When China's cinema construction boom finally reaches its saturation point, bet on Hollywood distributors to begin targeting the Southeast Asian region more aggressively: "Continuing multiplex development is providing new growth opportunities"
With a population of 620 million (nearly double that of the U.S.), rapidly developing infrastructure and an expanding middle class, Southeast Asia is poised to become a major region for moviegoing.
“Continuing multiplex development in territories across Southeast Asia is providing new growth opportunities,” says Rance Pow, founder and president of box-office analysis and cinema consulting company Artisan Gateway. “[We] are very bullish on Hollywood in Southeast Asia.”
It is one of the most diverse corners of the globe, which is reflected in the varying stages of development of the region’s film industries — from the rural hinterlands of Laos (where just two to three movies are made each year) to the gleaming modern cosmopolis that is Singapore (home to the local corporate outposts of Disney and Netflix); from raw underdeveloped market potential to globally integrated production prowess. What unites the region's communities is a sense of forward momentum.
Southeast Asia's more-developed countries continue to make their voices heard on the festival circuit — Thai Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul is back in Cannes — and cinema construction in the developing markets is beginning to pad returns for Hollywood, while also buoying budgets and production potential of local studios. Plus, the region's stunning locations are attracting such foreign shoots as Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians (Singapore and Malaysia). Here’s a closer look at five key countries where the filmmaking energy is palpable.
For years, Vietnam was perceived as a challenging place for international film productions to work. Limited industry infrastructure and a nebulous government approvals process meant that the country’s many stunning locations often were passed over. But a Hollywood heavyweight — Legendary and Warner Bros.’ Kong: Skull Island, which shot in Vietnam for six weeks — has helped the territory turn a corner.
“Kong opened the doors in a lot of ways,” says Nicholas Simon, head of leading Southeast Asian company IndoChina Productions, which was instrumental in getting the big-money feature to shoot in the country and also line-produced the project. “Having a tentpole come and go with everyone reporting a positive experience has been a real game-changer for the international industry’s perceptions of Vietnam and also for the Vietnamese government’s perception of how movies can benefit them. It’s been a real point of pride for the country.”
Since Kong’s release last year, several high-profile international film projects have set their sights on Vietnam. More than 90 percent of French period romance film To the Ends of the World (Les confins du monde), starring Gerard Depardieu and premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, was shot over six weeks in the country’s far north in 2017. Next up will be Moonsoon, a film from writer-director Hong Khaou (Lilting), starring Henry Golding, the star of Warner Bros.’ forthcoming Crazy Rich Asians. The film, about a British-Vietnamese man who returns to Saigon to discover his heritage, began shooting in the country this spring.
It's hard to picture a more unlikely location for a world-class film festival than Laos. The small, developing Southeast Asian nation produces just three or four films a year and is home to only three working cinemas. And yet, the Luang Prabang Film Festival, held in the country’s UNESCO World Heritage town in the shadow of ancient Buddhist temples, has become Southeast Asia’s preeminent homegrown cinematic event, staking out a position loosely akin to a mini Sundance for the region.
“When we began the festival nine years ago,” says LPFF founder Gabriel Kuperman, “we were the only festival in the world dedicated exclusively to Southeast Asian cinema, so we wanted to fill that niche and give the region’s many talented filmmakers an attractive platform and all of the other important industry functions that film festivals provide.”
Last year’s LPFF attracted some 22,000 attendees and featured an expanded lineup of 32 features, four programs of shorts, exhibitions and performances, gala dinners and parties and a talent lab hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute.
In 2017, the LPFF helped Laos also establish a committee to make its first submission to the Oscars’ best foreign-language film category, putting forward horror-thriller Dearest Sister by Laos-American director Mattie Do. “That was a real point of pride for the Laos film industry,” Kuperman says, “and it was nice to show the world that there’s a growing film community here.”
Easily the region’s most mature market for entertainment, Singapore is home to the regional headquarters of entertainment giants like Lucasfilm, HBO and Netflix; the territory also boasts one of the highest per-capita cinema attendance rates in the world at 4.2 visits a year. But box office, and media consumption generally, are no longer growing: total ticket revenue in the country has hovered at about $150 million for the past five years, according to Artisan Gateway. Many of the territory’s most forward-looking production companies, then, are venturing outward.
