After years of stagnation, and a situation that seemed condemned to never-ending structural and creative “underdevelopment”, the Indonesian film industry met with unexpected commercial success in 2016, crowned by the promise of an institutional turnaround which could lead to even more fertile terrain in the years to come.
Let’s begin with the last piece of good news, because it is an era-defining change which will have long-term consequences. Many times, over the past few years, on these very pages, we have described and lamented the scarcity of cinema screens in the Indonesian archipelago. Indeed, the fourth most populous nation in the world, in mid-2016, only had between 1,100 and 1,200 screens. A lack of places to project films which somehow justified the limited growth of the local market, in terms of spectators and takings, but which was slowly but surely improving thanks to the entrance of Korean companies like CJ and Lotte in the local film theatre market.

To this we could add the problem of the monopoly of the Cinema 21 group, which not only manages 800 of these screens, but which controls, through its subsidiaries, a majority of the distribution sector. In May of last year, the film industry was included in the economic and commercial fields liberalised by the innovative reforms put forward by the president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. The aim was to breathe new life into the country’s economy, which had been dominated for decades by the autocracy inherited from the Soeharto dictatorship’s authoritarian system, and plagued by corruption, collusion and nepotism (known in Indonesia by the popular acronym KKN: korupsi, kolusi, nepotisme).
Companies owned by foreigners can, from now on, invest and possess full ownership of production and distribution companies, as well as run film theatres in Indonesia. This means that the Hollywood majors can finally export their products into Indonesia without going through local intermediaries, a practice that in the past years has created problems – even legal ones (to the point of, a couple of years ago, an embargo on US releases in Indonesian territory leading to a near collapse of the local market).

The foreign companies which have already made inroads into the local market through corporations operating on these shores, can now take full control, and expand their activities without obstruction. In practical terms, this has been labelled a revolution in the film theatre sector, and CGV Blitz and Lippo-Cinemaxx immediately announced ambitious expansion projects. Cinemaxx, which owns around a hundred screens, plans to bring the number up to 2,000 in the coming 10 years. The most incredible aspect is that both CGV Blitz and Cinemaxx plan to de-localise – today, more than a third of the existing screens in Indonesia are based in the metropolitan area of Jakarta, with almost 90 per cent of the total on the island of Java. Opening film theatres in the rest of the archipelago means opening the floodgates to a potential market of millions of people who, so far, have only been able to enjoy the fruits of the film industry on pirate DVDs.
To add to the good news on the political-institutional front, we can add those hailing from the market itself, where local productions, after years of alienating the public, are once again pulling in spectators in numbers which had not been seen in the last decade. Although official figures do not exist, homegrown films are estimated to have earned a 33 per cent share of the market. Moreover, 10 released in 2016 broke through the symbolic ceiling of a million spectators, and three reached over three million. The biggest grossing film of the year become the biggest grossing film of all time for locally-made films.

Between the end of April and the start of May, two titles gave the local industry a shot in the arm: the rom-com Ada Apa Dengan Cinta 2 by Riri Riza, the much-awaited follow-up to the classic by Rudi Soedjarwo which marked the rebirth of commercial Indonesian cinema in 2002 (scripted by Riri Riza); and the highly entertaining My Stupid Boss by Upi Avianto. While the success of the former was expected – and resulted in more than 3.6 million tickets sold – My Stupid Boss exceeded even the most ambitious expectations, selling three million tickets. A witty and well-balanced screenplay, featuring a perfect alchemy between the main characters, confirmed Upi Avianto’s role as the most talented film-maker currently working in commercial Indonesian cinema.

Later in the year, in June, another ‘serial product’ also beat all expectations. The drama Rudi Habibie, the prequel to the blockbuster Habibie & Hainun from 2012, was biography of the third Indonesian president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. It was directed by the prolific Hanung Bramantyo, and pulled over two million people into the cinema (although that was less than half of the number of the first installment). But the real coup, in September, came with Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss! Part 1, which, in the space of a few weeks, exceeded six million spectators. It reached a high of 6.8 million viewers.
Directed by Anggy Umbara (who also directed the two chapters of the film Comic 8: Casino Kings, the first being the most successful film of 2015, the second selling 1.8 million tickets in March 2016), and produced by Falcon Pictures (also behind My Stupid Boss), the film harked back to the glory days of a series of comedic films of the 1980s. It follows the ups and downs of three bumbling agents from a security guard firm called CHIIPS (an obvious reference to the US TV series from the 70s, ChiPs). Starring Abimana Aryasatya (Dono), Vino G. Bastian (Kasino) and Tora Sudiro (Indro), Warkop DKI Reborn uses a series of demented gags. It’s the kind of comedy which is very popular in Indonesia, but does not translate well to an international public. It certainly entertained the public and stoked up enthusiasm at home.

As if that were not enough, two comedies released in December, Cek Toko Sebelah, directed by and starring Ernest Prakasa, and Hangout, directed by and starring Raditya Dika, both produced unexpected results, pulling in two and half million spectators at the start of 2017. Hangout, in particular, confirmed Raditya Dika’s status as the golden boy of local comedy, as he had already broken through the 1.8 million spectator mark with another film he had written, directed and starred in: Koala Kumal. Besides the films mentioned, another two exceeded one million spectators: the drama inspired by a real-life aeroplane accident, ILY from 38,000 ft. and the teen romance London Love Story.
The overall picture in 2016 for Indonesian cinema was therefore a positive one, and no one would have predicted such a rosy outcome at the start of the year. The only sore point is the relative lack of variety in the films which triumphed at the box office, mainly made up of very local comedies and romantic dramas starring well-known faces attracting a young public.
Historical and religious dramas seemed to have disappeared from the top spots at the box office (even if, at the start of 2017, the sequel Surga Yang Tak Dirindukan 2 brought over one and a half million people to the cinema). The horror genre, once thriving, is fading, while action films, relaunched a few years back by the diptych of The Raid, has come back to the forefront thanks to Headshot by the Mo Brothers (the top grossing film with under a million spectators).
At the same time, the phenomenon of serial films is blossoming. But this is on a parallel to the state of affairs of mainstream films the world over, and seems to be preparing the terrain for the expansion of the multiplex and the explosion of a market which has the biggest growth potential in the entire Asian continent.

Paolo Bertolin