Pinewood Studios boost Malaysian investment zone

Bhavan Jaipragas
The main building of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios in Nusajaya, Malaysia, June 26, 2014
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The main building of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios in Nusajaya, Malaysia, June 26, 2014 (AFP Photo/Roslan Rahman)

Nusajaya (Malaysia) (AFP) - A Marco Polo-era replica ship floats in a massive water tank while just metres away ancient Mongol tents recreate the court of Kublai Khan -- welcome to Pinewood Studios' Asia production facility.

The 50-acre (20-hectare), $170 million complex in southern Malaysia's Iskandar investment zone is the studio's first in Asia and marks its expansion East in search of lower production costs.

Britain's Pinewood, a 78-year-old movie industry institution which boasts James Bond and the Harry Potter films in its portfolio, is the latest global entertainment brand to open operations in Iskandar.

Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios opened its doors in June and is staging "Marco Polo" -- a sweeping 10-part historical drama about the 13th-century Italian explorer produced for US video streaming giant Netflix.

"It was a big bonus to have Marco Polo here as the first client. It's like winning the lottery," the studios' chief executive Michael Lake told AFP in an interview.

"I'm a big believer that when you open a new studio facility, the best thing you can have is a television series," he added, referring to the fact the series will utilise the facility for an extended period.

Government officials predict the complex, a licensee of Pinewood and owned by Malaysia's sovereign wealth firm Khazanah Nasional, will contribute around $560 million to the country's economy over the next eight years and 1,700 jobs annually.

With 100,000 square feet (9,300 square metres) of film and sound stages, sprawling backlots for outdoor shoots as well as two indoor television studios, the complex is one of Asia's largest and most modern video production centres.

More than 500 production staff from 18 countries are working on "Marco Polo", which is being produced by Hollywood heavyweight Weinstein Company and occupies most of the new studio, set next to a man-made lake and forest.

- Lower production costs -

Lake, a former studio executive in Australia, said Pinewood Iskandar is hoping to draw a broad range of international clients, attracted by lower production costs in Malaysia.

He also lauds its proximity to well-connected Singapore, with its western tip about 15 minutes away from the new studios by causeway.

Lake said the facility will also benefit from a new scheme rolled out by the Malaysian government last year that offers a 30 percent cash rebate on production and post-production spend for projects that exceed $1.6 million in value.

Similar incentives exist in other countries eager to attract film production, such as New Zealand and Ireland.

Lake said Pinewood Iskandar is also planning to collaborate with regional production facilities for large-scale projects, "especially in the use of manpower and infrastructure so we can promote this whole area as one region for filming".

Industry insiders say the facility will inevitably have to compete for business with these regional locations that are equipped with similar state-of-the-art infrastructure.

Sydney's 32-acre Fox Studios has hosted productions of multiple Hollywood blockbuster movies, while Singapore's newly-opened Infinite Studios in April hosted the filming of upcoming spy movie Agent 47.

"In the longer term, all locations, including well-equipped new studios such as Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios have to compete for business," said Patrick Frater, the Asia bureau chief for Hollywood trade magazine Variety.

"That's because modern technology such as green screens means that many film and TV projects could actually shoot anywhere in the world," he told AFP.

Frater said the "robustness and transparency" of incentives handed out to production companies as well as the quality of crew available "are ultimately what keeps studios and locations attractive".

-- Singapore collaboration --

In Singapore, officials have welcomed the opening of Pinewood Iskandar despite the possibility that it could steal business away from the city-state.

Singapore has a small film industry that has steadily won critical acclaim overseas as well as production companies such as Infinite that cater to foreign clients.

Angeline Poh, assistant chief executive of industry at Singapore's Media Development Authority, told AFP the opening of Pinewood Iskandar now ensures that the region "offers a compelling proposition for producers to undertake large-scale international productions here".

Since 2006, former palm oil plantations in Iskandar have been transformed into hotels, luxury homes, offices and universities.

Named after a former sultan -- the area landed $40.5 billion in investment commitment as of last year, one-third of the way towards an ambitious 2025 target of $123 billion, according to the zone's official website.

The set of Marco Polo, with its weathered Venetian galley ship bobbing in one of the studio's multiple water tanks and its exquisite reproduction of a sand-coloured Mongol facade, reflects that ambition.