Measuring the Heartbeat of Indonesian Film Industry

Originally published on 17 February 2018 at / Translated by Sebastian Partogi

A number of intriguing phenomena can be observed in Indonesian film development throughout 2017. In terms of several indicators, such as the number of screens and audience, our cinematic landscape has grown. The number of films circulated in 2017, however, has seen a decline, albeit in an insignificant magnitude, when compared to 2016. Furthermore, if we see the decline of film circulation in 2017 in terms of audience segmentation, we could interpret the data positively.

In 2017, Indonesia saw the circulation of 121 feature-length (above 60 minutes in duration) films, comprising five documentary and 116 fiction works. Among those titles, four were not screened in conventional cinemas. The four titles comprised three documentary films nominated in the Indonesian Film Festival as well as one fiction film (Sekala Niskala; the Seen and the Unseen), which enjoyed its global premiere in an international film festival before hitting conventional cinemas in 2018. The five titles which did not make it to conventional cinemas within the same year they were released constituted a lesser amount compared to nine titles in 2016.

Film screenings in conventional cinemas remain a reliable measure to gauge the economic impact of Indonesia’s film industry development. We could analyze the magnitude of Indonesia’s conventional cinemas through its geographic, number of screens, ticket pricing fluctuations and, obviously, its number of audiences.

Besides conventional cinemas, Indonesia also has alternative cinemas in the form of cinema cafés which, instead of imposing certain ticket pricing procedures, apply donation schemes to its visitors. Fundamentally, alternative cinemas operate just like conventional ones do in a much smaller scale, as evident from these alternative spaces’ daily audience and screening capacities. However, they are more oriented toward creating cinema culture—which will not be the focus of this essay.

Within this essay, the term ‘conventional cinema’ is used to distinguish them from another emerging trend in Indonesia: paid film streaming services. Throughout 2016, at least six film streaming channels operated in Indonesia, be those accessed through mobile applications or websites.

Prior to 2016, film streaming channels were relegated into the second or third place in the film distribution pecking order, including television and home video. Today, it is no longer the case. Netflix and Amazon have been aggressively acquiring films in various festivals while also help produce these films. While Netflix focuses on providing content in its platform and ignores traditional distribution schemes, Amazon collaborates with cinema chains. The film industry’s playing field is changing.

This essay focuses on the diversity of Indonesia’s film contents in 2017 and not the analysis of the global film industry’s development and change. Rather, explanations on alternative cinemas as well as the adoption of film streaming platforms among Indonesians is required to lay down the context which is affecting, and will affect, the Indonesian film industry. Understanding the diversity of Indonesian film contents becomes important and relevant when placed within that context.

Content diversity, the urge for growth, and the viability of film industry

The film industry requires content diversity—be it in terms of genre, form, style, theme, narrative and other elements—especially in terms of audience age segmentation. Frequently, content diversity also reflects discourse battles. Naturally, content diversity in film industry aims at attracting different audience characteristics. There is, unfortunately, a paucity of analysis on the characteristics of Indonesian film audience, along with a general lack of film studies itself. Meanwhile, industry players tend to use audience numbers as the only tool to gauge a film’s success. Due to so many things at stake, film industry players often find it hard to leave their comfort zone behind.

The film industry commonly tries to repeat the commercial success of certain films by applying their formulaic elements repeatedly. Within the 2009 to 2011, for example, Indonesia saw an uptick of horror films combining comedy and sexual contents, along with rags-to-riches motivational films.

A diversity of Indonesian films in terms of the Film Censorship Board’s audience age target classification had also not changed much as of 2017 when compared to the preceding years.

Despite the above mentioned figures, we could interpret those data as implying a positive atmosphere for the Indonesian film industry as long as it still gives room for diversity amid a narrow content spectrum. At least, the year 2017 showed us interesting things for content diversity wise.

With 116 titles released in 2017 (a decline from 124 titles in 2016), that year’s film industry landscape did not show a significantly increased cinematic diversity from the perspective of audience age classification and genre compared to 2016. A 14 percent increase, however, can be seen from the total audience number of Indonesian films premiered in 2017 to 42.3 million viewers from 37.2 million in 2016.

The increased audience number can be interpreted in two different ways. First, new forms and themes were introduced to Indonesian films released in 2017. Second, the film quality and production value improvements  occurred throughout 2017. Besides the two indicators, marketing strategies—especially the multi-platform utilization precision—obviously played a significant role in boosting the content diversity.

Joko Anwar’s Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slaves, 2017) is one example. Industry players have abandoned the old approach of publishing controversial news items and sensational news as film promotional tools. Therefore, attempts to take risks and leave the comfort zone behind have given way to new approaches for film promotion.

