Malaysian horror Munafik 2's US$9 million box office haul made it the nation's top grossing film ever
Chris Lee carries with him a unique perspective on the state of the Asian cinema industry.
First, he was the head of a major Hollywood studio (Columbia/TriStar) in the late 1990s and early 2000s, right at the time the region was first emerging as a box office force in its own right.
Then, for the past 15 years, Lee has directed the development of the University of Hawaii’s Academy for Creative Media in his home state, helping guide new generations of filmmakers who look to Asia for opportunities as revenue and production numbers across the region continue to swell.
The 63-year-old recently took the chair at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (Bifan) for its annual Fantastic Film School, a program designed to inspire young filmmakers and to fine-tune their pitching skills.
Bifan takes place over 11 days in the early summer of each year the satellite city of Bucheon about 16 kilometers outside Seoul. The town’s other main claim to fame is the Korean Comics Museum, which is a fitting complement to the film festival’s focus of genre cinema – everything from horror to sci-fi and all stops between.
There’s a palpable buzz about the place we can put down to a combination of the festival’s focus on helping people get their films made, and the fact that the geeks here are really let off the leash, given the weird and wonderful nature of the program.
It’s an opportunity to tap into Lee’s views about what’s going on in Asia – and where the best opportunities for investment are emerging.
“Things are happening everywhere,” says Lee. “Fox have just been in Indonesia [to make the co-produced hit 212 Warrior], I’ve toured the studios in Iskander [Malaysia].Then we are here in Korea, which is the big pop-culture driver... It’s incredible when you think about that we’re in a country where [only] around 50 million people speak the language and yet their pop culture speaks globally. It’s remarkable.
“In terms of film, production values are great, creativity is great, the films are often ripe for remaking, and I think they’ve cracked the code of creating popular culture that is true to them but speaks to the broadest possible audience.”
Festivals like Bifan offer platforms such as the Network of Fantastic Asian Films (NAFF), where ideas can be shared and – the hope is – connections made that might lead to ideas coming to life. A good example, Lee says, is the 2013 Korean thriller, The Terror Live. First pitched at Bifan, it proved a big box office hit with an estimated US$37 million in takings – and all on a budget of just over US$3 million.
“Coming here can make that difference just in terms of getting the funds needed to give the film the push it needs,” says Lee. “A lot of my smarter Hollywood friends know that because of the genre focus there are often a lot of really viable projects here that you can get behind.”
They come from all over Asia at a time when smaller markets outside of the traditional “big three” of China, Japan and South Korea are growing rapidly. While fragmented markets and sometimes opaque accounting or disclosure make it difficult to estimate the total amount of money being invested into Asia films, a rough proxy can be found in the share of box office takings by non-Hollywood movies and the number of cinema screens – on the latter measure, Asia had about twice as many screens last year than the US and Canada, the world’s biggest market and, for now, the global benchmark.
Malaysia is coming off the first year where three films drew in 30 million ringgit (US$7.2 million), and the horror Munafik 2’s US$9 million made it the biggest domestic hit of all time. Indonesia’s box office is being transformed as an easing of foreign investment laws has seen a surge in new cinemas. Even the relatively tiny Vietnamese market has seen records tumble, as the thriller Furie became the nation’s biggest hit ever with about 200 billion dong (US$8.6 million) and a successful limited run in North American cinemas (US$600,000).
Hollywood-driven co-productions also continue to head east – heavyweights Spike Lee (Da 5 Bloods, for Netflix) and Michael Mann (Hue 1968, for FX) are shooting in Vietnam. Thailand had 74 international productions shot around the country in 2018, helped no doubt by government rebates of 15 percent for more than 50 million baht (US$1.6 million) spent by filmmakers locally. Malaysia’s rebate is a whopping 30 percent for more than US$1.5 million spent.
Still, in terms of local box office, the gains have been driven by local genre films.
“Genre films are in the one last sweet spot that studio films are still looking for,” says Lee. “Everybody is still looking for that genre-driven, high concept, low budget picture that brings people into the theater.
“People have basically written off the romantic comedy,” he says. “Everything there has migrated to Netflix. The films that I was most associated with at TriStar – Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Philadelphia – none of them would get made today. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, because at the end of the day there’s still more content being made, there’s still more movies.”
There rapid growth – and reach – of streaming platforms such as Netflix and HBO has altered the way people consume cinema, and other content such as TV series, and Lee says the onus on creatives is simply to adapt.
The films that I was most associated with at TriStar – Jerry Maguire, As Good As It Gets, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Philadelphia – none of them would get made today. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, because at the end of the day there’s still more content being made, there’s still more movies
“The collective experience seems to have dissipated,” says Lee. “While there are occasional breakouts like Crazy Rich Asians, you have all these other films that have fallen by the wayside because we are being conditioned to watch them on Netflix.
“But that’s just change. While I find it hard to recommend a film people have to watch these days, I can talk endlessly about why people should watch Fleabag [Amazon], or Dead to Me [Netflix]. The viewing habits have changed and the industry has adapted to meet that change. It has to or we wouldn’t be sitting here talking today.”
China, of course, has been the story of the film industry for the past 20 years, coming from virtually nothing to establish itself as the world’s second-largest market, with annual box office returns now of around US$9 billion and with eyes on knocking North America (US$11.9 billion) from the perch it has held onto since cinema first became a thing.
But in this regard Lee readily admits to being just like everyone else – unsure of what is going on in China, given the ongoing Donald Trump-Xi Jinping trade war.
“Nobody seems to know right now,” says Lee. “It’s just up in the air. I only know what I read, same as everyone. So I guess we all just have to wait and see.”