Many will remember him as the leader of the 1990s urban pop boy band KRU, but Norman Abdul Halim is fast making a name as a captain in Malaysia’s entertainment and media industry. With KRU Kartun Studios’ first 3D animation movie Ribbit to be released next month, his sights are now set on the global scene.
BE honest... how many of us who grew up watching Filem Negara Malaysia’s Hikayat Sang Kancil animation clips – better known as the “Jangan Monyet” cartoons – on television in the 1980s and 1990s ever imagined that Malaysia could one day be a global animation hub?
Well, this is what the KRU Group is aspiring for with its new animation arm, Kartun Studios, which specialises in creating and co-producing original features in 3D and 2D formats.
KRU Group CEO and executive president Norman Abdul Halim has no doubt that locally-produced animated content can excel on the global stage.
And he may have a point – the group’s first 3D animated feature film, Ribbit, not only won the Best Family Film award at the Niagara Integrated Film Festival in Canada in June, but has also been sold to more than 80 countries.
Featuring the voices of Sean Astin (The Lord of the Rings), Tim Curry (The Hunt for Red October) and international comedian Russell Peters, Ribbit tells the tale of a frog with an identity crisis who decides to travel in the Amazon rainforest to find himself.
The film will open in Malaysian cinemas next month, on Sept 4, and the KRU Group hopes to produce a television series based on it next year. Also in the works for Kartun Studios are three animated films and more than 200 series including Geckoman, an animated series based on the film Cicak-man.
So what’s the potential for animation films in Malaysia?
Huge, says Norman without hesitation. There are a lot of prospects and opportunities, not only in animation but also in the whole creative industry, he says.
“This business is called intellectual property (IP) business and there is a lot of value to it.
“You need to look beyond content. You can get into merchandising, and if you go into TV and make a TV series, you get licensing rights. There is a lot of potential.”
Communication and Multimedia Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek has estimated that Malaysia’s creative industry can generate a total of RM17bil next year, and called on more investors to be involved so that the industry players can penetrate the global market.
With more than 20 years in the industry, the KRU Group, however, is not waiting for any helping hand to pave its way onto the international stage.
> What’s the inspiration for Ribbit?
Basically, Ribbit is about a young person’s journey of self-discovery. When I was young, I had always wanted to be someone else. You look up to your idols and you feel like you can be better than who you are.
I thought it would be good to come up with a story about soul-searching at a young age and later discover that being yourself is the best thing. So that’s why we created Ribbit. It is not a heavy topic and there is a lot of humour in it.
We use a lot of metaphors to tell the story of someone (with an identity crisis) travelling the world to do soul-searching. That’s why in the film, Ribbit the frog and his friend Sandy travel the Amazon and meet all kinds of species of animals, and while they also speak English, almost everyone speaks English in different accents – there’s French accent, Australian, German, Indian and many more – to represent the people of the world.
> With the international animation scene being so competitive, do you really think Kartun Studios can compete?
True, but people also have this perception that animation belongs only to the major studios. Before, the common perception was if you’re not Disney you will not be able to break into the animation market. Then Pixar came along, and people started saying, if you are not Disney or Pixar, you will not make it. Then came Dreamworks, and people started saying, if you are not Disney or Pixar or Dreamworks, you will not make it. It’s just a perception created by people.
> What are the challenges of breaking into the overseas market?
Kartun Studios is a subsidiary of KRU International, and what we want to do is to raise funds for KRU international as a whole to do more high-end productions.
We are in talks with various local and international artists to look at bigger productions because Ribbit may seem big budget here in Malaysia but internationally it is considered modest. No one produces animation films at RM10mil internationally anymore.
We started our music label in the US early this month and, basically, the idea is to export our music internationally through the US.
But we are new (to the US and global entertainment industry) – both KRU and Malaysia. It’s a challenge to promote our brand and many have not heard of Malaysian content. Malaysia is not known as an exporter of creative content.
People are not going to give you serious money or make certain commitments to your project until they see a lot more.
Don’t talk about the big film studios, it is difficult for us to compete even with the mini majors in the US like Lions Gate Entertainment, the Weinstein Company or Relativity. They can just present the script and their cast line-up and they will be able to start selling the idea. We have to do more – produce clips, show our previous works and invest a lot more to just get things running.
It’s a challenge to get people to buy into the idea not just overseas but also in Malaysia. It’s also a challenge to get the Malaysian industry to believe that they can do it – challenge their limits and deliver their best to compete in the global market. It’s a different game now – it’s global and we need to step up our game and do more. It’s not easy and costs a lot of money.
