Southeast Asian film sector a study in contrasts

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Southeast Asia's film industry is split on what to do next for local filmmakers who are, with a few exceptions, mostly struggling, almost always underfunded and often constrained by censorship.

For many, solutions lie in cross-border cooperation and especially financing. More often than not, however, producers focus on China, including Hong Kong, rather than form alliances with their closest neighbors.

Working with China makes more commercial sense than targeting Singapore and hoping for the best elsewhere, says Mediacorp Raintree Pictures CEO Daniel Yun. For instance, a film such as Hong Kong director Tung-Shing Yee's "Protege" could make $9 million in China compared to the $2.7 million that last year's hit, "I Not Stupid Too," made at home in Singapore.

Despite everything the region has in common, many producers and directors say that Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) alliance is a geographic and political convenience that has no bearing on filmmakers, what they do or how they think.

Moreover, many believe that efforts to create a louder voice and higher profile for Asian film on the international stage by forcing alliances are doomed to failure.

"There is no such thing as Southeast Asian film," says controversial Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad, whose 2006 film "The Last Communist" about the exiled leader of the outlawed Communist Party of Malaya remains banned in his country. Muhammad says Southeast Asian filmmakers and audiences "have no common language and no common style of filmmaking. The films don't travel from one country to another."

Not so, says Tito Velasco, the Manila-based COO of Unico Entertainment in the Philippines. "I believe the rest of the region has so much more depth in character still to be explored," he says.

But all agree it's not happening yet. As much as Velasco believes in a united front for Southeast Asia's filmmakers, Kevin Lee of Singapore-based One Ton Cinema says it's an "uphill battle" that depends, among other factors, on economics beyond the film industry's control. What he would really like to see is a European-Union type structure in the region.

One Ton's latest film, "Armful," is a Mandarin-Chinese martial arts action thriller set in Southeast Asia and directed by Thailand's Wisit Sasanatieng. A major challenge in Southeast Asian cross-border alliances is "lack of precedence," Lee adds.

Singapore's top director, Jack Neo, has proved film can travel profitably, and it doesn't have to go as far north as China to find an audience. "The Malaysian market is huge," Neo says. Local Malaysian films can take between $1.2 million and $1.5 million.

Neo believes Singapore and Malaysia should be seen as a combined market. "There are 10 million Chinese people between Singapore and Malaysia," he says. "This is not small. It all depends on how you script your movie."

Neo is less willing to commit to anything more geographically adventurous, although he is attempting to break into the China market again this year with the co-production "I Not Stupid -- China."

"If you don't understand your own market, how can you understand someone else's?," he asks. "I'm not saying don't go anywhere, but recognize how important your local market is."

Recognition is only part of the challenge, says Indonesian director Garin Nugroho, whose "Opera Jawa" won this year's Singapore International Film Festival's Silver Screen Award for Best Film.

"The Southeast Asian film character is small budget and guerrilla," Nugroho says. In this, he says, film mirrors life in the region. "We live in a chaotic atmosphere, full of paradoxes of rich and poor, beauty and violence. We don't have the film funding systems. We are too unpredictable. We have no stability. This is our character."

Following is a territory-by-territory look at how five Southeast Asian film markets are faring.


"Opera Jawa"

INDONESIA

Participation by Indonesia in the Cannes Film Market this year under the Film Producers' Association of Indonesia banner is a significant milestone in the resurrection of a national film industry that all but collapsed in the 1990s.

This doesn't, however, mask the extreme challenges facing filmmakers' low production budgets of between $200,00 and $400,000, the lack of a formal cinema distribution network for local titles, audiences wowed by Hollywood blockbusters and no national filmmaking policy, framework, or quota system to protect the local industry.

In addition, the Indonesian filmmaking revival in the last seven years comes against a dramatically different entertainment environment from the local industry's 1980s heyday. Among competing new attractions for local audiences are 11 free-TV networks.

Additionally, Indonesia's current 395 screens remain a fraction of the 3,000 screens in a country of 246 million people in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There is also no organized distribution system for local films, says Miles Films' Mira Lesmana. "Producers deal directly with the exhibitors. It's very difficult for us," she adds.

About one million admissions indicates commercial success, but without a standard

pricing system, boxoffice figures are difficult to calculate. Producers say a million admissions translates to about $1.3 million.

