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Hoping for a pleasant surprise

With the number of moviegoers seeming to decline over the past two years despite a steady number of film productions, is it time to sound the alarm?

Asked about the last Indonesian movie she had watched in a cinema, Endah Setya paused for a moment, trying to recall the title.

“Ah, it was Ketika Cinta Bertasbih 2 [When Love Worships, locally known as KCB]. I remember watching it with my relatives after an Idul Fitri open-house,” Endah said, referring to the romance-religious drama, the second installment of Chaerul Umam’s film released in 2009.

The Western-movie lover admitted she rarely watched Indonesian movies since they were so forgettable. “Local movies offer similar themes. No big surprises,” she says.

In the past two years, it seems that the number of moviegoers watching local films has started to decline despite the steady number of film productions. In 2008, local filmmakers produced 89 films, 84 films in 2009, 86 in 2010 and 86 last year.

Head of Bina Nusantara International School of film program, Tito Imanda, comfirmed the trend, pointing out data from a film portal initiated by film critics JB Kristanto and Lisabona Rahman, which showed that in 2008 children’s film Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Warriors) booked the highest recorded audience of more than 4 million viewers, followed by Ayat-ayat Cinta (The Verses of Love), which catered to more than 3 million viewers.

Movies released in the following year still drew solid audiences, but the numbers significantly dropped in 2010, with only Hanung Bramantyo’s epic flick Sang Pencerah (The Enlightener) drawing around 1.2 million moviegoers.

Last year, there was no single movie that reached an audience of 1 million viewers, not even the critically acclaimed Sang Penari (The Dancer).

Emotional drama Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan (A Small Letter to God) surprisingly garnered the largest
audiences, drawing more than 740,000 viewers, followed by horror flick Arwah Goyang Jupe Depe (Jupe Depe’s Dancing Spirit), which attracted more than 720,000 people.

Tito pointed out there are different kinds of genres out there, not just the usual cheap horror flicks, but there’s no formula to trace whether a movie is considered sellable.

“Take Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan. People knew little about the director, while the only popular actor is Alex Komang. I think many people went to see the movie basically because it is an adaptation of a popular book of the same title.”

The film is based on a true story and is written by two online bloggers in their personal blog. “I heard the book sold 350,000 copies. Let’s assume the readers took one or two friends each to watch the movie version, so it makes sense the film achieved more than 740,000 viewers,” Tito says.

The fact is that with only 600 cinemas around the country, there are not enough to accommodate all imported and local films.

A film that does not attract an audience on the first day will usually be dropped by the cinema shortly after it is released.

Therefore, Tito said people working in the business often hold a routine Kamisan, literally meaning every Thursday — referring to the day of local movie releases, to watch every good Indonesian movie.

“The habit is aimed at boosting a movie’s viewership figures on the first day in the hope the theater will not drop the film just because it has very small audiences,” he said.

For film lovers, big names of cast and crew do not necessarily mean much.

“Take Ayat-ayat Cinta. Famous director Hanung Bramantyo is the man behind the screen, but for me, the religious movie [which is based on Habiburrahman El Shirazy’s celebrated novel] is disappointing since it only highlights the polygamy while the novel provides deeper stories,” says Endah.

The unpredictable local market has made some producers eye the international market as a strategy to promote their films.

The Raid’s producer Ario Sagantoro said the film was aimed at being taken to the international market from the very start due to the unpromising local film market here.

The action film itself has already been screened at a number of international film festivals and has brought home some awards.

Screen Gems has even nabbed remake rights to The Raid, while Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisition (SPWA) has chosen Linkin Park’s rapper Mike Shinoda and producer Joseph Trapanese to arrange the movie’s scoring for the film’s release in the US.

With those achievements, Ario is confident of catering to a large audience, looking to draw more than 4 million viewers, hoping to break Laskar Pelangi’s record.

Tito said it took a tireless effort from producers to market their films.

“It takes really strong PR,” he says. “Take a look at Negeri 5 Menara [Land of Five Towers]. I see that their publicist is pretty active in holding the film’s promotions. The result is not bad. The film drew more than 600,000 viewers in just three weeks.”

The unpromising market has not discouraged filmmakers.

Many filmmakers have ventured out of the mainstream, creating alternative works through a string of short films, documentaries and feature films.

Such pieces offer different alternatives for movie buffs, who want to cross the boundaries and reach a broader perspective of the art of filmmaking.

Kineforum, organized by the Jakarta Arts Council, is one of the places that offer an alternative cinema in Jakarta, screening a number of nonmainstream movies.

Independent company Babi Buta Film, initiated by writer/director Edwin, producer Meiske Taurisia, and cinematographer Sidi Saleh, has produced both the omnibus film Belkibolang and feature film Postcards from the Zoo.

“This is a really small production house. We don’t make films based on investor’s demand,” said Meiske.

For Postcards from the Zoo, for example, the company received 90 percent of its funding from foreign institutes, like Torino Film Lab (Italy), Hubert Bals Fund (the Netherlands), Goteborg International Film Festival Fund (Sweden) and Sundance Institute (the US), she said.

The team accepts the fact that no commercial investor would be interested in such films, but it remains committed to producing an alternative entertainment, not only for Indonesia, but also for international audiences.

Budget is the main issue. “Since we don’t have an investor to fund our projects, we have to be active in finding the money overseas to cover the production cost. Here in Indonesia, there is no such film funding,” she said.

She noted that there was no difficulty in hiring actors to star in their productions. “The actors are quite open. As long as they believe in the script and the filmmaker, they will go for it. It is not about the money.”

For an actor like Verdi Sulaiman of Jakarta Undercover, Get Married and Simfoni Luar Biasa, the main things he considers in starring in a movie is mostly the filmmaker, producer and production company.

The actor, who recently made a brief appearance as a member of SWAT team in The Raid, does not even mind playing as an extra as long as he knows the film director’s reputation.

 “Since I watched Gareth Evans’ action flick Merantau, I told to myself that wanted to be a part of his upcoming project,” Verdi says.

“I sent him a message through Facebook, asking him about joining his production. I did not really care what my character would be. I just wanted to take part in his project. And yes, I did not regret it.”

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