Infrastructure woes frustrate Indonesian film sector

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SYDNEY -- To call the Indonesian film production sector vibrant is something of an understatement. To call it booming is undeniable.

By any measure the growth of indigenous production in the last three years has been exponential. In the decade since the fall of former dictator Suharto and the establishment of an open and capitalist society, Indonesian filmmakers have built up their films and their audiences so that now home-grown movies are competing head to head with imports at the boxoffice. Nowadays, there aren't enough commercial screens to handle the number of Indonesian films made each year.

A snapshot of the Indonesian film industry's growth is cause for envy. Production is up 100% this year, with 100 home-grown films set for release in 2008, up from the 50 released in 2007. Growth will slow a bit next year, with industry estimates eyeing 150 releases in 2009.

This growth over two years is meteoric by any measure, especially considering that from 1993 to 2001 just a handful of local Indonesian films were released each year and the market was swamped with imports. Indonesian films now boast a market share of 55-60% of the local boxoffice.

Pitched at mostly younger audiences, romantic comedies, horror films and religious-themed movies are currently the most popular of the commercial genres. Production is dominated by a number of larger companies whose mainstay up to now has been television.

Indeed, it could be argued that TV has fuelled the rise of mass market cinema in Indonesia. The number of TV stations in the country exploded in the 1990's from one to 10. To fill their program-hungry schedules, TV executives resorted to a diet of soap operas, which proved so lucrative for the production companies and they began investing in film production.

One of the top five production houses, Multivision Plus, headed by Raam Punjabi, who is also president of the Indonesian Film and TV Producers Assn., has made around 5,000 hours of TV a year and now also produces an annual slate of 12 films for theatrical release. The bulk of Indonesian films, both large commercial films and the smaller independent features, are all privately financed.

But there's a paradox at work: while film production is booming and moviegoers are growing in number, annual cinema admissions of nearly 12 million tickets sold represent less than 5% of Indonesia's nearly 240 million people.

According to film producer and director Robin Moran, the sophistication and socialization of Indonesian moviegoers is not as developed as it is in the West. Also evident in recent years is an increasing divide between the Indonesian films that are critically successful and those that make a profit.

"We're in flux right now," says Moran. "Everyone thinks that they have a new toy and there's money to be made but not all understand the process and finessing of films."

Veteran actor and director Deddy Mizwar says that Indonesia lags India and Korea in the quality of its films because producers regularly underestimate the public's tastes.

"In general, we're no better off than 10 or 11 years ago," Mizwar told the Jakarta Post earlier this year after receiving the MTV Indonesian movies lifetime achievement award. "Entertainment taxes, outdated film production technology, a small number of theatres and a lack of education institutions to train people in the industry -- they're the same problems that film was struggling against years ago."

Other independent filmmakers echo Mizwar's concerns.

Adds Parama Wirasmo, the producer of "Fiksi," which will screen in competition at the Pusan International Film Festival: "Critical acclaim doesn't mean commercial success here."

Described as an Indonesian retelling of "Alice In Wonderland," "Fiksi," which was released in June, hasn't made much at the boxoffice despite strong reviews.

Punjabi says there's not enough attention to script development in popular films. While the diversity of subject matter is there, there's a distinct lack of variety in storytelling styles.

"Our biggest weakness is good scriptwriting and we're trying hard to find different themes in our films," he says.

Others say that Indonesian films are being packaged too quickly and marketed prematurely. The 10th annual Jakarta International Film Festival is hoping to address that issue in Dec. by highlighting film promotion and marketing.

Nevertheless, the success of a number of key films in the last few years and the fact that they're being seen by people in greater numbers than ever before can't be discounted.

When released earlier this year, the modern Muslim romance, "Ayat Ayat Cinta" (Verses of Love), sold over 5 million tickets, breaking all Indonesian film boxoffice records to date. Despite being billed by some critics as a melodrama, the film by 32-year old Hanung Bramantyo, was a "fresh snapshot of a young modern Indonesian society," says Indonesian academic Arial Heryanto at Melbourne University.

Dealing with issues of tolerance, faith and contemporary youth and Islam in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, "Ayat" quickly became a pop culture phenomenon.

The success of films like "Ayat Ayat Cinta" aside, "the industry is really in its infancy," says Moran. Even with strong growth, Moran wonders if producers will be daring enough to push the medium where it needs to go.

"Rather than quick consumption we need to be more developed as an industry so we can get to a level like the industries in Thailand and Korea," he says.
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