Fewer than 20 films were produced between 1999 and 2001 as Indonesia faced economic and political meltdown. This is now up to about 40 a year and rising.

The current revival is being led by filmmakers like Garin Nugroho ("Opera Jawa"), Nia Dinata ("Long Road to Heaven"), Riri Riza ("Eliana Eliana") and Joko Anwar ("Joni's Promise").

International funding and distribution has also emerged, not least from companies such as the U.S.-based Teleproductions International Ltd (TPI), which co-produced "Long Road to Heaven," a 120-minute docudrama about the 2002 Bali bombings, with Dinata's Kalyana Shira Films.

The only place "Long Road to Heaven" isn't going is Bali, where authorities have banned its release because "the film is too powerful and might stir up trouble."

"Long Road to Heaven" is part of TPI's global expansion plan that includes opening a production and marketing office in Southeast Asia, says TPI president and executive producer, Larry Higgs.

"Long Road to Heaven" involves an international cast, a location that hasn't been overexposed, a compelling story and an event that was news around the world. These are "key to making feature films in Southeast Asia that will cross borders around the world," Higgs says.

Despite Hollywood's ongoing reign, Lesmana is encouraged by local films' domestic performance. "The local films are taking over the domestic market," she says. Of 40 films made a year, three may be boxoffice hits. "Even if the number is still small, they gather a lot of audience."

Producers have joined forces to lobby the Indonesian government for a more supportive policy. As the number of local films increases, producers are also working on finding a formal distribution system as well as on improving regional and international marketing platforms.

"The indications are there that we can do it... It's just getting the right tools and the right way to do it," Lesmana says, adding "this is only the beginning."


"The Last Communist"

MALAYSIA

Malaysia's film industry has been described as "in transition," with a dynamic new generation of filmmakers and a strong, if informal, support system. But development is still hampered by low budgets and international growth is limited by themes and characters considered too local to travel far beyond neighboring Singapore and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.

Although the government, through the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS), has upped efforts to promote Malaysian film on the international stage, support still falls short of the example set by Singapore's authorities. Finas limits funding to shorts and Malay-language feature films. Directors from Malaysia's other two ethnic groups -- Chinese and Indian -- are excluded from official feature-film financing programs.

Finas reports some regional success, such as 30 Malaysian films at the Hong Kong Filmart this year, up from last year's 20.

Domestically, production and distribution houses are optimistic about industry growth this year. One of the country's three 'studios,' Grand Brilliance, for example, is expecting five to six feature films this year, up from its usual three to four, the company says. Budgets are also up to between $409,000 and $731,000.
 
Malaysia has about 200 screens and boxoffice of about $877,000 is enough to declare a film commercially successful. The big three cinema operators are Golden Screen Cinemas (116 screens), TGV Cinemas (56 screens) and Cathay Cineplexes (28 screens).

Local production budgets of around $409,000 are considered good, says Lee Mee Fung, executive director of indie production and distribution house Red Films, which produced features such as Khoo Eng Yow's "The Bird House" and Bernard Chauly's "Goalposts and Lipsticks."

Censorship remains an issue, although the publicity is not always detrimental.

Earlier this year, Ahmad Idham's $438,000 horror thriller, "Jangan Pandang Belakang" (Don't Look Back for Metrowealth Movies Production) broke local industry records with boxoffice of around $1.9 million.

Much of the "Don't Look Back" buzz followed reports in the local media of "spooky" experiences on the "Don't Look Back" set, and the death of stuntman Nazari Abu Bakar during shooting. This was followed by the censor board's insistence that the movie poster carry a warning that the film was not suitable for pregnant women and those with heart conditions.

For controversial director Amir Muhammad, the current ban on "The Last Communist," about the exiled leader of the outlawed Communist Party of Malaya, is a "temporary inconvenience."

"It's unfortunate that local audiences cannot see 'The Last Communist' legitimately, but that shouldn't be a deterrent," he says.

Digital formats have been a major influence on developing young talent in Malaysia, says Wong Tuck Cheong, who heads Kuala Lumpur's Film Society. At the same time, small, low-budget digital films "sometimes hold us back," Lee says.

FINAS expects 31 Malaysian films to be produced this year. Although horror takes top billing, new releases cover a broad range of genres, including everything from Amir Muhammad's mystery "Susuk," produced by Grand Brilliance's new arthouse division, to Bernard Chauly's coming-of-age adventure-drama "Goodbye Boys."

