Our movies are back…

The Hollywood movie stand-off between the Indonesian government and the movie distributors will end soon, said Jero Wacik, the Indonesian Minister for Culture and Tourism. I wrote about the cause of our missing Hollywood movies in my other blog post the other day, but after reading the news, I’m skeptical to rejoice because we can’t tell whether the distributors are willing to pay their due taxes.

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Maybe.

The Hollywood movie stand-off between the Indonesian government and the movie distributors will end soon, said Jero Wacik, the Indonesian Minister for Culture and Tourism. I wrote about the cause of our missing Hollywood movies in my other blog post the other day, but after reading the news, I’m skeptical to rejoice because we can’t tell whether the distributors are willing to pay their due taxes.

However, it will be a great loss for the distributors and the cinema chain that they’re tied with if they still won’t pay their taxes. They can’t afford another delay because business is bad if you can’t get the movies to come in. Even if we get to enjoy the second installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Kung Fu Panda 2 or other summer box offices that we’re longing for, one problem still remain: there is still a monopoly of the movie distribution business in Indonesia.

With the monopoly still intact, any stand-off between the government and the sole group of distributors in the future will be at the customer’s cost.

Another thing that I examined out of this commotion, at least consolidated interest and public pressure in Indonesia still work, at least for the middle class. Now if only the middle class can consolidate their concerns into something else…

Oliver Stone on Film and Politics

Three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone spoke about why films are important when it comes to politics and making policies.

Three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone spoke about why films are important when it comes to politics and making policies.

Public Lecture by Oliver Stone
Vice Dean Astrid Tuminez and Oliver Stone

On a warm Tuesday afternoon under the Singapore sun, Hollywood film maker Oliver Stone came to my school and gave a public lecture on “Film and Politics”. He was in Singapore because he is the Artistic Director of the NYU Tisch School of Arts Asia based here thus he often comes to Singapore several times in a year. This time, our school managed to get him to talk to our students and several other members of the public about the importance of movies in politics and policies.

When Vice Dean of Research Dr. Astrid Tuminez introduced Oliver Stone, the three words that described him was talent, controversy, and fearlessness. During the course of the public lecture and the following Q&A session, the audience knew why those three words were chosen.

Stone opened the lecture mentioning about conspiracies, as to him, only two types of conspiracies matter, the causes leading to war and the financial crisis. Conspiracies questioning Obama’s birth in the U.S. for example, is not an important conspiracy. Wars and financial crises relates to Stone’s famous movies, such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Wall Street, in addition to other political-historical movies that he made such as JFK, W., Nixon, and World Trade Center.

As a film maker, Stone is interested in history. He looks for perspectives, going past the news and not chase them. When you make films, you have to do your research, go out to the field and talk to people about the events that unraveled on that historical moment. Stone believes that memories are important – “without it we are f**ked” as he said it bluntly – because it is constantly threatened by news, bad news that sells especially, that changes the narrative of the history.

People make policies out of their own perspectives, narrated by the common delusion of history. Stone gave an example of the delusion surrounding the Vietnam War, which was very close to his personal experience during his combat duty there and resulted in the academy award winning movie, Platoon. He made two other movies on the Vietnam War such as Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth.

Stone gave an alternative historical narrative of whether Americans won the Vietnam War or lost it. He gave a perspective on why it happened and what actually happened during the war, and from my understanding, he did that in the hopes that decision-makers will take note of these perspectives to make better policies in the future. This is why he questioned the motives of the U.S. in their “war on terror”, engaging combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the concept is distorted and will only get more expensive and deadlier in the long run.

Oliver Stone described himself as a dramatist, not a documentarist. He reads materials from the “left, right and center” and invent dialogues to recreate the feel, the drama that happened during the time. He gave the example of the movie JFK, in which he recreated the drama that happened during President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He honestly said that as a film maker you have to be cautious, as the drama created in the after-effects of the movie might overshadow the drama in the movie itself, as in the case of JFK.

Stone also cautioned that film makers need to balance between their message and the need to tailor it for the audience. “If you’re out there to preach, you’re not going to get it made”, he said. Stone likes to make movies that matter, but balance is important.

Financing movies are also difficult, because he sees the movies business like a satellite business, a mobile empire, where every movie is its own mission and you have to start over every time. You can’t build on top of a movie, because people judge movies harshly, although sometimes a bit of reputation help. Stone finds investors for his movies everywhere, not just in the U.S, but also in Paris, Germany, and even Hong Kong.

Piracy, he mentioned, works both ways. Of course, film makers lose their money out of the sale of pirated DVDs, but it helps distribution and make your message across even more.

