How the Myanmar entertainment industry found its feet

John Lwin, founder and chief executive of Stars & Models International Agency, Myanmar’s first privately-owned modelling agency, believes the future of the country’s entertainment industry will be driven by talent in the theatre.

With demand for more sophisticated levels of local film and entertainment on the rise, Lwin has already discovered and deployed more than 30 local actors and actresses into the industry, around a third of whom have gone on to become A-grade professionals.

Take Myint Myat, for example, currently the highest paid actor in Myanmar. Trained and linked up with the right industry connections by Mr Lwin himself, the 33-year-old Yangon actor rakes in an average of K850 lakh every 15 days for each movie and is now fully booked for movie productions in 2021.

Having spotted and groomed Myanmar’s most popular celebrities, including singer Sai Sai Kham Leng, who has the highest number of social media followers in Myanmar at 8.6 million and local sweetheart Shwe Hmone Yati, Lwin knows a thing or two about the Myanmar entertainment industry.

While things have improved tremendously over the years, he said talent development in Myanmar still has some way to go before catching up with other countries. The Hong Kong action film Line Walker 2, parts of which were shot in Yangon earlier this year, is a good example.

“Even though there were many local stars involved, they only appeared for a few seconds in the final cut. That shows that on an international scale, we are not there yet and need to try much harder,” Lwin told the Myanmar Times during an exclusive interview.

The way he tells it, even though several Myanmar actors and actresses have what it takes to become international stars, most are often held back by having the wrong attitude. “The world of entertainment has changed. Nowadays it’s easy to spot talent on social media and producers no longer tolerate arrogance and sloppiness. So if you keep people waiting, they will replace you.”

“It’s easy to rise to fame these days,” he added. “Anyone can make themselves famous and perfect on the internet. The hard part is maintaining that popularity. That’s why many stars are famous only for 2-3 years, and then they’re gone. They didn’t have the right attitude.”

Nevertheless, Lwin reckons Myanmar-produced movies will be the next big source of entertainment for the country. “The movie industry is already booming now. Even though movies can be very expensive to produce, this industry is very profitable and local actors and actresses can earn a lot of money if they make it as A-grade movie stars,” he said.

Eye for talent

Lwin’s views hold weight in an industry that has dubbed him the godfather of modelling and entertainment. He said this came as a result of his ability to spot talent among the crowd. “I can single out anyone from the roadside and make them famous. A lot of my movie stars were picked out from the roadside.”

One example is up-and-coming actor Aung Ye Lin. “I first spotted him at a teashop in San Chaung Market. He helped me ask for a bottle of water. I just knew from seeing him that first time that he would be a star. So I took him to my agency and trained him. Now he is famous,” he said.

Once the right individuals are selected, they are put through a two-week intensive training program with the agency. When they are ready, the celebrities are then expected to sign a contract with Stars & Models International Agency, usually for 10 years. Typically, the agency takes a 20 percent cut from each celebrity’s earnings over the duration of his or her contract.

“I am well-known in the industry and have a huge network. People seek me out for my recommendations on television and film. One example is Myanmar Idol host Kyaw Htet Aung. He was recommended by me,” he said.

Yet, Lwin has no checklist to assess celebrity hopefuls. He reckons his uncanny ability to pick out the next big stars from the crowd is a gift he was born with. “I can tell by looking at a person’s eyes and mannerisms whether he or she will one day be a star. Some can be beautiful or perfect but will never be stars. It’s an X factor that they must have,” he said.

Diamond in the rough

In fact, Lwin himself was once recruited as a model during his defining years. He left Yangon in the early 90s to pursue his studies in hotel management in Singapore. He was spotted at a bus stop on Orchard Road by Carrie Models International, a local modelling agency. Back then, a single fashion show paid up to S$450, while a TV commercial promised between S$2,000 and S$10,000.

“At the time, I was earning S$25 a day cutting plastic part time at a factory. I didn’t care how much the agency would make from me. I just signed the contract to become a model right away,” he said.

Lwin’s career took off soon after. Before long, he was traveling regionally to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to appear in commercials for big brands like Nescafe and quickly gained recognition in the industry.

In 1995 Lwin was asked to organise a show for Mild Seven in Myanmar. “They booked me for 10 days to recruit the models and manage the show,” he said. Among those selected and trained were Tin Moe Lwin, Eaindra Kyaw Zin, Soe Myat Nandar, Thandar Hlaing and Aye Thaung.

That same year, Lwin moved back to Yangon to open the country’s very first modeling agency. “We were awarded license number 001 for this business by the government. When we put out first ad for those interested to be trained as models, thousands responded,” Lwin recalls. Before long, the agency expanded to training and managing actors and actresses, including Nine Nine and Yamin Ko Ko.

In 1998 Lwin branched into events management, opening Star Event Production, which went on to bag events like music concerts, the L’oreal red carpet galas and Myanmar International Fashion Week. In 2016 and 2018, Lwin’s agency also helped the government organise and host the Myanmar Academy Awards.

These days though, Lwin, who is now 52, finds himself tiring of the glamour and spotlight. “I’ve travelled the world and made enough money. Since I never gotten married and had a family, it’s time to find more purpose in life by giving back and helping those in need,” he said.

In recent years, he’s channeling his talents towards campaigning for funds to help the needy, including burn victims, local orphanages and families displaced by the floods. By leveraging his popularity and influence, Lwin also encourages the local celebrity community to donate too.

“In my recent campaign for Mon State, stars like Paing Ta Khon and Moe Hay Ko also came forward to donate. I want to motivate our celebrities to contribute and give back to the country,” he said.

This doesn’t mean he’s retiring from show business though. In fact, Lwin has several other goals he still wants to achieve before slowing down. “I plan to maintain my title as the godfather of this business,” he said. “I also want to be officially endorsed by the government as the best event organiser in the country, with more and more stars from my agency winning the Myanmar Academy Awards.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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