Not The Best Way Forward – On Wajib Tayang’s Quality Panel

Fikri Jermadi believes that new amendments made to the Wajib Tayang scheme may prove to be counter-productive.

First, the facts: From July 2016, the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) will disqualify certain films from being screened under the Wajib Tayang (Compulsory Screening Scheme) should the film be regarded as not being of sufficient quality. This was announced by the Director-General himself, Datuk Kamil Othman, who said that the screening process to determine whether the film is essentially good enough would be conducted by a panel made up of various stakeholders in the film industry. Those rejected by this panel can appeal if they want to, or explore alternative distribution methods.

Now, the background: Wajib Tayang was first enacted in June 2005. It was designed to protect Malaysian films, ensuring that they have a chance to stay long enough in the cinemas to recoup its production costs. Under this scheme, the film must be screened for fourteen consecutive days in the biggest screening hall at the cinema, though the exhibitor (the cinemas, basically) can move it to a smaller hall if the seating capacity is less than 30% full during the first four days of screening (essentially, the first weekend). If it’s less than half of that, the film can be withdrawn from circulation completely.

cinema-300x1952While the intentions are noble, the scheme is something of a double bind for Malaysian film distributors and exhibitors as well. For distributors, it penalises a film screened in the biggest hall, simply because it has a higher bar of ticket sales to achieve. As a rough example, Screening Hall 1 at GSC Setia City Mall has a touch over 260 seats (inclusive of disabled seating). Having to meet the 30% criteria means selling around 80 tickets; if the film was screened in a smaller hall with a seating capacity of around 100, it is obviously less of a challenge to sell 30 tickets and meet that criterion. As an added bonus, 80 people inside a 100-seater screening hall might also make for a better atmosphere.

For exhibitors, bigger halls mean more seats that translate into more tickets potentially being sold. A film that just about clears the 30% bar without setting the house on metaphorical fire means plenty of empty seats sitting idle. Continuing with the above example, barely meeting that mark of the biggest hall means a (very) conservative estimate of RM1800 per screening not being made. It’s especially galling if they have other, better performing films that sells out the smaller screens. As such, government intervention here rewards only the big films at the box office, rather than Malaysian films as a whole. It does not surprise me, therefore, to learn that FINAS made this decision in consultation with the Malaysian Film Exhibitors Association.

While the above highlights just some of the issues related to the Wajib Tayang scheme, I do not wish to paint it almost exclusively in bad light. There are many points that could bring about positive change. Films screened under the scheme are entitled to a certain percentage of the box office takings to be reimbursed by the government. Known as the Feature Films Screening Incentive plan, films that collect RM2 million and below are entitled to 10% of the collection, with a progressive plan in place for those who make more. With the exhibitors already collecting around half of the ticket price, every little helps when it comes to keeping Malaysian production companies in business.

afdlinFurthermore, anything that guarantees screening time for Malaysian films is nothing to sniff at. Many filmmakers already face huge challenges along the way. This scheme provides breathing space in an environment filled with unique challenges; I don’t know how many national cinemas of developing countries around the world contend regularly with fares from cinematic giants such as India, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Thailand (in addition to the obvious offerings from Hollywood). I don’t quite agree with all of Afdlin Shauki’s ideas here (albeit written many years ago), but his input on the marketing side of things is a thinker.

The biggest films from Hollywood come armed with publicity budgets that’s not too far off their actual production cost. In Malaysia it is significantly less than that, leading him to comment, “Filem Dia, Billboard Kita.” As such, the Wajib Tayang scheme ensures that Malaysian films have a small chance of making money by remaining in circulation. Even within the Malaysian film sphere itself, linguistic and racial differences generally split asunder the Malaysian film audience as it is. All that is before we even start on the top-down suppression from above, with strict regulations that encourage self-censorship even before a single scene is shot.

Therefore, hearing that an extra panel of judges who adjourn and determine whether a film should qualify for the scheme based on its quality is adding another barrier for filmmakers to overcome. I don’t disagree entirely with the sentiment behind it (I cannot forget ‘Cinta Yang Satu’, a TV drama masquerading as a film), and it certainly helps to weed out those who make slapdash efforts as they ride on trends and sequels and such. According to Kamil, the jury will consist of learned people such as academics, journalists and film fans, amongst others. Rightly or wrongly, many of them may have already developed their own biases as to what a good film should or should not be. Kamil continued to say that a big reason for this decision was that nearly two thirds of films screened under the scheme did not meet their target. The reports didn’t elaborate further on what targets he mentioned, or how they’re formulated, but everything presented thus far seems to point towards finance-related objectives.

ombak rindu 2It’s not entirely unreasonable, but this seems like a counter-productive measure. It may be that this is intended to increase the overall quality of Malaysian films across the board (even if ‘quality’ is already subjective as it is), but it seems that setting such targets rewards good box office behaviour rather than concerted quality filmmaking. It encourages the prioritising of money over creative matters; I firmly believe that while it is not the only factor, films made primarily for financial purposes will not do as well as their backers hope. Some may not agree, but I repeat: such targets may well encourage people to ride on the waves of even bigger trends. It may well make for successful films, but it does not automatically beget good films. Based on personal experience, I know of many who are keen that films like ‘Ombak Rindu’, a film that features rape, do not see the light of day. In terms of quality, I myself have strongly derided it as “one of the worst edited films I have ever seen.” Yet it romped its way to nearly RM11 million, the fourth highest in Malaysian box office history. Who am I to say what is right or wrong in this case?

Perhaps there’s more here than needs more explaining. Media reports, of course, can never cover everything said at any event (I’m keen to know more about the setting of targets to be achieved for these films). Furthermore, films can still screen outside of the scheme. As mentioned earlier, Kamil suggestion the exploration of other mediums such as television, Astro First and home video. Furthermore, it is possible to screen your film without applying for Wajib Tayang; some, like Namewee, have done well for themselves in such a fashion, with ‘Nasi Lemak 2.0’ making RM7 million. However, I don’t believe that outliers like him provide a good template for the structure as a whole.

Rightly or wrongly, I believe that good filmmaking and storytelling will ultimately be rewarded if seen through properly right to the end. One of the best ways of nurturing that is to make films and let the audience decide, for better or worse. That is the best check and balance system, provided that the playing field is level than most. Adding more layers like this panel upsets this balance even more, and I don’t believe it is the best way forward to improve the quality of filmmaking in Malaysia.

Fikri could do with a nasi lemak right now…

Featured image credit: Business Korea

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