Technopreneur Leon Tan gets his dream geek-fest
By A. Asohan November 16, 2012
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THE creative minds behind War of The Worlds: Goliath (WoTW: Goliath) are at the studio of the BFM business radio station, in between umpteen interviews they were facing in the media blitz leading up to the movie’s gala premiere in the weekend.
The news was in: Barack Obama had just been re-elected President of the United States. The two Americans – director Joe Pearson and writer David Abramowitz – join the entire BFM crew to listen to Obama’s victory speech. They have interviews scheduled with BFM and Digital News Asia (DNA), but this was history in the making.
As the speech winds down, Pearson goes into another room for a video interview. The Malaysian producer of WoTW: Goliath, Leon Tan – surely on his way to becoming a household name – is on his phone doing producer-type stuff; confirming appointments and schedules and what-not.
That leaves DNA alone with Abramowitz for a few minutes, and we get a quick lesson in Abramowitz’s Politics 101 -- about how he was disappointed with Obama, but extremely proud of the American people for re-electing him.
“The first time may have been a fluke, but having an African-American re-elected as President shows that the United States is truly a multi-cultural nation,” he says.
It was worth recounting this little episode because it shows Abramowitz has a fair degree of cynicism. And he has the Hollywood pedigree too, with a list of writing or producing credits covering 21 Jump Street, V, MacGyver, Cagney and Lacey, and Murder She Wrote. He was also behind the Highlander TV series and is a consultant for the Summit Features remake of the original Highlander movie.
But ask him about Tan, and he glows. “Leon is the very spirit of entrepreneurism – you should have him bronzed and duplicated.”
“I never thought I would see this day, and only someone like him could have done it,” he adds, quickly shifting gears to save him the blushes when Tan walks into the room.
How Tan did it is perhaps a lesson for all aspiring entrepreneurs, not just those in the creative content space. Indeed, hearing how this movie came to be made, and the challenges the filmmakers faced along the way, is a story no different from any other business venture: They had a vision, they had to get funding, the timing just came together, and they pivoted … many times.
WoTW: Goliath, a Tripod Entertainment production, is a ‘what-if’ sequel to H.G. Wells’ 1898 classic science fiction tale The War of the Worlds, set about 15 years after the first Martian invasion.
That first invasion failed because the Martians succumbed to our germs, but the remnants of their technology were left scattered all over the world. It was only natural that we humans would go poking our noses into it.
“It’s a new arms race; you have the Kaiser’s Germany, China, the British Empire, America, Japan, Tsarist Russia – it’s a whole new geopolitical space but still locked within the history that we know, which is the eve of the First World War,” says Tan (pic). “So you can put in Teddy Roosevelt, Nikola Tesla, the Red Baron – all these cool characters.”
“We give Tesla his due. [Take that, Thomas Edison]. In our alternate history, Roosevelt does not run for a second term as president of the United States because he feels he has a higher calling as the Secretary of War; the League of Nations is formed much earlier and they build a new international army, what we call ARES (Allied Resistance Earth Squadrons).
“The key to ARES is only one thing: To defend the Earth from the second Martian invasion. And Tesla is picked to reverse engineer or re-engineer all that Martian technology. It’s a great geek life,” he adds.
WoTW: Goliath follows the adventures of the five-man crew of Goliath, a mecha built on hybrid Earth-Martian technology, as they battle the second Martian invasion: Captain Eric Wells (voiced by Peter Wingfield); Lt Jennifer Carter (Elizabeth Gracen); Cpl Patrick O’Brien (Adrian Paul); Pvt Abraham Douglas (Beau Billingslea) and Lt Raja Iskandar Shah, a Bugis prince from Malaya played by none other than our own Tony Eusoff.
Why Wells, and why steampunk?
“I’ve been a lifelong animation and science fiction geek. Sure, I may have a business degree and have had a corporate career, but really, I love animation and science fiction,” says Tan.
“If you’re a science fiction fan, The War of the Worlds; it’s like the Holy Grail; it’s one of the many foundations of modern science fiction. It's something that appealed to me at a deep level as a science fiction fan, and the opportunity to create a story within that universe was really hard to say no to.
“Another part of The War of the Worlds is that it’s really a metaphor for colonization, and thanks to David and Joe’s treatment, this still resonates in Goliath.
“And we love steampunk,” he adds. “The War of the Worlds, as a story, has been around for more than a hundred years, and there’ve been so many versions that have been made, many by people with a whole lot more resources than we had.
