- To fill in that gap, you need to marry the creative to the commercial
- Dirk Gently TV series for BBC America to air end of the year, or early 2017
WHEN the news broke in January that a Malaysian company was involved in bringing the works of popular British author Douglas Adams (1952-2001) to the small screen, most Malaysians just shrugged it off.
Part of the sanguinity came from the fact that things have been looking up for the country’s creative content and film industry, what with a slew of local movies having impressed at the box-office and with hoary old critics, and government bodies like National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) having stepped up their game in recent years.
Part of it also came from the fact that Malaysia’s film industry, at least in terms of the wider world, is still in its infancy. Except for select arthouse movies, most films are produced for domestic consumption, while most of our contributions to the international scene have involved outsourcing work – post-production, special effects and animation – for the big studios ‘out there.’
It was probably with this mindset that most of us greeted the news that Malaysian-based content company Ideate Media was teaming up with AMC Studios, IDW Entertainment, and Circle of Confusion to produce eight one-hour episodes of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, a new original scripted series for BBC America.
The official spiel is that “Dirk Gently is a comedic thriller that follows the bizarre adventures of an eccentric and ‘holistic’ detective named Dirk Gently and his reluctant assistant Todd as they go about their way through one big, seemingly insane journey, crossing unlikely paths with a bevy of wild and sometimes dangerous characters,” with each episode bringing them a few random steps “closer to uncovering the truth.”
AMC Studios is behind The Waking Dead, Breaking Bad and Mad Men; while IDW Entertainment is the entertainment arm of the fourth largest comics publisher in the United States; Circle of Confusion is the producer of The Waking Dead; and finally, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and its sequel The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul were penned by Adams – less well-known than his iconic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but with a strong cult following nonetheless.
With such exalted company, many must have first thought – including this writer – that the Malaysian company involved would just be outsourced some work, or is putting in some small investment.
We – and I – couldn’t have been more wrong. Ideate Media is actually the driver behind the entire effort, in terms of getting the whole project off the ground, and in developing the content in partnership with IDW.
It is the culmination of Ideate Media’s three-year-journey that began with chief executive officer Zainir Aminullah’s frustration.
Missing the middle piece
Zainir (pic above) had spent 17 years at pay-TV operator Astro Malaysia Holdings Bhd, where a large part of his career was running its content business.
“When I was first given that task, we grew the number of local channels very rapidly and came out with all these crazy shows – Akademia Fantasia, Raja Lawak and others,” he says.
These shows showed what he describes as “a linear correlation between content investment and subscription hook, and a linear correlation between investment and reconnection (or churn).
“That gave us [Astro] the confidence to invest more – in more channels, more brands, and more shows,” he says, speaking to Digital News Asia (DNA) in Kuala Lumpur.
That also gave Astro the confidence to start diversifying into more genres – news, sports, kids’ shows, and more vernacular languages.
“Over time, all these became so successful that it became an expected delivery,” says Zainir.
“I continued doing that for a while, but towards the end of that term, I quickly realised that despite the dozens of thousands of hours we had produced back then, not a lot travelled – or rather, they didn’t travel well at all.
“For a very specific reason: They were all for local consumption, and they were all designed with a specific domestic sensibility, appeal, taste and preference in mind, so you would not have expected them to travel.
“But Ideate Media came out of that frustration – I guess it’s good when a solution comes out from a hunger or desperation,” he laughs.
Ideate Media was established in April 2013 by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the Malaysian Government’s strategic investment arm; and Astro Overseas Limited, the international division of Zainir’s former employer.
Its first production was Bubble Bath Bay, a children’s animated series commissioned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
But relatively speaking, that was just the company poking its toe into the waters. Its vision is much bolder, to say the least.
Malaysia has been trying hard to promote itself as a creative content destination. MDEC, the country’s national ICT custodian has been doing it since its inception in the late 1990s, with a more high-tech outlook that paved the way for animation, special effects and games development work.
Finas, for so long focused inwards, in 2013 introduced the Film in Malaysia Incentive, which offers a 30% cash rebate for production or post-production work done in the country; while other government efforts have seen Pinewood Studios opening a facility in the Iskandar Malaysia development zone in the southern state of Johor.
Avoiding the void
These are laudable developments, but there are still missing pieces in the industry, and Ideate Media intends to fill what Zainir describes as “a huge gaping hole” – developing content, and doing it for the greater audience out there.
It starts with Malaysia’s aspiration of wanting to be a creative content destination.
“I wanted to see if we could invest in proper development, so that we could actually invest in our own ideas and intellectual properties (IPs) that are designed for international markets – that are designed for an international audience with or without Malaysia, and with or without South-East Asia in mind,” he says.
“So that was our starting statement: Wanting to make sure we could lift the bar and develop a different kind of content,” he says.
What government bodies like Finas and MDEC have been doing well is getting creative content jobs into the country, which has allowed dozens of such Malaysian companies to scale up and upskill themselves.
“But if you look at the output, it comes back to my frustration – you don’t own the property, you’re basically a work-for-hire for others like the Cartoon Network, Disney and Nickelodeon,” vents Zainir.
“So in the end, you get the job and you get the hours, but you get nothing. Your business is basically margins-based, and what you worry about is cash-flow and scaling up – that is, getting more customers from Japan, North America and South Korea.
“This is fine for a business, but then you start asking: What’s our identity? What stories do we tell? And you can’t answer that question,” he adds.
The “huge gaping hole” is essentially the lack of our own content.
“If you look at the entire process, you start with the ideas or content, then there is the middle part which is production, and then there is monetisation, which is sales and distribution,” says Zainir.
Malaysia and most of the region is right smack in the middle of that cycle, production. It needs to get into the other two parts as well.
“We believe that you must put the right investment in the right stage of that process, to be able to achieve two things: No 1, to be able to influence the outcome of the investment (the IP); and No 2, to be able to influence the marketing.
“And how are we doing this? By putting our own money behind stories and ideas – we actively go out there and source for materials, for example options for books and all.
“This is a huge gaping hole, simply because we are not developing for an audience. And I don’t say this lightly. Even if you are doing it for a local audience, you need to have a very specific target in mind – whether it is a broadcaster, or a market.
“If you go out there with a vanity project, that’s fine, but these guys are going to ask your some serious questions: Who are the writers? Who else is attached to this project?
“The developed markets care about attachments – they want to know all the elements of the show: Who are the writers, who are the producers, who are the directors, who is being cast?
“If you don’t think along those lines, you won’t ever get their attention. It’s not enough to have what you think is a great idea. You may have a great story, I may even go watch the movie, but I would not represent you if you can’t find a market.
“We [Ideate Media] are doing that now,” he adds.
So over the past three years, the company has been building up its resources in content development – content that is specific to a broadcaster and to a market – and making use of its access to the networks and connections that comes from Zainir’s years at Astro, as well as via his team.
“To me, Ideate is that secret sauce and the black box in the middle. We basically marry the creative to the commercial. That’s it.
“A story will never see the light of day unless someone connects you to a market – a distributor who is willing to pay, and a broadcaster who is willing to underwrite your production budget.
“That’s what we do,” he adds.
Next Page: Fitting in other pieces and sustaining it – and a shared universe in the works