From Singapore to Malaysia: Markets Leading the Expansion of Southeast Asian Cinema

9:30 PM 5/16/2019

by Matt Scott

As major Michael Mann and Spike Lee projects head to Vietnam and a cinema construction boom hits Indonesia, one of the world’s most populous and fastest-developing regions is ready for its moment in the spotlight.

Cannes Spotlight Asia — Publicity — H 2019

The team behind the thriller Nina Wu (Zhuo Ren Mi Mi) had a simple message for the world when asked for their reaction after their pan-Asian production was selected as part of this year’s Un Certain Regard section.

“We want our voice to be heard loud and clear,” was their official statement to The Hollywood Reporter. It’s a sentiment shared by filmmakers throughout Southeast Asia as markets in this wildly diverse region continue to expand and chart new territory in terms of the films they make and how they are making them. Nina Wu is a case in point, tackling challenging subject matter (it’s inspired by the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal) and drawing on the diverse talent pools of Malaysia and Myanmar.

While much of the world’s attention during the past decade has focused on China’s rise, and justifiably so, there has been remarkable growth experienced at the same time by the Middle Kingdom’s neighbors, who, combined, feed the entertainment needs of more than 640 million people.

Domestic box office records are being set across Southeast Asia, more screens are being built, and more people are going to the movies. Major international productions, such as last year’s hit Crazy Rich Asians, which shot in Singapore and Malaysia, have showcased the region’s strengths as a backdrop, while streaming giants Netflix and HBO — both have headquarters in Singapore to oversee production in Asia — are increasingly looking east for subscribers and localized content to diversify their swelling content libraries.

"Southeast Asia has been a region of focus and growing industry interest for the past several years," says Rance Pow, founder and president of leading Asian film research and market intel group Artisan Gateway. "Markets with large populations that are relatively underscreened by more mature market standards represent significant admissions growth opportunities for the film and cinema industries. This also means opportunity for the local creative industry as the filmgoing experience grows in popularity."

Here’s a look into what’s been happening in five major markets that are leading the expansion of Southeast Asian cinema.

  • Singapore

    While the runaway success of Crazy Rich Asians brought global attention to life in modern Singapore (whether that be real or imagined), the local industry continues to punch above its weight for a city of just 5.8 million people. 

    That HBO and Netflix, along with Lucasfilm, have headquartered their Asian operations in the Lion City reflects the fact that — with the support of the local film commission — Singapore has successfully positioned itself as a regional co-production hub.

    While 2018 saw successful runs by locally produced romcoms like Jack Neo’s Lunar New Year hit Wonderful! Liang Xi Mei, there’s an increasing number of filmmakers seeking to cast their net farther, in terms of genre. An example from the past year was Singapore-born director Sandi Tan’s critically acclaimed Netflix documentary Shirkers, about the search for a lost (or stolen) film — it took home Singapore’s first World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at Sundance.

    Looking ahead, a feature billed, intriguingly, as the city-state’s first monster film will be released toward the end of 2019. Circle Line, produced by Singapore-based Taipan Films and directed by J.D. Chua, pits a group of strangers trapped in a train in a tunnel against a monster who also happens to call the tunnel home. It will co-star a VFX and CGI-driven beast brought to life by artist Victor Marin, who has worked with Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro.

    "In Singapore, we have had a lot of success with festival films but not so much in the entertainment genre," says Taipan Films producer Juan Foo. "We are trying to push visual effects in Singapore, so this will show the world what we can do."

    Also in the pipeline for 2019 is Yeo Siew Hua’s Stranger Eyes, a domestic thriller that follows his thriller A Land Imagined, which was named best Asian feature at the Singapore International Film Festival 2018’s Silver Screen Awards.

    Says Foo: "Our domestic market is challenging, but the government is behind the film industry in Singapore, and what’s exciting for us is finding new international partners for our films."

  • Malaysia

    Native son Syamsul Yusof’s horror title Munafik 2, which tapped into the local market’s passion for the paranormal, raked in about $9 million last year to become the highest-grossing Malaysian film of all time — and it has been screening globally via Netflix since the beginning of May.

    In 2018, for the first time, as many as three domestic productions crossed the 30 million ringgits ($7.2 million) barrier, reflecting the healthy state of the industry. The year also featured a number of creative breakthroughs.

    In terms of awards, it was all about Netflix-backed Crossroads: One Two Jaga, a gritty thriller that made it past censors despite the fact that it centers on police corruption. The movie, directed by Namron (he goes by just one name), picked up six Malaysia Film Festival awards, including nods for best film, best director and best actor (Rosdeen Suboh). "This will motivate and inspire me to continue to make films that explore topics like this," the director, in reaction to local press reports about the film’s politically sensitive subject matter, said when picking up his award.

    Crossroads was produced by local industry veteran Joanne Goh’s Jazzy Group, which is attending Cannes in support of director Midi Z’s latest drama, Nina Wu, which will screen in Un Certain Regard. Reflecting Z’s diverse background (he was born in Myanmar and is now based in Taiwan) and Goh’s cross-border ambitions for Jazzy Group, Nina Wu was co-produced with Myanmar Montage Film, Taiwan’s Harvest 9 Road Entertainment and Germany’s River Flow Studio.

    "Crossroads was something different for Malaysia, quite sensitive," says Goh. "But the situation in Malaysia is quite positive. The government has funds for international co-productions, and that is helping us find collaborators. I think the results are being seen with the success of our films."

