After 17 years with Malaysia’s leading pay TV provider and content producer company, Zainir Aminullah, 48, made the bold move to start Ideate Media to produce content aimed not only at the local audience but also the international market. JOY LEE writes.

You came from a company that produced content. Why did you think you needed to start Ideate on your own?

If you look at the industry, Malaysia as well as the region, you’ll see that the content industry mainly caters to the local audience.

That’s fine. But it also means that not a lot of our content travels overseas. We saw an opportunity for us to be in that space. And what is that space? Making high-quality, high-value content that has international appeal.

The question is whether what we are doing is sustainable. That remains to be seen. But based on what we’ve been doing so far and the interest expressed in our projects, we hope to be around for a while lah.

We now have two projects that are examples of our vision and strategy. The first one is a local film called Tombiruo. It’s based on a novel by local author, Ramlee Awang Murshid. We plan to release it late next year. It’s a big-budget movie.

Another is a TV series in the US called Dirk Gently. We acquired the rights to that character three years ago and redeveloped it into a TV series. It premiered on BBC America on Oct 22 and will be premiering worldwide on Netflix in December.

How did you procure your first projects?

There were so many books, novels, scripts, pictures. It was tough. Which ones are going to make it? You don’t have that answer upfront. But it helps to ask questions like who are you writing for, what is the size of that segment and who is going to be interested in making this a reality.

We can do that quicker now. But back then, we actually went through 400 different materials in the first two years just to be able to do the few projects that we have now. But our projects have similar criteria, which are strong materials, strong fan base and have transmedia potential.

Tombiruo, for example, is a movie now but it has possibility for sequels across different media like TV series, graphic novels, web series and an animation series. So we look for ideas and IPs (intellectual properties) that have strong franchise and transmedia potential. And we make sure that there are strong elements attached to our projects like strong partners and strong leads. People must know who is attached to your project.

What was it like going through so many materials?

A lot of pain. It’s a lot of reading. When you read a lot, after a while, you become blind, right? (Laughs.) The next script looks the same. The next book is a chore. The novel would have been interesting at another time but because you are reading it as part of work, it’s a challenge. We don’t go through 400 materials anymore. We are targeted in what we select now.

What happens after the materials are selected?

It’s a very established process. We acquire the rights and look for the right writers to work on the story. When we get the final product, which is the script, we take it to people to raise money. That is where things usually fall off the cliff or projects don’t get made because not enough investors believe in the product.

For Dirk Gently, we had a pilot script and we showed it to a few networks in the US. BBC America picked up the show. Our partner studio was AMC Studios, which produced The Walking Dead. They are strong partners, and we managed to convince enough people and enough money and we went to shoot.

While we were shooting, we attracted the interest of Netflix. They were interested to pick up the show for the rest of the world. BBC America had the rights for the US. So the first money gets the second money, second money gets the third money and so on.

Was it easy to find foreign partners?

It’s not. Hollywood has 100 years’ worth of history. They are the pinnacle of content-making. To them, we are nobody and our money is not needed. But what got us going was our IP and our material. Dirk Gently had good writing. When they saw that, it didn’t matter who you are but what you’ve done so far. We always come in from a product perspective. We convince you that we have a strong story, and hopefully you buy into that.

What else is needed to grow the industry here?

Talent is an obvious one. Some assistance still needs to be given to content practitioners. There are two agencies helping in this respect, Finas and MDEC. We are still at a stage where we can’t justify doing this on our own. Finas plays a very important and strategic role in changing behaviours in the industry by giving money to people that want to raise the bar so that the value is better seen on our screens.

If we keep having a continuous support system like this, more people will find it commercially feasible to do what we do.

A lot of countries have reached a stage where the assistance is taken away. But if you think about the most advanced content industry, which is Hollywood, they still have a lot of incentives. Canada is their biggest competitor. When we were shooting Dirk Gently in Vancouver, they were telling me that it was the 43rd show shot in Vancouver that year. Forty-three shows! Can you imagine? The entire city is a support system for the industry. Every Canadian I saw in Vancouver is involved in movie-making (laughs).

How does it feel to see your projects realised for the international market?

(Smiles.) One day I’ll be happy, but not today. It’s still too early. When we have a few projects that are successful, then I’ll be happy. But throughout my career, I’ve found that my biggest joy comes from building something.

It gives me the greatest pleasure to build a team from scratch into a company that has a bunch of people with successful projects. That gives me the biggest satisfaction, because it proves that the concept I had thought of as a two-paragraph idea a few years ago can work.Link to original interview on The Star here