It may be peanuts for the US studios but it is a lot of money for us, especially with the high exchange rate. We just have to have faith that we will make some returns. But I can see the potential of Ribbit and I am confident in its prospects to hit big.
> In many countries, the creative industry is thriving because of investment from the private sector. Is our creative industry getting enough corporate support?
No. If it were not for the government, we won’t be able to do this. Our government has been very progressive. Apart from Singapore, the Malaysian government has been very supportive of the creative industry, not just in funding but also in legislative matters like copyright to help improve the industry.
Unfortunately, the corporate sector has not been supportive, maybe due to the lack of success stories and lack of confidence in the industry.
There is only a handful of producers who can not only give them back their returns but actually make money and give them a profit. Not many local producers know how to monetise their creative product.
And there are also newer producers who cannot even complete the projects, which is scaring away corporate investors. We are trying to get some venture capitalists to believe in the business and look at the prospects. Luckily, there are a few who are starting to believe in the prospects.
> But aren’t the local filmmakers at fault too – for not achieving “success” at the box office? For instance, it is because they are not producing films that the audience actually want to watch.
A bigger problem (for the lack of confidence among investors) is a trust issue. Some people who get grants don’t complete the project. Investors also need to be more selective – invest in companies with a good track record.
When we first started in 1992, we did it in a small room in our family home with a RM2,000 grant we got from EMI. That is how we started but we also worked hard. We earned our popularity and support from the audience, we also travelled around South-East Asia and Australia to establish our brand and gain people’s support and trust. People believed in our brand and quality of our works.
> Which is a bigger threat to the development of our creative industry now – piracy or censorship?
Piracy is more serious than censorship now. Ultimately, in the future I hope we can have a rating system instead of censorship, unless there is serious nudity or something like that. Viewers are advised on what they are watching. In the age of Internet, it is impossible to censor anything.
> How can local films foster unity in Malaysia?
Unfortunately now, language and budget seem to be the biggest problems to foster unity among Malaysians. Blockbuster movies from Hollywood attract more Malaysians to the cinemas. However, it doesn’t give the message to unite Malaysians. Maybe we should have a movie like Will Smith’s Independence Day – aliens are invading Malaysia and have Malaysian cast of all races unite against evil. (Laughing) And yes, period/patriotic movies with historical accuracy just don’t do well in cinemas. That is the sad truth.
> Are you not interested in directing your own film?
No. I’m now a corporate guy and, unfortunately, I don’t have the patience anymore to be on a set to direct and wait. Even to produce music in the studio, I don’t have the patience anymore.
> How involved are you in the productions? What creative decisions do you make?
Only in the brainstorming sessions, and during previews of the works when they show the first cut and so on, I’ll give my comments.
> Many local industry players complain that we don’t have the right eco-system for our creative industry to grow. What do you think?
I am not one to complain, I’m the type to roll up my sleeve and try to do something about it. For example, we don’t have enough talent – our film courses now are theory-based. So we have set up KRU Academy, which now has 200 students who are pursuing their studies in Malaysia Skills Diploma, certified by the Education Ministry and Department of Skills Development Malaysia.
Investing in talent development is time-consuming and expensive but there is no other way if you want to build the creative industry. At least now there are role models in the country, so parents can be convinced that being in the creative industry is a viable and even profitable career for their children.
> Your parents can be called forward-looking for not just allowing but also supporting you and your brothers to get into entertainment at that time. Do you agree?
Our interest started at a young age. I was seven when I got a toy keyboard from my aunt. I started playing with my brothers. Of course, we started with songs like Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb but we progressed to creating our own songs on the keyboard, you know, silly songs. Then my father bought us an electronic organ. It was considered progressive then because it was expensive – a big investment for my father.
I think my parents really just wanted us to stay at home. They thought if they bought us all these musical instruments we’d spend more time at home instead of hanging out outside. And we did, but they were also very supportive. When we got our first opportunity for a recording contract with EMI, they were supportive.
I was 19 then, and I was doing a diploma in accounting and was having exams in a month. I joked that my backup plan was good – if I failed in accounting, I can be a recording artiste.
It was a good moment in our lives. Our parents just said, “You do what you think is good for you and do your best.”
> Is catering to the international film market different from catering to the local market?
Catering for the local market is different from catering for the foreign market. It is not that local viewers are not sophisticated enough but it is like whether you are serving nasi lemak and roti canai or steak and spaghetti. A lot of them know steak, and sometimes they like it, but it is harder to sell.
They need to see actors they are familiar with and story lines that work and those they are familiar with.
