Southeast Asian movies have never been a bigger hit at the local box office – and the boom may dampen streaming growth
After premiering at Venice and picking up a swag of awards on the festival circuit, Indonesian political thriller Autobiography began its theatrical run in its home country this month.
The allegorical tale looks at the lingering impact of decades of military dictatorship. It is timely, as fears grow that Indonesia appears to be retreating into its authoritarian past.
Meanwhile, Malaysian drama Maryam Dari Pagi Ke Malam (Maryam From Day to Night) made its international debut at the 2023 Rotterdam Film Festival.
The film looks at societal and bureaucratic hurdles faced by a Muslim woman in her 50s who wants to marry her younger partner from an African country.
Last year saw attendance records smashed at screenings of homegrown movies across the two Southeast Asian countries.
But as fans flock back to the cinema, what is the future of streaming services in these countries?
Read more: Death of a film legacy: remembering Indonesia’s Bachtiar Siagian
The roller coaster ride of the local box office
Locally made films haven’t always enjoyed a steady run of commercial or critical success.
Domestic films in Indonesia and Malaysia were popular and financially viable in the 1950s and early 1960s. Hits included films like Tiga Dara (Three Maidens) in Indonesia and Do Re Mi in Malaysia.
This success began to decline from the 1970s in the face of competition from foreign films and television, a lack of government support, and the Asian financial crisis.
The resurgence of Indonesia’s film industry began in the early 21st century, when cinema was able to take advantage of greater media freedom following the 1998 fall of Suharto.
Tertiary-educated filmmakers began to make their mark after graduating from local schools such as the Jakarta Institute of the Arts, or after returning home with film and media degrees from overseas.
The commercial and critical success of Mira Lesmana and Riri Riza’s 2002 politics-infused teen flick Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s Up With Love?) is credited with jump-starting the local industry.
Lesmana marked the 20th anniversary of the film’s release on her Instagram, calling it a cultural phenomenon.
Today, films made in the region range from critically acclaimed work that is screened at international festivals, to box office draws catering to local tastes.
Unlike Indonesia’s film industry, Malaysian cinema gets some support from the government.
But the size of Indonesia’s market, with its estimated movie-going audience of more than 40 million people, dwarfs Malaysia’s. This causes a disparity in funding and distribution opportunities.
Maryam Pagi Ke Malam producer Lutfi Hakim Ariff is trying to secure local screenings of the film after its sold-out international debut at Rotterdam.
Speaking from the Netherlands, Ariff says the film’s exploration of women’s rights and xenophobia in Malaysia “makes it difficult to get serious interest from distributors”. He believes the film is unlikely to receive official approval for release “in its current form”.
He hopes the movie’s lead actor (Malaysian cinema icon Datin Sofia Jane) will be a drawcard given the apparent appetite for domestic film consumption following a temporary setback when movie theatres were shut across the region during the pandemic.
The post-pandemic popularity of local films
Attendance figures for domestic films across the two nations have now come back with a vengeance as audiences choose to support local films over Hollywood blockbusters.
Less than a month after its theatrical release in September 2022, Curse of the Dancing Village – a campy horror aimed squarely at the archipelago’s domestic market – became the highest-grossing Indonesian film in history.
Around the same time, the historical biopic Mat Kilau became the highest-grossing Malaysian film of all time.
The story of a Malay warrior chief who fought against the British Empire in the late 19th century, the movie prompted a resurgence of local interest in pencak silat – the Southeast Asian martial art brought to Western attention by the 2011 Indonesian action film The Raid.
Its success suggests that in this region, audiences prefer to fork out to see their own culture and history depicted on screen instead of stories from foreign lands.
The challenges for streaming services
So while the cinema is booming, what is the state of streaming services?
While Southeast Asia is a growth market for streaming services, two factors may hamper the success of these services.
Global streaming services like Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon are competing with cinema-goers in the region, as well as Chinese streaming providers and each other.
There is another big competitor facing these services: movie pirating.
Countries like Indonesia have a history of lax enforcement of intellectual property.
When content can be watched on social or video streaming sites for free, paying for a streaming service is novel – unlike paying for a comparatively affordable movie ticket as part of a social activity.
The recent success of films like Curse of the Dancing Village and Mat Kilau shows local audiences are interested in local stories, which are in short supply on the global streaming giants.
Streaming services wanting to crack the Indonesian or Malaysian markets will need to navigate the stories and genres which are likely to have mass appeal.
Read more: How Indonesia's most innovative filmmakers portrayed society and culture through 70 years of cinema
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Nasya Bahfen, La Trobe University.
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Nasya Bahfen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.