We can also see the above mentioned two trends of 2017 Indonesian film development in terms of genre and thematic characteristics. For instance, 2017 was quite salient with horror films and screen adaptations. A significant change has occurred for the audience number of Indonesian horror films in 2017, when compared to the previous years.

From the above mentioned figure, we can see a sharp increase of horror films’ audience numbers, with more than one million viewers in 2017, with a decline of horror films with less than 100,000 viewers. The percentage of increase of horror film viewers could also be compared to the number of overall film audience in 2017, whereby 24 horror film titles contributed 35 percent to the overall Indonesian film audience figure in 2017.

The phenomenal Pengabdi Setan—which was adapted from an eponymous 1980 film—was not alone in the horror genre films which graced the 2017 Indonesian film scene. After obtaining 550,252 viewers in The Doll (Rocky Soraya, 2016), Hitmaker Studio managed to get 1.22 million viewers for the film’s 2017 sequel The Doll 2 (Rocky Soraya). The sequel managed to get 123 percent more audience than its prequel, which was a very rare phenomenon, especially in the Indonesian film landscape. Rocky, also The Doll series’ producer, got an even larger audience number—1.28 million people—in his film Mata Batin (Inner Eye, 2017), obviously still in the horror genre. Yet another seriously produced horror film called Danur: I Can See Ghosts (2017) by Awi Suryadi obtained 2.73 million viewers.

Screen adaptations—from books, journalistic works, operas, songs and graphic novels—also showed interesting development in 2017. From four titles of such adaptations released that year, Falcon Pictures released Faza Meonk’s Si Juki the Movie: Panitia Hari Akhir (Si Juki, The Movie: the Final Day’s Committee) adapted from a comic book which had previously been available through the internet. It was adapted in an animation format and succeeded in obtaining 642,312 viewers. In the animation films category, this film was a good precedent after the low reception of yet another animation film produced in 2009 by Kalyana Pictures, Infinite Frameworks and Indika Pictures called Meraih Mimpi (Reaching Your Dreams) by Philip Mithchell, which received only 288,862 viewers.

Compared to 2016, the year 2017 saw a declining quantity of screen adaptations. Despite that, the number of viewers of the four screen adaptations in 2017 increased by 60 percent, contributing 36 percent to the overall number of Indonesian film viewers that year.

The positive indicators can also be observed as being evenly distributed across the audience number categories—from above 1 million, between 100 thousand and 1 million as well as below 100 thousand. Whereas in 2016 20 screen adaptation titles obtained less than 100 thousand viewers, in 2017, the figures in that category declined in half.

The growth of screen adaptation titles, along with the increased media adaptation practices, is a very relevant context in which we observe the connections among various sub-sectors in the creative industry, especially between the film and publishing sub-sectors.

Although optimizing the connections among the sub-sectors could possibly boost economic growth, we would like to analyze the connections’ contribution to the upward growth of Indonesian film audience numbers. In 2017, 23 titles of films adapted from published works—two titles more than those released in 2016.

At a glance, besides horror films and screen adaptations, biopic films showed a thematic diversity throughout 2016 and 2017. The films’ narratives were no longer centered on prominent public figures but instead focused on characters on history’s periphery and even those who had been sidelined by history. These films included: Irawan Tanu’s 3 Pilihan Hidup (3 Life Options, 2016) about the Indonesian comedian Kabul Basuki or Tessy, Jujur Prananto’s Boven Digoel (2017) on missionary doctor John Manangsang and Yosep Anggi Noen’s Istirahatlah Kata-kata (Solo, Solitude, 2017) on the Indonesian poet Widji Thukul.

The importance of historic-biopic narrations of these marginalized individuals could not always be explained through the number of audience numbers they had generated. Just as various films outside the biopic-historic genre, films which offer non-mainstream content diversity (outside the classical narrative form), in terms of narration and cinematographic aspects, data on audience numbers rendered less relevant. Rather, their emergence demonstrates that such non-mainstream films still have an audience group.  This is particularly important when we look at films like Istirahatlah Kata-Kata, which has an art house film characteristic, obtaining 52,423 viewers. The same argument can also be applied for Mouly Surya’s Marlina Si Pembunuh dalam Empak Babak (Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, 2017), which obtained 154,596 viewers.

We also saw adolescence-themed films (typically focusing on problems faced by individuals between the age 12 and 21), films such as Edwin’s Posesif (Possessive) and Upi Avianto’s My Generation also provided alternative perspectives by focusing on contemporary teenager issues, while still taking on common adolescent themes such as romance and friendship.

Data from the graphs demonstrated that Indonesia’s film industry grows positively, a condition evident within the last five years. Indonesian films played in conventional cinemas got even more diverse. In 2014, for instance, films produced by production houses outside Java with the production support from regional governments emerged, such as Syahrir Asryad Dini’s Bombe’ from Makassar, South Sulawesi and Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s Cahaya dari Timur (We Are Mollucans) from Ambon, Maluku. Specifically, for Sulawesi since 2014, the island has seen the growth of various production houses which produce films and distribute them through conventional cinema chains.