Another interesting point that was discussed was whether the Government is good or bad for the arts. Government censorship and freedom of speech was the issue, whether getting subsidies or financial aid from the government can retaliate in the form of whether the media or the arts industry will “shut-up” in return for the government’s money. Stone mentioned that it is better-off without subsidy, but as a form of freedom of speech, things do come back at you so better make your message responsibly.

The brief one-hour public lecture with Oliver Stone made me wonder, is there any film maker in Indonesia that is as talented, controversial and fearless such as him? One who is able to straighten out our historical narratives? Even if we have such film makers, making political movies in Indonesia might be difficult, as government censorship and audience response will be an issue.

If I was given an opportunity to make my own films about Indonesia, I would research and look into several topics: the events that happened during 1965, the mass murder of the Communist Party by the military, East Timor and Papua, and the riots in 1998. These are some historical events that are, in my opinion, distorted in Indonesia.

Films gives an alternative perspective and have the option to correct the narratives of our history. If our history are distorted, how do we make sure that the policies we make have incorporated the lessons learned of our past mistakes?

Related posts: We want our movies back!

We want our movies back!

A friend of mine came to Singapore the other day and during her trip here, she makes the best of her time to watch Hollywood movies that is currently playing in the cinemas. “It has been a while”, she said, commenting that there are no new Hollywood movies that are playing in the cinemas back home in Jakarta. Perhaps the last time a Hollywood movie came out was in February. Preposterous! How can it be that there are no foreign movies playing in Indonesia? What happened? Whom do we complain to if we want the movies back in our cinemas?

A friend of mine came to Singapore the other day and during her trip here, she makes the best of her time to watch Hollywood movies that is currently playing in the cinemas. “It has been a while”, she said, commenting that there are no new Hollywood movies that are playing in the cinemas back home in Jakarta. Perhaps the last time a Hollywood movie came out was in February. Preposterous! How can it be that there are no foreign movies playing in Indonesia? What happened? Whom do we complain to if we want the movies back in our cinemas?

It turns out that the bottleneck to this problem was the new tax policy on film imports in Indonesia. I made out a cheeky diagram to see what’s causing the commotion and the related cause and effects here:

What happened to our foreign movies?

The above diagram is just out of my own quick analysis, based on news articles and the existing film industry regulation in Indonesia. I haven’t gone through all the details, so I welcome comments and corrections.

True, what the government is doing is only to implement what has been long due, that the royalties and the physical reels of celluloid on imported films are taxable. The importers owed the government Rp 31 billion ($3.6 million) in back taxes for the past two years’ worth of imports, which is now in the process of the tax tribunal. In the meantime, the importers decided to stop importing the movies. Alas, the poor consumers are left with no movies to watch, seeing that their much awaited summer box-office hits such as Harry Potter, Pirates in the Caribbean, etc., are being held in hostage.

Wait, don’t consumers have domestic movies? Oh, you mean movies such as Pocong Mandi Goyang Pinggul, Suster Keramas 2, and Kuntilanak Kesurupan? Really?

To be fair, not all domestic movies are filled with pseudo-porn-horror content, but this is what sells in the market. If it’s profitable, then producers will continue making it. I’m puzzled why they are released in the first place, doesn’t the film censorship board do anything?

If you want to support the development of the domestic film industry, there are other ways of doing it other than taxes. For example, how many film schools are in Indonesia anyway? What about copyright protection, so that domestic movies are not being pirated in their own country? The movie industry is a creative industry, thus protection of these creations are needed to proliferate better quality movies in the long run.

Although the cause of this problem might be related to the tax policy on film imports, I would like to argue that the conundrum also lies in Indonesia’s current structure of film import and distribution.

The three main film importers belong to Group 21 and they control the local distribution rights of Hollywood movies to their own chain of cinemas, Cineplex 21. They have long dominated the film import and distribution business, mostly when it was facilitated during the era of Soeharto. Even with the entry of Blitz Megaplex in 2006, who also buy the films from Group 21, they are still dominant. In 2009, Blitz filed a case to the Competition Commission (KPPU) but it was dismissed due to lack of evidence.

If only the competition in the film import and distribution were fairer, I believe we would have more access to good movies, both from foreign and domestic sources. At the time of this blog post being written, I have yet to find a Ministerial Regulation (from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) on film distribution. It was mandated by the 2009 Film Law but the regulation is nowhere to be seen.

It would be naive to think that the cost of this stalemate is only about the disappointment of movie fans. I can list down a couple of impacts of this issue:

  • What about the livelihoods of employees in the cinema business?
  • What about the malls and restaurants that complements the cinema business?
  • Wouldn’t the government get less revenue out of this whole mess?
  • Wouldn’t the demand for pirated DVDs increase because of this? Ergo, even lesser revenue to the government?

As you can see, the longer the government and the importers delay on this issue, it will only get costlier. Therefore, it is wise for them to act promptly, and for us consumers to demand our rights: we want our movies back!