strategy about creating a sustainable film industry, I would look strongly at how the independent sector can be encouraged and nurtured without stifling it with policy driven initiatives.
All in all, the opportunities for fruitful and mature interaction between higher education and the industry will be best fulfilled if this relationship is built around notions of research and development. Malaysia has an opportunity to skip a stage in the development of this relationship and encourage a mature relationship between its still developing media and film provision in its universities and its film and television industries.
As for the Media City developments the Malaysians are considering, my second theme, I wanted to focus on the idea that ultimately what makes a successful film industry is not buildings and technology, but people, their ideas and their stories. Technology has changed to such an extent that big buildings are no longer necessary to house most production activity, with the exception of high end productions. In fact these same high end productions are vying for the attention of especially young people in competition with low end content produced by ‘amateurs’ and distributed on such platforms as YouTube. What happened to book publishing in Europe with the advent of the Gutenberg Press in the 16th century is about to happen to film as a consequence of the digital revolution. How many of the 250,000 books published each year in the UK will make their authors money? Was money the main motivation for the writing of the vast majority of these books? Yet all these books contribute to the sustaining of a publishing industry that has enriched our lives.
When thinking of building a Media City it is therefore worth pondering this brave new world and understanding the fundamentals of what makes creative people tick. When you look at successful creative clusters around the world, they were originally built on informal clusters of small and medium sized companies in the proximity of a decentralised university. This latter point is important, as it relates to my earlier comments about the creative interaction between industry and universities. A decentralised university allows for creative and informal interactions with small and medium sized enterprises and practitioners who are ultimately going to drive innovation. The big players can then come in on this bedrock of innovation and enterprise. Where the big enterprises try and artificially create a hub of innovation, there is a high potential for long term failure. One could end up with fantastic and expensive buildings with wonderful facilities, but all the creative talent is hanging out in a poorer part of town because that’s where all the innovators hang out.
In the development of a Media City, I therefore think it important to create a very open and informal environment, cheap and flexible and, above all, designed for people to hang out. Inhabitants must be able to shape their own spaces and have flexible arrangements around the available technologies. Because of the nature of our businesses, it is always going to be dominated by a sea of small and medium sized enterprises, so I think it worth considering designing facilities and the relevant costings with this in mind.
The other thing to bear in mind is cultural and geographical diversity, particularly relevant I feel in a country like Malaysia. Why have just one big Media City? In what other ways can one develop media activity and media businesses across the country? The idea of having a concentration of an industry in one city is perhaps based on old business models and technologies and is perhaps one that should be questioned.
I look forward to having further discussions with people in Malaysia about these themes. Unlike in the UK where the industries and their infrastructure are pretty fixed, and very hard to change in any way, the Malaysians still have malleable infrastructures and institutions, which I think makes it a very interesting place to be if you’re a filmmaker or a film entrepreneur.