    The government of Mahathir Mohamad — elected a year ago after the fall of Najib Razak in the 1MDB corruption scandal — seems intent on supporting domestic film. Major state-backed industry developments such as Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios continue to receive support. In November, the facility landed RM100 million ($24.2 million) in government funding as it seeks to lure international productions.


  • Vietnam

    Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s second-most-populous nation, began the year with the unprecedented success of Le-Van Kiet’s Furie, which earned about 200 billion dong ($8.6 million) and made a successful limited run in North American cinemas ($600,000). 

    The thriller — produced, written by and starring Veronica Ngo (Paige Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi) — is the biggest overall earner in Vietnam’s history, outpacing even the global colossus that was Avengers: Infinity War. Furie built on the success of last year’s leading local title, comedy Super Star Super Silly (Siêu Sao Siêu Ng), which pulled in more than 100 billion dong ($4.5 million).

    Vietnam also is emerging as a location that increasingly plays host to major Hollywood productions. Both Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods, for Netflix) and Michael Mann (Hue 1968, for FX) have projects slated to shoot in the country in the coming months.

    "There are so many things going on, and I guess you could say it’s mostly being fueled by Netflix," says Nicholas Simon, executive producer at Indochina Productions, which works extensively in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia. "There are lots of projects [from other studios in] Europe and the U.S. circling. The [Vietnamese] government is supportive, and the local industry has taken off. They have a very healthy feature world now."

    On the opposite end of the production spectrum, along with local actioners like Furie, Vietnamese art house fare continues to make an impact at festivals globally, including the atmospheric Ash Mayfair-directed drama The Third Wife, which premiered in Toronto in 2018 and is slated for a U.S. theatrical release May 15 via Film Movement.

    These are all signs of a market that’s on the move, according to Artisan Gateway’s Rance Pow: "Cinema development and the growing skill and expertise of the local film industry is fueling the expansion of the Vietnam market."

  • Indonesia

    Indonesia is all about big numbers — and big potential. The world’s fourth-most-populous nation — with more than 260 million people, or 80 percent of the U.S. population — at last count offered just 1,700 movie screens across the archipelago. Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board equates that to 0.4 screens per 100,000 people. In the States, there are 14 screens per 100,000 people; and even in China, it’s 1.8.

    But the landscape is changing fast, as the Indonesian government eases restrictions on outside investment in movie houses. The prediction is that the number of movie screens across Indonesia will double to more than 3,000 during the next three years. "We expect significant growth, as both local and international cinema players fulfill that market’s screen capacity potential, and Hollywood, other international imports and local films are participating," says Artisan Gateway’s Rance Pow. Box office numbers are already rapidly rising, with the Indonesia government reporting more than 42 million film admissions in 2017, compared with about 16 million in 2015.

    Last year saw the teen drama Dilan 1990 become the second- largest domestic hit of all time, with attendance of about 6.3 million (which equates to $17.7 million in box office). Three of the five biggest domestic hits of all time have landed in the past three years, and international money is helping fuel a rise in production numbers. One of the biggest local breakouts of 2018 — the action-comedy 212 Warrior  — was a collaboration between Indonesia’s Lifelike Pictures and 20th Century Fox.

    "We make a lot of films, and a lot of these films target the local market, which is great as the industry keeps on growing," says Mouly Surya, whose "satay Western" Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts was put forward as Indonesia’s foreign-language category Oscar hopeful last year.

    "There are a lot of people interested in making film — a lot of new players over the past 10 years," Surya adds. "The concern now is whether they stay in the industry and whether our growth is sustainable."

  • Thailand

    Millions all over the world watched transfixed as the rescue of 12 young footballers and their coach from a flooded cave in northern Thailand played out in summer 2018. 

    Tom Waller was among those glued to the unfolding drama, and the Thai-Irish director will this year bring an adaptation of the remarkable tale to the big screen. Other versions are on the way — including a Netflix-Thai produced miniseries — but Waller’s movie, packaged by CAA’s media finance group and produced by De Warrenne Pictures, will be the first one released.

    "Ours is a Thai film, but one that very much has international elements," says Waller. "There’s been a lot of interest in the fact that we’re making this film. Everyone wanted to make a film about the rescue, [but] because I work internationally, I was able to approach the film from two viewpoints: Thai and Western. It’s not the $70 million version, but we are hoping people take to the story that we have told."

    International productions have regularly used Thailand as a backdrop, all the way back to the days of Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss in 1971, the film that first alerted Hollywood to the iconic Hong Kong star’s talents.

    The Thailand Film Office reported in January that there were 74 international productions shot in the country in 2018 as international producers begin using a recently announced tax rebate of 15 percent, offered to foreign productions that spend more than 50 million baht ($1.6 million) locally.

    On the local front, runaway hit Bad Genius (2017) woke the world up to the Thai film industry’s commercial potential with its universal tale of kids trying to best a corrupt system. It went on to collect about $50 million worldwide. Last year’s biggest domestic hit, the fantasy romance Nakee 2, played to public sentiment too — casting wildly popular TV stars and lifting its plot from a successful small screen series — but it didn’t translate offshore. A co-production between powerhouse studio M Pictures and local broadcaster Channel 3, the film opened only in nearby Vietnam and Cambodia.

    "Most Thai productions are homegrown and financed by the Thai studio system," says Waller. "Bad Genius struck a chord, but I think we all know that there’s no formula for how you make a film that’s going to be a success in China, or elsewhere overseas. But we do have very talented filmmakers and stories that people are interested in hearing."

    This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 17 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.