Wednesday 26 August 2009

From screen to page

[From the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine]

FROM 2000 to 2009, I made eight movies. Two of these were fiction while the rest were documentaries, hybrids of documentary/fiction, experimental, or however you want to describe things that are not multiplex-friendly. Also, I must have travelled to a few dozen film festivals by now.

In early 2009, I announced, to not much fanfare, that I would be taking a long break from filmmaking. I had a target of publishing 50 books first.

From September 2007 to September 2009, I published 10 books under my modest imprint, Matahari Books. Seven are nonfiction, two are tie-in screenplay books for films made by friends of mine, and one is an anthology that contains more fiction than nonfiction. The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 is the first writers’ festival I have ever attended.

Those observant enough to notice the numbers above would see that although I could make less than an average of one movie per year, I could average five books a year (as publisher, not always as writer or editor). Movies take up much more time.

The publicity mill tends to be similar, but on different scales. Film directors and actors are interviewed, as are publishers and writers. The crucial difference is that the people doing the interviews would have either seen the films, or can convincingly say that they want to see the films. People doing the interviews for books invariably would not have had the time to read the whole book. (Journalists have to do many other things, you know, such as watch films.) Even worse, journalists, when interviewing those in the book trade, put on the type of commiserating face they use when interviewing plucky folks with debilitating illnesses, or those soliciting funds on their behalf: 
“You wrote this book? Really? How … brave of you! Please don’t give up the fight! I haven’t had time to read it yet but … I’m cheering you on!”

Speaking of which, movie people actually relish publicity. Aside from the odd Stanley Kubrick or Chris Marker, filmmakers never saw a TV camera they didn’t like. There are many more examples of ‘reclusive’ writers, and even publishers who don’t get interviewed. People who go into filmmaking are invariably more social because:

Movies involve many more people whose functions sometimes overlap to an alarming degree. I once had a ‘financial controller’ tell me that an actress I had just cast was “too short.” This is because everyone needs to look busy to justify their salaries. Writers and publishers are more likely to own only one handphone per person and be seen lunching alone. This isn’t to say that one group of people is more ‘normal’ than another; they each have their own annoying quirks.

Films are pirated. Books aren’t. This means that books are so unpopular that no one wants to steal them! A blockbuster Malaysian film will sell 800,000 tickets in the first month. A blockbuster local novel (usually a Malay romance) will sell 100,000 in the first three years.

Movies need to be seen by many people in the first two weeks or it would be branded a flop. Even the tiny industry of Malaysia has caught on to the Hollywood mania of measuring first-day ticket sales, which can spark off either envy or 
Schadenfreude in time for next day’s breakfast. Books are allowed a bit more time to ‘build’ an audience, because book people aren’t that much into instant gratification, or are just slow to respond.

When filmmakers get together they tend to ask, “What camera are you shooting on?” rather than any deep, philosophical questions. When book people get together, they tend to ask, “What paper are you printing on?” rather than any deep, philosophical questions.

Movies tend to shift formats. We tend to take it for granted that if we miss it in the cinema, we can catch it on TV or buy the (usually pirated) DVD later. Books tend to stay in the same format, aside from minimal cosmetic changes (hardcover to paperback, different editions, new covers). Audiobooks never really caught on, at least in this part of the world. Perhaps the biggest ontological shift will come from those e-readers, when we can afford them. Perhaps the only big format shift associated with books is the alchemical process whereby they are transformed into … movies. The Bible is probably the most adapted book by now; the author must be rolling in royalties!

Among the more conservative families, marriage to someone “in the film industry” is not encouraged, as film people are supposed to be lacking in morals. Among the more commercial families, marriage to someone “in the book industry” is not encouraged, as book people are supposed to be lacking in money.

Movies have to undergo a regimented form of censorship. You even need a permit to start shooting. You don’t need permission from anybody to publish a book in Malaysia. You don’t even need to set up a company; you can do it as an individual. When a documentary of mine (
The Last Communist) got banned, someone asked a Cabinet Minister why the book that I got the facts from (Chin Peng’s My Side of History) was not banned. His reply: “Not many people read books in Malaysia.” Since this is a guy who has written several books himself, I assume he was speaking from bitter experience. This isn’t, of course, to say that books never get banned, just that they are easier to produce and sell, at least initially. This is actually an exciting creative opportunity, but many publishers still choose to self-censor themselves to an absurd degree.

The internet has altered the way both industries operate. People watch trailers online and get so excited that they rush to the cinema. (Most of us don’t have connections that are speedy or reliable enough to download entire films.) By contrast, people spend so much time reading their many friends’ Status Updates online that they can’t be bothered to then read books.

Cinema staff tend to know about the films playing. They can even make recommendations. One hilarious example was when an usher tried to dissuade a bunch of us from watching a local action flick even after we’d bought tickets. The staff at chain bookshops, alas, can’t say much about their wares. And we really don’t have enough non-chain bookshops. People who staff independent bookshops are more informed about books, but are somehow grumpier!

The final word must go to festivals. People who go to film festivals are there to watch films. You can watch up to five films a day. As a bonus, you may get to meet the filmmakers and cast. Whereas people who go to writers’ festivals are there to watch writers. It would be a bonus to the writer if his or her book had also been read. But this is difficult, because it might take five days to read. So, in an odd way, book people are here more ‘social’ than film people, after all.

Which is another way of saying: perhaps these differences between two media are all contingent and temporary. It’s the stories that are told that will be remembered long after celluloid and pages have turned to similar-looking dust.


Fasyali Fadzly said...

saya suka artikel ini..

Amir Muhammad said...

Terima kasih Vitamin. Dan saya suka deskripsi diri anda.

M.Zul said...

great piece. i didn't want it to end :)

Anonymous said...

what i like abt reading u is u always get me to chuckle (lol in young people speak). and you make me think of deep, philosophical things on top of the chuckle.

wish i could read yr book or watch yr movie. wishful thinking, just like my wishing i could go to black eye(d) peas concert.

what i get to do is read yr article in the API proceedings instead. and i was thinking that was cheating writing because you got to paste people's review of yr movie :)


Obefiend Weiland said...

malaysian don't read much says the minister

well he is wrong. more and more people are reading now. we are learning and improving. its this kind of sweeping statement is what makes such minister increasingly out of touch with the average malaysian

Unknown said...

Salam revolusi,

ini ulasan untuk film the tree, harap dapat menjawab satu soalan aku..

kak norah joned said...

omygood you are spot on.

so which one are you?


how many handphones do you have in your pocket now?

I'd better not ask that question to anyone in person in case i got confused :P

Anonymous said...

You are so right about how people who staff independent bookshops are grumpier. When I was a student, I used to go to this well-known bookshop that used to be in Brickfields and the man behind the counter was grumpy as hell. He is certainly well-informed but his behaviour is so off putting that he might as well not be!

Unknown said...

..salam Ramadhan, Amir...who says writers are poor? ..take Rowling..and I couldn't bring myself to read her books..

Amir Muhammad said...

I read her first 4 books and enjoyed 'em! Was happy to make her a bit richer.

Amir Muhammad said...
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