“We wanted to do something that would turn heads and get people to say, ‘Wow, it’s The War of the Worlds, but I never thought about it like this.’ And steampunk, really, it’s post- the Industrial Revolution, and although 1914 is a bit further down the line, it sits very neatly within that space where electricity is a fairly new deal but you have whole cities running on this new energy source.”
“It’s a logical extension of the Industrial Revolution with the addition of Martian technology,” adds Abramowitz (pic).
Pearson acknowledges that some genre fans on the Internet have complained that the technology in WoTW: Goliath is more dieselpunk than steampunk. “I’m just thinking, ‘Whatever, guys’.”
“While I love Jules Verne and the whole gear-and-ratchet look, I wanted machines that really looked like murder machines that could go up against the Martians,” he says. “The super-zeppelins and the pumped-up triplanes – there’s a certain aesthetic that perhaps is more reflective of a world closer to pre-World War II, but it makes sense in the context of a world that is post-Martian invasion.”
The story behind the tale
The corporate career that Tan refers to, almost as an aside, was no small matter either – he was with the Usaha Tegas Group, as part of its corporate finance team, where he supported its investments, mergers and acquisitions and funding activities.
After that he joined Lycos Asia, an Internet media joint-venture between Terra Lycos and Singapore Telecommunications. He established Lycos Asia’s Indonesia and Philippines operations, and then led global business development based in Singapore and Shanghai.
He left in 1997 and together with New Zealander Mike Bloemendal (who is also one of the producers of WoTW: Goliath) founded Elemental Ventures Sdn Bhd and its sister company Imaginex Studios Sdn Bhd, which ran a network of creative audio production studios in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
It was at a time when the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC), Malaysia’s ICT custodian, was trying hard to project Malaysia’s Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC Malaysia now) as a hub for creative industries. The Government’s venture capital arm Malaysia Venture Capital Management Bhd (Mavcap) became an early investor in Elemental Ventures.
The company was successful and the cash-flow strong enough to support Tan’s crazy ideas. Then came the fateful bus ride in Tokyo.
The idea of doing a ‘what-if’ sequel to Wells’ 1898 classic was actually Pearson’s, who first laid out the premise and characters in 1998, envisioning it as a straight-to-DVD movie. A few years later, at a science fiction convention in Tokyo, he was on the bus back to the hotel, and the only other passenger was this Malaysian guy.
“It was his twinkling eyes and sparkling personality,” Pearson laughs. “No, we met, and we just hit it off.” He shared his vision, and Tan was on board.
“The timing was actually perfect -- Mavcap had been asking us what our plans were, and I said, ‘Why don’t we do animation?’ They said okay,” says Tan. “It actually started with let’s fund a project, but Mavcap went a step further and said let’s not just fund a project, let’s fund a whole new company.”
“This was beyond what I was thinking at the time, but we did it, and that’s how Tripod was born. In 2010, we consolidated Tripod and Elemental to form the Tripod Group,” he says.
And as with any entrepreneurial start-up, having investor buy-in and support is very important.
“Mavcap has been with us from the start; in fact, they’ve been very supportive of us every step of the way,” says Tan. “The understanding we had with Mavcap was, you give us the resources to send our maiden project into the wild, and we will look after everything else. The first project was going to be a very important one, and we decided on WoTW: Goliath.”
Mavcap’s role was an important one, says Tan. “They signed all the checks,” he laughs. “And second, they did not attach any veto rights to this.”
“They took the plunge,” he adds. “I’ve always said it’s hardest to raise the first dollar, but the other nine dollars would not come quite as hard. With Mavcap, they kept coming in, and one investor spawned several others. MDeC came in with a training grant; Bank Simpanan Nasional came in with a creative industry loan; and Pemandu and Finas came in with a CG (computer graphics) fund.”
Pemandu is the Performance Management & Delivery Unit (Pemandu) of the Prime Minister's Department, which implements and oversees the Government's various transformation programs; while Finas is the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia, responsible for promoting, preserving and developing the film industry in the country.
Pearson adds, “Without Mavcap, this movie wouldn’t have been made.”
“Our production time took twice as long, the scale went up, the length of the movie increased -- it’s usually very nerve-wracking for any investor, but they were on board with every big decision we made,” he says.
And there were a few big decisions along the way.
“All of us were doing this for the first time,” says Tan. “We started making crazy decisions, like let’s do it in stereoscopic 3D ... sure, why not? It was supposed to have been a DVD movie in the beginning, but the DVD market tanked, so we had to adapt. Let’s make it into a feature film … sure, why not?
“Do we have the money for this? No, but we will raise it – how hard can that be?” he adds. “Perhaps a little naiveté helps – and a lot of tenacity.”
