Where does local product exist in today's global film industry? How does one create with no money? Perhaps there is a deep imbalance in the global film culture and we ought to find that balance again. Philip Cheah observes.

Due to digital technology today and the easing of trade barriers, it appears that there are more opportunities for Asian films to travel overseas. That's quite true of course. In the year 2004, UK DVD sales outran the film box-office and what powered the surge were the sales of Asian DVDs. 

The other trend is the dearth of strong local films in Europe. In 2005, excepting the UK, box office figures slumped across Europe. Germany saw a slump of as much as 20 percent whereas France, Spain and Italy expect the decline to be more than 10 percent.

Even box office revenue in the US fell by over five percent. The US has always perceived foreign markets as its prime pump. The US has a market of 300 million people but the world has an audience of six billion. (At least half of a studio's revenue can come from foreign markets) If the US can look to overseas market to drive its box office, so can Asia. And indeed Asia has. When Zhang Yimou's Hero was finally released in the US in 2004 (even though it was two years old), it swept the box office and was an instant hit.

It suggests that while the West has a weakening local product, they are looking Eastwards to supplement their supply.

As a result, fans of American film are starting to protest as well the weakening local product. They argue that Hollywood is turning its back on American viewers and producing films primarily for its profitable overseas market instead. The result is a stream of formulaic blockbusters that feature spectacle, dumbed-down dialogue, actors chosen for their international appeal, and little genuinely American culture. So movies such as "Troy", earned US$133 million at home and a huge US$356 million overseas. The global traffic is therefore moving both ways but at the expense of local product.

This explains the other trend, the rise in the number of film festivals. By 2004, there were more than 1,000 international film festivals. That's almost three film festivals opening every day of the year somewhere in the world. It's a natural outcome which counters the imbalance in the markets. This is why so many programmers are going further out into the world to find undiscovered cinema.

The exponential growth of film festivals is also in Asia itself. In 1987 when the Singapore International Film Festival began, we were among a small handful of Asian festivals - India, Hongkong, Japan, Taiwan. We were the only South-east Asian festival then and the first one to start an Asian-centred film competition.

Today, the Asian festivals are a force to contend with. There are easily over 50 which specialise in different genres from fiction, documentary, animation to shorts. This means that there are more opportunities for Asian film to be discovered within Asia itself.

Problems of Asian films overseas

The key problem in Asia is the same as that in the West - the issue of a strong local product. This has been largely cited as one of the main reasons for the steep box-office decline in the West.

It should be remembered that the West has had decades in coping with the problem. So many agencies have been set up to study and solve the problem. And the West has pumped in a huge sum of funds. For example, Eurimages, the Council of Europe Fund for co-production, distribution and exhibition of European films was set up in 1988, has 32 member countries and an annual budget of about 20 million Euro. Another programme, Media, which develops and promotes European films has a budget of 513 million Euro over six years.

If you look at individual breakdowns, you can see a clearer picture of haves and have-nots. The Swedish Film Institute has an annual budget of 40 Million Euro. The Czech Film Fund supports local film with an annual budget of a mere US$2.5million.

In Asia too, we have this funding disparity. Some Asian countries such as Korea, have a far more developed funding strategy. Given this scenario, how does one compete on an even footing with someone who has far more resources?

Food For Thought

Perhaps one should then ask, what can I do to strengthen local movies with no money? There are several Asian examples. Both the Philippines and the Malaysians have been dreaming that same dream. And it came true with the digital format.

Evolution Of A Filipino Family, by Lav Diaz

Just last year, the Philippines staged a digital revolt. There was suddenly a slew of over 20 digital feature-length films. Consider also that the Philippines made the first epic-length digital feature, the eight-hour long Evolution Of A Filipino Family (2004) by Lav Diaz.

Across South-east Asia, no other country produced such a high number of digital features. Many Asian countries embraced digital for shorts and documentaries. Perhaps it's the aesthetics of poverty. Filipinos have so many stories to tell but film was always too unaffordable. Now digital has opened that door.

Since the year 2000, the New Malaysian Cinema evolved. It was a small community of independent filmmakers who worked together as a collective, meaning that everyone pooled together their resources and shared their expertise on each other's film production. Since 2003, when the films started winning awards, the Malaysian film is now firmly on the world's cinema map.

What the two above examples illustrate is that often art precedes the industry. To worry about the state of the industry without acknowledging the art would create an imbalance. It is always art that creates different movements in style that would feed the taste of future audiences.

To give another example, the Danish Dogma movement of 1995 revitalised cinema considerably both in the West and the East, by challenging accepted norms of film language through an alternative aesthetic in the use of music, cinematography and so on.

Reputations take a long time to be made but they are also enduring. If you allow art cinema to grow, it will create worldwide interest and allow for a commercial cinema to follow. If you remember India's art cinema of the '70s, it wasn't called parallel cinema for nothing. It was allowed to flourish parallel to Bollywood.

What To Do Now

In many cases, most film industries in Asia do not recognise the fundamentals of art cinema. That explains why the issues of the commercial film industry are always addressed with less emphasis on discussing the art of film.

So here is one fundamental. Art needs freedom to grow. The reason so many art movements become significant is because it dares to tackle suppressed subject matter, break accepted norms of taste and to go beyond the conventional.

The New Malaysian Cinema, for example, challenged commercial cinema's formula of action and comedy. The films were quieter, more reflective, more crafted and had deeper psychological and emotional impact. These were the sort of films that were shunned by the industry but when the films started winning prizes throughout the world, the Malaysian film industry began to offer directing jobs to the independents, acknowledging that the country had emerging new talent.

The second fundamental is a supportive environment. Basically, art needs to be seen and not hindered. It needs access to public spaces and given a chance for new tastes to be developed. The new is always unsettling and uncomfortable and can only be nurtured through openness.

Summing Up

To sum up, local product needs to be strong before one attempts to go global. Local product is normally perceived to be strong when an independent film wave takes off, the initial evidence is when international film festivals start selecting such films.

Finally, a balance must always be struck. An art cinema only exists in relation to a commercial movie industry. One cannot survive without the other. They need each other. This fundamental democracy must be embraced.

Note: This essay was first presented as a paper titled Problems And Prospect Of Asian Films To International Market at the 3rd Bangladesh Int'l Film Festival, March 10, 2006.

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