“Singapore is becoming a great hub, because localization and co-production are becoming such a huge thing in Asia now,” says Frank Smith, CEO of IFA Media, which recently co-produced HBO Asia’s first original series for Taiwan, Teenage Psychic. With Netflix, Amazon, iFlix and other streamers hungry for Southeast Asian content to help them carve out market-share, there is growing demand for Singapore’s cosmopolitan production savvy mixed with localized market knowledge.
Says Smith: “There is more experience with the international TV and movie industries here, so it’s easier for us to work between two mindsets — you can understand what Netflix and HBO’s expectations are in terms of quality while also gauging what a local audience in, say, Malaysia actually wants. Being able to speak both languages is a huge advantage.”
Warner Bros. summer release Crazy Rich Asians, most of which is set in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia, is certain to give the city-state a new place in the global popular imagination, too.
Southeast Asia’s sole representative at Cannes this year is the omnibus feature Ten Years Thailand, a local remake of the hit Hong Kong political dystopia Ten Years from 2016. Following the template set by the Hong Kong original, Ten Years Thailand is comprised of four shorts by four directors, each depicting an Orwellian vision of how things in their country might go horribly awry one decade down the road. And just as Ten Years explored the simmering political tensions of Hong Kong — namely Chinese communist party encroachment on the city’s freedoms — Ten Years Thailand broaches its own local predicament: namely, the unelected military dictatorship that has ruled the country since 2014’s coup. The shorts include Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Song of the City, which revolves around a man’s attempt to sell a “sleep machine;” Aditya Assarat’s Sunset, about a soldier dispatched to inspect an art show; Chulayarnnon Siriphol’s Planetarium, a fantastical satire of Thailand’s elites; and Wisit Sasanatieng’s Catopia, a horror-tinged allegory about cat people preying upon humans.
Assarat, who also produced the collection, says the film is an especially overt expression of the political undercurrent that has become common to contemporary Thai cinema. “It’s become quite difficult to make any kind of film that doesn’t touch on politics at least a little bit,” he says. “Even if it’s a genre film, it’s probably going to have some kind of angle on the political situation, because it’s something that touches every part of our lives and is always there in our minds.” For a mainstream critical take on Thailand’s inequities, look no further than 2017 teenage blockbuster Bad Genius, which earned about $50 million worldwide. The critically acclaimed film, directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya, follows the story of under-privileged scholarship students who are induced by the children of elites into participating in a test-rigging scheme to survive in the country’s semi-corrupt education system.
Nowhere is the mounting market potential of Southeast Asia more evident than Indonesia. Not only does the country boast a population of 262 million people — ranking it fourth in the world — but its citizenry is exceptionally young, with a median age of 28 (compared to 38 in the U.S.), a boon for entertainment consumption. Hollywood has eyed such demographics hungrily for years, but low disposable income and limited exhibition infrastructure had always been limiting factors.
Today, Indonesia’s film market is finally turning a corner — and the process appears to be accelerating. Reflecting a growing middle class and expanding cinema construction, Indonesia’s box office grew 60 percent over the past five years, hitting a total of $339 million in 2017 — the most in Southeast Asia by far.
“Indonesian exhibitors have aggressively expanded their presence in the country over the past few years,” says Jerry Ko, head of international film business for South Korean exhibition giant CJ Entertainment, which operates 46 sites with 295 screens in Indonesia. The company’s CGV cinemas sold 15 million admissions in 2017, twice its 2015 total. And Ko says he believes the Indonesian film boom is only beginning: CGV plans to double its current footprint within just two years to 100 sites with 600 screens by the year 2020.
The growing overall box office, fueled mostly by imported Hollywood fare reaching previously underserved consumers, is also boosting local film producers.
“As cinemas are being built, there are more screens and new markets being created to exhibit local content,” Brian Riady, CEO of local exhibition giant Cinemaxx, recently told Indonesian business magazine Globe Asia. “So the market for local films is growing, and that enables local producers to be a little more aggressive in how they market their films and invest in larger projects.”
In 2015, local films represented about 10 percent of tickets sold at Cinemaxx. As of April, local titles represented a third of its ticket sales for 2018.
A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 10 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.