HOW many times have we heard rebukes like “we don’t have good writers” or “local films rehash the same ideas” when it comes to the poor performance of the Malaysian film industry? From film critic Hassan Muthalib to the latest National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia (FINAS) chairman, everyone has basically identified the problem with local cinema.
We need better writing — yes, this much is clear — but why hasn’t the overall standard improved?
Writers associations and local authorities have brought the Malaysian script dilemma to the forefront, but this has resulted in writers, film investors and even FINAS bearing the cross for the sort of filmmaking currently pervading contemporary local cinema.
To blame our screenwriters however is downright cruel.
“Poor rates for scripts, lack of knowledge about terms, agreements and contracts, producer unwillingness to adopt contracts , the absence of royalties for scriptwriters, sweatshop work conditions, a toxic environment…” rattles on Alfie Palermo, “all these contribute to an ecosystem that does not help nurture talent, and as a result ensures that scripts produced in Malaysia remain mediocre.”
As a committee member on local writers association Persatuan Penulis Lakon Layar Kuala Lumpur dan Selangor (PENULIS) and one of the busiest local screenwriters around, Alfie has dealt with the local film industry for donkey years.
His credits include Saw Teong Hin‘s Jejak Warriors, Kabir Bhatia‘s Dollah Superstar and Faisal Ishak‘s Juvana. He was also attached to Chiu Keng Guan‘s box office mammoth Ola Bola as script translator.
“Everyone seems to be blaming scriptwriters for the lack of quality scripts but until today no one has ever been able to produce a solution, nor has there been any studies to address the issue.”
Don’t trust us? Tell your mum or dad you want to quit your job and become a writer — let their reaction colour your perception of the profession.
Some quarters would also go as far as to justify shitty pay given to local writers by bringing up poor work quality. It’s a bit like buying cheap, rotten ingredients to make soup, then blaming the produce, your supplier and your prospective customers because the soup just won’t sell.
This finger-pointing game has grown exhausting and it’s time we look at a long-term, sustainable solution.
Alfie believes it can all stop with a guild system akin to the Writers Guild Of America (WGA).
Why have only one Songlap and one Jagat when there’s an opportunity to create an environment conducive enough to make sure everyone has enough sanity to create top-notch work, he entices.
A strong proponent of establishing a professional WGA-styled system in Malaysia, Alfie is championing higher rates, guaranteed payment and standard contracts among other implementations which aims to lift local writing. His pitch formed after keen observations of America, whose film industry went strength to strength after the establishment of the WGA.
“By virtue of the system, screenwriting in America actually improved since the mid-50s. Now why is this? Because the work ecosystem in America is exactly the opposite of that in Malaysia!”
Solve the worker’s problems first and their work will improve, insists Alfie. Taking lessons stateside, here are five reasons having a writer’s guild will bring us closer to the golden era of Malaysian cinema.
Local screenwriters don’t have their payments guaranteed, and this clearly interferes with quality of work. Can you imagine how many Mamat Khalid‘s and Liew Seng Tat‘s who came into the industry, got fucked over, and quit writing to become a full-time Uber driver?
Guaranteeing payment, clear terms of payment, and other working terms such as cancellation fees and screen credit allows writers to work with peace of mind — the best scripts are most often produced in an environment conducive for writing. It’s time to start acting more professionally, filmmaking folks.
Higher Minimum Wages / Writing Fees
By raising compensation for all writers across the board, and implementing a mechanism of enforcement so that all writers abide by set rates, producers will choose to work with only the very best. If you have to spend a bit more for something, you’re going to make sure every cent is put to good use, no?
This also reminds writers to buck up and improve their writing if they want to get hired, in turn promoting a culture of excellence whereby writers must compete with one another in terms of writing quality and innovation. In the long run, only quality scripts will be produced. The end result? An increase in the quality of Malaysian film and television, and no more bad writers trying to make a quick buck by selling themselves cheap.
Local scripts get written in record time — writers get a maximum of three days for an episode of your favourite TV series, one week for a telemovie, and a month or less for a movie. Many local writers however write an episode within 24 hours to shoot the following day.
This leaves barely any time for redrafting and development — two processes vital in enhancing script quality. This type of unhealthy working condition has contributed to serious mediocrity, and TV stations have no else to blame but themselves for trying to skimp on the creative process and choosing quantity over quality.
Alfie argues that by offering creatives enough time to structure and put to good use, we could one day even have material worthy for Netflix.
And if you think Netflix isn’t interested in content from our region, think again: the internet-television network recently approached Indonesian romantic-comedy Aach… Aku Jatuh Cinta! as a potential addition to their library, although producer Raam Punjabi has chosen to KIV the offer for now.
Screenwriters should be entitled to royalties and residuals from all of their produced work so they can have passive income. Across the board, not just in selected cases. This is especially important to give writers vested interest and a sense of ownership in the work they produce, ensuring they produce the best quality work.
Because if you really think about it, why would anyone want to put in 100% and slog day and night for something they don’t even own at the end of the day?
In the past, organizations like the now-defunct SWAM (Scriptwriters Association of Malaysia) have tried and failed to negotiate with TV stations, producers, and the government on behalf of writers rights.
There is still no fully-functioning entity capable of taking action and campaigning for local screenwriters effectively, but newly-formed writers association PENULIS has shown progress. Aside from involving themselves in the Angin Cinta issue last December, the association also has experience arbitrating disputes involving writers and production houses.
Although nominating PENULIS would be an easy option, what the industry really needs is a body like the Music Authors Copyright Protection (MACP) which has for years guaranteed royalties for songwriters in Malaysia, and the Malaysian Voice Guild which maintains that a standard contract and viable industry rates must be applied in seeking services from it’s members.
We would like to thank Alfie Palermo and PENULIS for the information presented within this post.