Indie filmmakers are encouraging the domestic industry to chart a more organized development path.

"We need to take a really serious look at domestic filmmaking and where it can go," Lee says. "Our digital films do very well in festivals, but we need to develop bigger films that can travel further. They can still be beautiful films, but for a wider audience."




"Inang Yaya"

PHILIPPINES


Philippines filmmakers have a lot to celebrate this year in Cannes, with Dante Mendoza's "Foster Child," based on a real government program for foster children, is part of the Directors Fortnight.

Chito S. Rono's horror film "Sukob" (2006), for instance, took $4.2 million at the boxoffice, making it the highest earner in Philippines history. Wenn Deramas's comedy, "Your Mom is Cute," released over Easter this year, crossed the $3.2 million mark by the end of April.

At home, local boxoffice is up 40% after dropping steadily for about six years.

Christine Dayrit, chairman of the Film Development Council of the Philippines' Cinema Evaluation Board and the Philippines International Film Festival Committee, attributes the increases to better local features. "We believe quality sells," she says.

There's another reason: taxes, or rather amusement tax concessions for films that receive an "A" rating for originality, artistic endeavor and effort. A "B" rating involves waiving 65% of the amusement tax.

"Right now producers are becoming more aware that there has to be a marriage of art and commerce," Dayrit says.

The Philippines boxoffice is worth between $40 million-$50 million a year. There are 654 screens, including 365 in Metro Manila, with the remaining 289 scattered throughout the rest of the country.

Still, cinema attendance is dismal, with only 6.5% of Filipinos going to movie houses, according to a study in June last year by the Film Development Council. A total of 77% prefer to watch films on TV, the study found.

And that's not the worst of it. The top three issues facing filmmakers in the Philippines are taxes, incentives and piracy, says Tito Velasco, Unico Entertainment's chief operating officer.

Unico, part of Unitel Entertainment, is among the new forces driving Philippines moviemaking, with features such as "Inang Yaya" ("Mother Nanny"), about a mother torn between her daughter and her ward, and Ato Bautista's psycho-thriller, "Blackout," set for a June 2007 release.

If audiences at home are not that interested, there's a concerted effort to raise the country's profile abroad, with higher participation in markets rather than just festivals.

Velasco says local filmmakers, despite varying degrees of success, have not yet matched the impact internationally of director Lino Brocka, who died in 1991.

With "Foster Child" in the Directors' Fortnight, Dayrit is optimistic. "Even if Lino Brocka and (director Ishmael) Bernal are gone, the Filipino film industry is alive," she says.


"Gone Shopping"

SINGAPORE

Faced with mostly dismal box office at home, local filmmaking eyes in Singapore have turned to China and relationships with Hong Kong-based partners that will allow Singapore films to side-step draconian Mainland foreign film quotas.

China/Hong Kong co-productions are flowing at the moment. These include Jack Neo's "I Not Stupid - China," about the pressures faced by Chinese children, and "Taller than Yao Ming," the story of an 11-year-old who dreams of going to Beijing to play basketball with NBA superstar Yao Ming.

Mediacorp Raintree Pictures chief executive, Daniel Yun, says China offers the kind of returns unlikely anywhere else in the region, including at home.
Yun expects one of this year's films, "Protege," to take $9 million in China. In comparison, the highest grossing film in Singapore last year, Jack Neo's "I Not Stupid Too," grossed $2.7 million.

And that's way ahead of anyone else. The closest any local filmmaker came to Jack Neo's boxoffice last year was Woo Yen Yen and Colin Goh's "Singapore Dreaming," which cost $524,000 to make and grossed $297,000, according to figures collected by the government-backed Singapore Film Commission.

At the same time, Hollywood continues to reign, with "Spider-Man 3" recording the biggest opening day ever in Singapore's film history, taking in $671,000 on May 1. Distributor Buena Vista Columbia TriStar Films (Singapore) Pte Ltd says this was 31.9% greater than "Spider-Man" and 52.1% greater than "Spider-Man 2."

Elsewhere, cinema attendance in 2006 was 15.6 million, up from the previous year's 15.1 million. Figures this year are expected to be higher as the full impact of last
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