If you look at the market, it is generally getting more complex and, unfortunately, it is a small market. It is not like South Korea, Thailand or even Indonesia where they speak one language and there is a common base of reference for content, or even the US, which is global. If you look at Thailand and South Korea, especially, they have a strong domestic market. If you look at South Korea, the box-office share of their local films is 60% while in Malaysia it is nine-10% only (for Malay movies). It used to be 21%.
Our strategy for the foreign market is to produce the work in English and have a local dub.
> Are we not supportive of local films because we are not nationalistic enough?
A bit. We are not proud of local products. And we always feel inferior. I don’t know if it’s due to our colonial past but we always feel that the West is better than us and we always look up to Western products. No disrespect to the West, but I think that when you get this prejudice, you need to do more to prove yourself. Sometimes when we work with Western talents and workers, we also have the problem of them looking down on us – when we did Vikingdom, we had some problems with some of our Western cast.
> You got a lot of criticism for Vikingdom. And even with Ribbit, people questioned if it is good enough and deserving of the award.
That is the problem, we don’t believe in ourselves and our products. One example is if Malaysia qualifies for the World Cup, shouldn’t we try to be proud of actually qualifying first and try to support our country to go as far as we can before just dismissing it as no point (because) we will never win against the Brazils and Germanys?
> Do you miss performing?
Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just wish that I’m a rock star and not worry about the industry problems. No need to worry about piracy (Norman is also chairman of the Recording Industry Association of Malaysia), no need to worry about hiring people but the thing is, you come to a point of your life after going through different phases and I’ve done that part. I wish I can revisit it once in a while but not to do that (perform) for the rest of my life. I don’t think that’s all I can do in my life.
> If you could do things over, would you have done anything differently?
We took a lot of risks so there were mistakes, but that is something you have to do if you want to be successful in life. You can’t play safe.
I think we have learnt a lot through our mistakes. It’s been a process, and I don’t think we can skip any stages to get to where we are now.
> Who is your movie idol?
I don’t really have one but if I have to choose, I’d say Walt Disney is the one who inspires me. He also went through some hard times and had his ups and downs before getting his big break with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in the 1930s.
And if you look at where Disney Studios is now – it is one of the biggest film companies in the world – it is really inspiring.
And of course Steve Jobs, who bought the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm from George Lucas and established it as an independent company, Pixar Studios.
There are many entrepreneur-creators whom I admire and I want to be one of that group. I don’t want to be a James Cameron or a Steven Spielberg. I want to be that guy with vision behind the company.
> If a movie was made on KRU tomorrow, who would you want to play you?
Me now? Who is the most popular artiste now? It has to be the Number One guy now. If it is a comedy, Zizan Razak and if it is a serious drama, Aaron Aziz or Remy Ishak.
> Do you have a fitness regime?
I wish I can do more. I have a treadmill at home but I can’t remember the last time I stepped on it. I know I should, because it can be very stressful doing this kind of work.
> Most people watch movies and listen to music to relax and de-stress, but it is work for you. So, how do you de-stress?
True. I still watch movies but I don’t enjoy it much anymore because I tend to be more analytical when I watch a film. Even when I listen to a song, I tend to break down the structure and try to analyse why it is popular. Like if you are a lawyer, the last thing you want to do is read or watch a law and crime story.
Now, I enjoy peace and quiet, and I like the water. I like to just relax on the beach or somewhere by the water that is soothing.
I don’t like big cities like New York or Tokyo.
I also like cultural and historical things so whenever I go overseas, I love to go to the museums and learn about other people’s culture.
> What is your dream project?
Currently we are producing an average of eight to 10 movies a year. Our dream project is to come up with bigger and bigger productions.
I hope that eventually we can have a stronger base in the US so that we can have access to a bigger market and more funds for projects that we can bring back and produce here. At the end of the day, it is still about the budget because, to get the best talents, it is all about money. We want to pay for the best talents and workers and get the best results.
We are trying to raise the bar. We want to get access to the big budgets and do more.
> What is your advice to young aspiring artistes?
Apart from talent and discipline, knowledge and understanding of the industry is important too. There is a lot of information out there, all you need to do is Google it.
I do it all the time too – to find information on how things were done, how things are being done and how things are going to be done.
And you have to know that everything changes. And sometimes history repeats itself so you can strategise and plan your career. Start at a small company – only by taking baby steps can you learn; by going through the hardships, only can you grow.
You also need a strong foundation. Sometimes people get lucky and get a hit but if you don’t have the right attitude and strong foundation you will not be able to sustain it.