Indonesia is a paradise of possibilities when it comes to filmmaking. Boasting rich cultural traditions, centuries of fascinating history and a dynamic political landscape, the country seems an ideal environment for spawning world-class films.
With local wonder “The Raid: Redemption” on its way to racking up more than $4 million at the North American market, one can only wonder what took Indonesia so long to reach a commercial international breakthrough on this scale.
Indonesian and international filmmakers attempted to answer this question and others in a recent workshop in Jakarta, titled “Bringing Indonesian Films to the International Market.” The event was a collaboration between the Indonesian Contemporary Art & Design festival and the Motion Picture Association Asia-Pacific, featuring A-list professionals from the film industries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and the United States.
With a yearly turnover of $845.1 million and employing a workforce of 491,800 people, Indonesia’s film industry is not to be underestimated.
It has been 10 years since the so-called Indonesian film revival, marked by the 2002 blockbuster hit “Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?” (“What’s Up With Love?”). Since then, Indonesia has given birth to Academy Award submissions such as Nia Dinata’s “Ca-Bau-Kan” (2002) and “Berbagi Suami” (“Love For Share,” 2006), Riri Riza’s “Gie” (2005), John de Rantau’s “Denias” (2007) and Deddy Mizwar’s “Alangkah Lucunya” (“How Funny,” 2010). While none of these were ultimately nominated, some made it to international festival screens, and earned other film awards.
With “The Raid” now achieving the revered goal of going international by breaking into the North American market, other Indonesian filmmakers are filled with hope that their own films could follow suit. But the obstacles hindering Indonesia’s international recognition are not only outside the country, but inside it as well.
Challenges Along the Way
At the workshop last month, various professionals revealed that the Indonesian film industry lacks many supporting structures, making it a tough industry for new talents to break into and survive in.
TV film producer Chand Parwez said that Indonesian laws lacked protection for intellectual property rights, that job security in the film industry was low, and that there was great inequality in the distribution of wealth and infrastructure.
Shanty Harmayn, who in 2011 produced “Lima Elang” (“Five Eagles”) and “Sang Penari” (“The Dancer”), said that Indonesia had much to learn from Malaysia, whose local film industry is growing rapidly. The Malaysian government has initiated
FINAS, the National Film Development Corporation of Malaysia, to support its growth at home and abroad.
Malaysia has government regulations that offer incentives for film production, such as financing and tax deductions, and film education is taken more seriously, resulting in a better quality industry.
“There are many priorities that the [Indonesian] film industry and government need to sort out, and sometimes we just don’t know where to start,” Shanty said.
Shanty added that she and producer Mira Lesmana often called each other to get referrals for scriptwriters or actors, only to find that the ones they wanted to work with were booked up months in advance.
For director Joko Anwar, another problem in the industry is the small number of talent-scouting agencies and film events. This means that filmmakers spend a lot of their energy marketing and promoting own their work. “With an agent system, filmmakers and other talent have someone to do the marketing for them, because while [these professionals] may be very good at what they do, not all of them are good at marketing themselves,” Joko said.
The time and energy a professional spends on marketing may also be spent focusing on the professional’s “real work,” such as acting, designing, scriptwriting or directing.
Joko added that while Indonesia needed international benchmarks, there were plenty of opportunities for international recognition outside Hollywood, including “commercial” theater screenings in other countries within the region, and participation in festivals.
Indonesia has many subjects that would make for good films, but they are not necessarily Hollywood material. Even the first 20 minutes of the “The Raid” had to be cut in order for it to make sense to audiences outside of Indonesia, because international distributors considered it difficult to relate to non-Indonesian audiences. The scenes that followed, however, were just what action movie buffs all over the world were looking for.
Maya Barrack Evans, executive producer of “The Raid,” said action was a genre that travels well across cultures because it required neither much language for communication, nor complex storylines to keep the audience interested. Action filmmakers can just “let the picture speak for itself,” Maya said.
“The Raid” presented an ideal opportunity to introduce Indonesian martial arts to the world. Throughout its production, there was plenty of room for creatively exploring different styles, including traditional Indonesian pencak silat and modern tarung derajat, as well as Israeli krav maga and Korean judo.
Not only did this help Indonesians affirm their heritage before the world, but it also presented a competitive advantage that made the film stand out from other martial arts films.
The key to a film’s international success, according to Maya, was to “believe in the film, make it a good production with no regrets, and deliver the best.”
Michael Werner, co-chairman of the Hong Kong-based distributor Fortissimo Films, said that there was no specific formula for selling a film internationally. “Take chances. Sometimes you get it right, but a lot of times you get it wrong. Be as intelligent as you can be, and pick movies you believe in,” he said.
Werner’s company prefers films with universal themes such as family relationships or impending death, as they travel more easily. He said that comedy is the most difficult genre to sell internationally because it depends on local context. However, when humorous elements are inserted to films that serve as social commentaries on universal issues, funny films are also likely to perform well internationally.
Without adequate supporting structures, Indonesian filmmakers have to be creative in developing feasible business models that international distributors and exhibitors can take a chance on. Many filmmakers look overseas for funding and, when possible, establish international co-productions with other countries.
Business models work out differently for different kinds of films. Commercially appealing children’s films and romantic comedies tend to attract corporate investors. Art house and human interest films tend to attract grants from foundations, interest groups and film festival academies. And then there’s crowd-funding, which allows the general public to financially contribute to the film. Either way, producers and directors have tremendous responsibilities to their investors.
“You need to practice professionalism and due diligence. Implement a good reporting system that very clearly shows whether [the film is] making money or losing,” Shanty advised. “Investors share in the risk to make our films, so it’s our responsibility to manage their funds.”
Producer Mira and director Riri, who were credited for ushering in the 2002 Indonesian film revival, said that there was hope for the Indonesian film industry.
“‘The Raid’ had a big audience. This lifts up our spirits. There is always great potential,” Mira said.
“Respect this medium and do whatever you need to ensure that your film becomes good. Films that work internationally need to have a good story. Focus on writing a good story, have something for your audience to identify with, and hope it appeals to a wide audience,” Riri said.
A Happy Ending?
Mira and Riri are currently collaborating on the upcoming film “Atambua 39 Derajat Celsius,” a story about East Timorese refugees living in Atambua, West Timor, with their fates in limbo due to unresolved issues with the political referendum. While a film like this may not become a Hollywood sensation like “The Raid” and will have to compete against more “commercially appealing” films for an audience, there are high expectations that “Atambua” will touch the hearts of audiences through international festivals.
Indonesia has many more moving stories waiting to be told on film screens throughout the world. The world is now waiting to see who will be able to rise against the odds and make it happen.