Besides Sulawesi, alternative films were also born in Yogyakarta and Bandung, West Java. In 2014, Yosep’s Vakansi yang Janggal dan Penyakit Lainnya (Peculiar Vacation and Other Illnesses) produced by Limaenam Films in Yogyakarta, was screened in various conventional cinemas after being globally premiered at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival in 2012.

In 2017, Limaenam Films distributed yet two other films: Istirahatlah Kata-Kata and BW Purba Negara’s Ziarah (Tales of the Otherwords). In 2014, Fourcolours Films produced Eddie Cahyono’s Siti, globally premiered in the Singapore International Film Festival and obtained the Silver Award in the festival’s Best Performance category. The film, initially not intended for Indonesian chain of conventional cinemas, secured the Citra Trophy in the Indonesian Film Festival 2015 for the best film category. Siti was then screened in Indonesian conventional cinemas in 2016. Following Siti, Fourcolours Films released Wicaksono Wisnu legowo’s Turah and Kamila Andini’s Sekala Niskala, both in 2017.

The post-reform era’s increasing freedom to create films in various themes becomes key to Indonesian film industry’s survival after the 1990s era had ended. Content diversity is necessary not only for the film industry’s economic growth, but also remains a factor which determines the sustainability and viability of Indonesia’s film industry and cinema culture.

Speaking about diversity, to this day, A lot of Indonesian films have failed to make it to the conventional cinemas due to various reasons. The most salient one is feature-length documentary films: conventional cinemas still use economic calculations as main considerations for programming and screening slots. Upon looking at the above mentioned data, however, conventional cinemas could still be more flexible in applying their economic calculations, for whatever reason. This argument applies to the case of films from Sulawesi. This kind of flexibility also applies to documentary films.

Documentary films rarely make it to conventional cinemas. This is also due to the fact that the majority of Indonesian documentary makers do not orient themselves toward the commercial interest of drawing audience through conventional cinemas. Instead, the documentary makers have their own circulation network outside the conventional cinemas—be they through communities, film festivals, education institutions or alternative cinemas.

Screenings in conventional cinemas provide an opportunity for documentary films to spread forth their ideas or issues that they advocate reaching a wider public. Furthermore, this can also demonstrate the market potential of documentary films, further boosting the Indonesian film industry’s content diversity.

The above presentation has captured only a small portion of Indonesia’s film diversity. The public commonly evaluates the local film industry’s condition merely through its façade view offered by conventional cinemas as well as festivals, competitions and awards largely covered by local press.

This evaluation method is not wrong but is somehow myopic. In the upstream level, many living spaces also play a role in creating theme, narratives and cinematographic diversity in Indonesian film. Film communities, cinema cafés, film education institutions along with non-conventional business entities supported by the latest technological breakthroughs, all support the creation of diversity.

Local film productions—with limited circulations—have emerged in a number of regions. Based on a research by Makbul Mubarak, lecturer of Multimedia Nusantara University Film and Television Lecturer, some feature-length films have been produced in Aceh. The amount of films produced in the region had been estimated to reach the hundreds.

The forecast was made based on 60 film titles produced and distributed in Aceh and has not covered the province’s entire area. Aceh has also two film production centers putting out films in both Acehnese and Gayo languages. Preliminary analysis presumed that film production had flourished in Aceh since 2006—two years after tsunami had hit the area in 2004—as a way for locals to cope with their trauma associated with the disaster and enjoy entertainment (to date, Aceh has no cinemas). Therefore, the films have been circulated in DVDs or home video formats. Local film productions as an audiovisual aesthetic expression with local language and content also occur in places such as Singkawang and Pontianak, West Kalimantan.

The peripheral production mode takes on various forms, which has currently not reached its optimum state. A number of upstream strengthening efforts—through film communities, cinema cafés and film connoisseur groups, for instance—has been done intensively along with enhancements on the downstream level, involving conventional cinemas and internet-based circulation system establishment.

Discussions on content diversity still rest upon its correlation with the growth and sustainability of the film industry. We have not reached a point where we could come up with a content diversity that could steal the global film scene’s attention, which should cover identity diversity and representations of various social groups, especially on members of the gender and racial minorities as well as cultural appropriation.

The content diversity form will ultimately determine the sense of belonging that Indonesian film audience has toward the local film industry and this definitely carries an economic value. The emergence of locally produced films in local languages with limited circulation could also be seen as a gap between Indonesian film producers and the diverse general public. This situation has to be addressed amid the changing global film landscape.