In the 89-year history of the Oscars, only four Malaysian films have been submitted for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category – Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004), Bunohan (2011), Lelaki Harapan Dunia (2014) and Redha (2016). None of them made it to the final five nominees.

Despite the uptake in submissions of late, this year, the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas) did not submit any entry. The deadline for submissions was Oct 2, and a record 92 countries have entered the race.

Word on the grapevine is that Finas’ decision was due to financial constraints (no official statement was given despite numerous attempts to get one).

Also, the Oscar Selection Committee formed by former Finas director-general, Datuk Kamil Othman in 2015 is said to have been disbanded recently. We were informed that the committee would get back together when necessary.

Kamil explained that during his tenure as DG, he wanted filmmakers to look beyond the local market, as that makes best sense economically.

“If local films couldn’t find an audience here in Malaysia, then the answer for these films was to find its audience outside of Malaysia. This was what I was trying to do at Finas – to open up Malaysian films to the world instead of just hoping for hits at home, which most times are not hits but misses.”

While there is no fee for submission to enter the Oscar race, the chances of getting picked out of more than 80 films seems insurmountable. However, there are steps in place for a country to ensure the possibility of somewhat outshining its competition.

Redha was publicised as Beautiful Pain during its campaign trail in the US, which made it difficult to find online.

The most important one is for the Academy members to actually watch the said film. A country has to be more involved in making sure its film is noticed.

For the campaigning process, a country may end up having to spend somewhere between US$70,000 (RM296,500) and US$2.2mil (RM9.31mil), according to Sridhar Sreekakula, the CEO of Barking Cow Media Group.

Barking Cow was hired by Finas to create awareness for Liew Seng Tat’s Lelaki Harapan Dunia and Tunku Mona Riza’s Redha after Finas submitted the films for the Academy’s consideration.

Sridhar, an American-Indian who has almost 40 years of experience in film distribution, has a wide network of contacts in the United States – which helped to some degree during the campaigning process. But there were other uphill challenges that added to the battle.

He said: “A country has to decide on its entry way beforehand. By October, it would be too late to do much on the campaigning trail.

“There are certain festivals that are crucial to be part of if a country is serious about getting an Oscar nomination. So better pre-planning is important.”

Through his contacts in the US, Sridhar managed to pull strings for various ads to be placed in trade magazines like The Wrap and Variety. There was even a review of Redha in The Hollywood Reporter that came out in November last year after a screening was arranged.

“Months before the Academy Awards even take place, efforts must be made for a film to be seen and heard – be it in the form of a private screening, print advertisements, sending out DVDs to members, workshops, etc. The point is, it has to be seen for it to be in the running.”

Sridhar shared that a film has to play up its uniqueness for it to be memorable. So, it didn’t help any that Redha’s title was changed to the generic-sounding Beautiful Pain. Just Google-search “Beautiful Pain”, and you get anything but information on Redha.

Fortunately, Redha did some things right. The film’s producers were in Los Angeles during the Golden Globe publicity campaign, and it was seen at festivals held in LA like the Second Annual Asian World Film Festival and Los Angeles Awareness Film Festival 2016.

Liew Seng Tat’s Lelaki Harapan Dunia (2014) won the Best Film award at Malaysia Film Festival.

All the four Malaysian films selected for submission so far were winners at the Malaysia Film Festival, which usually takes place in September. Both Bunohan and Lelaki Harapan Dunia were named Best Film in their respective years.

This begs the question, if a film is awarded Best Film in its home country, why isn’t it given the backing it deserves internationally?

This year, the Malaysia Film Festival awarded Adiwiraku the Best Film gong, and yet it has not been given a chance to represent Malaysia. The film, after all, has an inspiring story which deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. On a more positive note, Adiwiraku heads to Tokyo Film Festival this week.

Despite the setback, Sridhar believes in the creative talents in Malaysia. He started Barking Cow in Malaysia five years ago for that very reason.

“Our next project, Destruction Los Angeles, employs seven Malaysia-based companies specialising in visual effects. I believe for a film to succeed, you need a good story, good execution and good distribution.”

And, he said, there are other ways to get back onto the Oscar path.

“There are other categories Malaysian films can compete in: Best Special Effects, Best Screenplay, etc. In order to qualify in these other categories, a film has to have shown in theatres in the United States.

“So, six months before the Oscar starts, you do a theatrical release – four screens in two major cities, Los Angeles and New York – and you qualify for all categories.

“The minimal cost for this to happen is between US$50,000 (RM211,800) and US$70,000 (RM296,500). But, you qualify.”

Puteri Gunung Ledang (2004) was the first film ever sent as an entry from Malaysia for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Kamil agreed. “It’s like this: After millions of ringgit of subsidies and grants for the film industry, it’s only fair to prove to the government that this industry has what it takes in terms of ROI (return of investment).

“We’re not just talking about an Oscar here but all the major awards in Asia. Filmmakers here are always saying they’re good, well, where else can that statement be proved if not at international festivals?”

Perhaps it’s time for Malaysia to aim higher. Our films have travelled to various film festivals around the world, and our filmmakers have won at some of those festivals. So there is no reason for the Oscar to keep escaping us.