Quips Abramowitz: “Leon [Tan] didn’t know it was impossible. That’s why it worked.”
“I didn’t get the memo,” Tan laughs. “At the same time, we assembled a team that was so driven to make this movie their best work to date. Like BaseCamp Films, which had been toying with stereoscopic 3D through various little projects and various ads and leaders – they were so pumped up.”
“For our next project, we will try and make all the big decisions at the start,” he adds.
Challenges and plans afoot
For all the Malaysian funding and production, WoTW: Goliath is very much an international undertaking between Malaysia, the United States and Korea. That had its own set of challenges.
“In broad strokes, because I don’t want to go into much detail here, the biggest challenge for me was that remote management can be quite tricky,” says Tan. “You can also get lost in the minutiae, the details you have to look into, yet all the while you have to always see the big picture.”
“I always told the team that it’s not how you get into the situation that defines you, it’s how you get out of it,” he adds.
After four years in the making, there were early promising signs: It had a successful premiere at Comic-Con International in San Diego in July, and more importantly, was recognized as the Best 3D Animated Feature Film at the Los Angeles 3D Film Festival, beating out favorites such as Paranorman, Madagascar 3 and Tinker Bell: Secret of the Wings.
“I think that in terms of the segment of the North American audience we were targeting, we seemed to be hitting all the right notes,” says Tan.
“But going to the Sitges festival [in Barcelona in October] was an absolute test, because the audience at San Diego and Los Angeles was the audience that had been following us, so we were completing a promise to them,” he adds. “Going to Europe was total terror, we had no idea of how they were going to receive it there, and the reception was great.”
But the team is quite realistic about the mainstream US audience.
“This movie falls into a difficult place, simply because to open a movie in the United States is going to cost you US$25 million and above -- it’s just not possible to do,” says Abramowitz. “But through Video-on-Demand (VoD), which seems to be what the future is, this falls into a nice niche as a genre film for people who like steampunk, anime and science fiction.”
“This will play in some cities perhaps, if the appropriate deals are done, but a lot of it depends on how well the movie does here and in Europe. Then some distributor may take a look at it,” he says.
Pearson (pic) adds, “We’ve had a lot of interest from distributors in the VoD and DVD markets, and we’ll get that. We knew all this, going in.”
And of course, there is the possibility of a sequel.
“We allude to this in the movie,” says Pearson, “While it ends very decisively, there are some loose ends. The battle was won but the war goes on.”
He says he has some “very bad plans” for one country, which would see a Martian hive being built around an iconic landmark. There is also the possibility of certain groups of humans making treaties with the invaders, and loose ends with the characters that need to be resolved. “I can see three movies,” he adds.
Tan adds, “Well, we have a story arc that is very BattleStar Galactica-ish in its scale, where some things are going to change radically.”
“Let’s just say that while we hope to see a trilogy, a tent-pole kind of thing, there’s also potential for an expanded universe for further exploration using transmedia (telling a single story across various digital media or platforms) in particular, or other forms of media which will allows us to tell more intimate stories of people who may or may not be part of the movie, but are part of the universe.
“In fact, we explored that with the 10 comics we made with Heavy Metal magazine last year, all done by Malaysian artists,” he adds. “We had stories in Kyoto, St Petersburg and even had one in Port Swettenham (now Port Klang).”
In that short story, the Martians destroy Port Swettenham, and the Tripod defenders realize that they can’t fight them on the streets, so lure them into the mangrove swamps where they are made short work of.
Tan says Tripod is developing the comics above into interactive comics for the iOS and Android platforms and is working with Malaysian game house Appxplore to develop a game app as well. “We hope to roll that out in the first quarter of next year,” he adds.
Then there is merchandising as well. “In the last few weeks, I realized that there may be some immediate opportunities in developing merchandise regionally, not just for the international market,” says Tan.
“We have had no shortage of interest – a publishing house in the United States is interested in further developing some of the stories we’ve done, and a toy company out of the East Coast wants to explore some toy lines.”
But he remains optimistically realistic. “There are things we want to do, but certain things need to happen before we can do them. The movie has to be well received enough, including commercially, so that we can create other ancillary rights.”
Sounds impossible, but that’s right up Tan’s alley. As with the Obama re-election, history has been made, but it is more resonant with his first campaign: There is now a sense of hope for the Malaysian film industry, that “yes, we can.”
Next: ‘There’s a lot of Malaysia in this movie’
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Disrupt #3: Malaysia’s got creative talent, but is that enough?
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