JUNE 6 — Many working in the creative industries welcomed the announcement from the government this week that RM225 million has been budgeted to support the sector during the Covid-19 downturn and to stimulate recovery. It comes just as plans are circulating to allow production to resume under Covid-19 specific SOPs.
Before we celebrate this news, it is worth considering how this funding announcement fits a pattern of funding schemes for the creative industries that have to date only realised mediocre results.
The newly announced package includes RM100 million in soft loans, RM30 million and RM10 million each to MyCreative Ventures and CENDANA for grant disbursement, RM50 million for digital marketing, RM35 million for animation and visual effects (Dana Kandungan Digital), as well as training programmes including digital distribution and business model development.
This is a sizeable package of benefits and will support companies and projects get back on track following a four-month hiatus. More importantly, it will help support industry workers and crews who have been without their normal income.
However, it is worth looking at the details of the plan and to question its relevance and commitment to the industry it is meant to support. The first warning sign is that the scheme is labelled as a “Short Term Economic Recovery Plan.”
It follows a pattern of funding schemes that have been implemented since the formulation of the Dasar Industri Kreatif Negara (DIKN) in 2009. The DIKN was accompanied by a RM200 million Creative Industry Fund (CIF) administered by Bank Simpanan Nasional.
Dr Adrian Lee (Sunway University) and I conducted research on the DIKN and its funding programs and came to the conclusion that the programs were largely focussed on delivering output (e.g. creative products) by financing productions.
Compared to the original DIKN document which advocated for a broad reform to the arts and culture sectors, including new infrastructure and long-term investment, the schemes that followed were much narrower and unimaginative, designed for tangible “quick wins.”
Very little of this money was put towards longer-term investment such as skills, infrastructure, or institution building. Some practitioners benefitted from a short-lived skills program and others earned valuable experience at the Pinewood Iskandar Studios in Johor.
By the government’s own admission, the CIF was a “a leaking bucket” because too many recipients defaulted on payments. Indicative of the fact that the fund had been used to finance and prop up commercially unviable projects.
Despite this, the CIP was followed by similar funding schemes including the Creative Industry Development Fund (CIDF) which allocated another RM100 million between 2011 and 2014. It too was poorly administered and quietly shut down without public accountability because so much of the money had been wasted on bogus projects.
With the recent announcement, we calculate that almost half a billion ringgit will have been invested in the creative industries over the past decade with very little to show for it. Even (Pinewood) Iskandar Studios, a centrepiece of the new creative industries landscape lies under-utilised. UK partner Pinewood exited the facility in 2019.
We understand the importance of investment in the creative industries and the livelihoods that depend on film and television production but throwing millions of ringgit at production will not address the fundamental and structural problems of the screen industries.
There is no point giving money to productions as it merely creates a glut of mediocre and commercially unviable products. It perpetuates an industry reliant on government grants and handouts with little incentive to invest in quality.
If broadcasters have to buy this content, then the financial burden shifts to them. This only encourages lower prices and entrenches low wages and lower production budgets across the industry.
It does not address persistent issues such as low wages and poor conditions, contractual enforcement, and structural issues such as the neglect of East Malaysia and poor financial outcomes.
Malaysia’s screen industries require investment in long-term schemes to boost sustainability, develop audiences, and improve content. This means investment in short films to develop talent, in arts education programs to broaden cultural knowledge and appreciation, and well-targeted and strategic investment in skills and training.
It means thinking about how Malaysia can become a centre for screen industries financing, development, and co-production in Southeast Asia with connections across the world. It means developing storytelling from all across the country, including Sabah and Sarawak, and through regional networking.
Malaysia has the opportunity to use the Covid-19 crisis as a means to recalibrate the screen industries and to invest in sustainable projects that will improve quality and increase income. If not, prepare for another decade of uncreativity.
* Thomas Barker is an Associate Professor of Film and Television and the head of the School of Media, Language and Cultures at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.
* * This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.