How Netflix can help Southeast Asian cinema

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Stunted infrastructure is a major reason for the unsustainable film industries in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand. SEA filmmakers are saying that Netflix and international co-productions are the best immediate options. In photo: A still from Mikhail Red's "Dead Kids." Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

The Philippine film industry, along with Southeast Asian (SEA) film industries, has a long way to go to be like that of America, South Korea, or Japan. In the panel conducted at the Sundance Film Festival: Asia 2021 titled “The Future of Southeast Asian Cinema,” it was revealed how SEA countries all share stunted infrastructure, making their film industries unsustainable.

Filipino filmmaker Mikhail Red (“Eerie,” “Block Z”), Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto (“The Night Comes for Us,” “May the Devil Take You”), Thai producer Vanridee Pongsittisak (“Bad Genius,” “Ghost Lab”), and Netflix SEA content director Malobika Banerji all participated in the panel. The discussion touched on how Netflix and international co-productions are the best immediate options to go around this issue right now. But it should be taken into account the caveats that could arise from relying on Netflix.

The Asia leg of this year's Sundance Film Festival featured a panel on the future of Southeast Asian cinema with Filipino filmmaker Mikhail Red (“Eerie,” “Block Z”), Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto (“The Night Comes for Us,” “May the Devil Take You”), Thai producer Vanridee Pongsittisak (“Bad Genius,” “Ghost Lab”), and Netflix SEA content director Malobika Banerji. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Difficulties with funding and distribution

As romantic comedies and dramas are given a premium because they tend to generate sure box office returns and profit, other genres like thrillers, action, mystery, and horror are harder to get greenlit.

"Films get more distribution if it's picked up by Netflix. They get theatrical releases outside the country. So now that it's been recognized, even by the Philippine government, they're now incentivizing,” said Mikhail Red, whose film "Dead Kids" was the first (and as of this writing, only) Filipino Netflix Original produced.

“Years ago when they did my first film, I mentioned that the grant that I got was around $10,000 to make a feature. Just last week, the Film Development Council of the Philippines, awarded several grants each worth up to $100,000, and the condition is that it has to be an international production," he adds.

If you're not from the big studios in the country, you have to get funding from various fragmented sources. The government and the private sector do not really give full film production grants to films inside or outside the mainstream. This has something to do with risk aversion.

A still from director Mikhail Red's "Dead Kids." Photo courtesy of NETFLIX.

If you are able to get funded, there is then this huge hurdle of distribution. When a film gets made, there's no guarantee of patronage, hence gross. The threat of Hollywood still looms huge. A benefit of being produced by Netflix is that marketing and distribution becomes their concern, not the filmmakers'. The Netflix reach also broadens from local to global audiences.

Michael Kho Lim, author of the 2019 text "Philippine Cinema and the Cultural Economy of Distribution,” writes about how the root of the problem lies in the existing system designed to cater to major players in the industry: "Indies’ fight for sustainability is not really about attaining commercial success. It is anchored on the difficulty of getting their films distributed that sometimes securing a distribution deal is an achievement in itself. The challenge has always been about leveling the distribution playing field for everyone, such that indies can coexist with the majors." To avoid the complicated notions of film independence, "indies" here simply refer to the brand of films not funded by the big companies.

Netflix is an emerging distribution platform. But as physical theaters continue to become obsolete, at least for the meantime, the streaming platform continues to be the dominant mode of distribution. With Netflix, filmmakers do not need to compete for limited theaters anymore, nor are they beholden to a limited number of days to run.

Is Netflix the new mainstream commercial monolith?

It's important to discuss the catches and questions in this discussion. Netflix can only accommodate a handful of personalities. Would Netflix be the new mainstream commercial monolith that extends only to a few new individuals? There is a huge difference between being the future of SEA cinema and being the future of select SEA filmmakers.

Would Netflix be exclusive to aspiring genre filmmakers? The Sundance panel consisted only of genre filmmakers — what about those who do documentaries, the avant-garde, short films, and “arthouse?”

And then there's the elephant in the room: Netflix's current roster of Filipino films is mostly composed of those produced by big studios that have already enjoyed mainstream success. Do new filmmakers still have to put on a big fight against the majors in this space? Or are we reading everything all wrong because this platform was designed for the major players in the first place? These questions were not addressed in the panel.

A still from Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto's upcoming film, “The Night Comes for Us.” Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

As Lim said about sustainability in emerging distribution platforms, "The bottom line therefore is not about developing new business models for these emerging platforms. Rather, it is about “creating sustainable filmmaking” or the formulation of sustainable business models that will monetize content efficiently and effectively by giving equal profitability opportunities to all participating players. Unfortunately, for every opportunity that becomes available to independent players, the major players also attempt to block it by entering that open space."

A still from the Thai film "Ghost Lab," produced by Vanridee Pongsittisak. Photo courtesy of NETFLIX

Furthermore, international co-productions are great strategies. But they are only a small solution to a systemic problem, which is a lack of domestic infrastructure supporting local filmmaking. FDCP leaning on foreign film industries to boost local films raises some eyebrows. It seems counterproductive for a local development agency to do. Maybe co-production projects are a compromise to compensate for the FDCP's and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts' limited executive and non-existent legislative power.

Echoing Clodualdo del Mundo, "The filmmaker and the industry are two distinct entities because the filmmaker can be detached from the industry and continue making films outside of the industry."

What makes up the future of SEA Cinema?

When asked how Netflix's format and standard requirements dictate materials pitched and limit what look filmmakers produce, SEA content director Banerji clarified that they “don’t really choose pitches based on compliance with technical specs.”

"In terms of format of content, we are pretty flexible. We rely on the creative vision of the creators. We want to be flexible in terms of what is the best version of the story which the creators want to tell. We do have technical specifications, which are more geared towards the quality of the production and enhancing the viewing experience,” he said.

But it should be noted that Netflix requires all filmmakers to shoot 90 percent of their films exclusively in 4K on some select approved cameras. And this presents some problems. Because of these technical requirements, one would notice that Netflix films tend to look the same. Enhancing the viewing experience is a very understandable reason for this, but the crispness and smoothness in photography eliminate what makes Asian horror stand out globally in the first place. Remember how ‘90s-’00s Asian horror tightly imbued its scares within its technical experimentations and limitations. These extend to other genres like action, mystery, suspense, and thriller. After all, smooth and glossy are aesthetic standards Hollywood perpetuated.

Banerji has reiterated the importance of having strong local semblancess in the co-productions they are making, which local audiences can identify with. The festival organizers did not provide an explanation for why the SEA panel consisted of genre filmmakers. Maybe it's because genre is a device that makes films most palatable to market. But there is a challenge in making strong Filipino narratives within the universality of genres. It's easier to do genre beats, but harder to make it culturally defined. After all, genre is still a foreign concept propagated by the dominant Hollywood commercial filmmaking.

If Netflix is the future of Southeast Asian Cinema, this begs the question of what kind of cinema it will be. Will it be commercial cinema? A cinema that's homogenized and palatable globally? Or will it be one that speaks true to a specific country's culture?