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Southeast Asia wants a piece of pic action

Region aims to gain share of the continent's rising fortunes

Faced with the emerging colossus of China and continued strength of the biz in Japan and South Korea — as well as the growing popularity of Hollywood movies in the region — filmmakers in Southeast Asia face the challenge of coming up with inventive ways to entice domestic auds while at the same time establishing an international footprint .

At least the global financial meltdown has not hit as hard in Southeast Asia as in the rest of the world, which makes it easier task to secure private and public coin for projects.

Some countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, hope that by introducing quotas on the number of foreign movies they can help boost domestic biz. Others are trying to reach out beyond their borders to bring success.

There also has been considerable investment in theater construction in Southeast Asia, much of it focused on the staggering rise in shopping malls across the region. The rising number of theaters across the region has been crucial in providing a framework for the biz to expand.

Lai Van Sinh, a Vietnamese helmer and general director of Vietnam’s Cinema Dept., says the recently ended Vietnam Film Festival will do much to boost the country’s international profile and woo foreign coin to the country.

The festival had various teething problems — Luc Besson’s animated feature “Arthur” opened the fest, even though it had already screened widely and had no obvious Vietnam link — but it was well attended by regional bosses. The plan is to run the fest as an international show every two years, with the next one possibly in Ho Chi Minh City, — which might not go down so well with the international biz, already trying to juggle schedules to attend the Pusan and Tokyo film festivals.

“The idea is to learn from Pusan and bring an international film festival to Vietnam,” Lai says. “In the past few years, a lot more young people are going to the cinema here. The market is still very small but with a population of 80 million there is room for expansion.”

Vietnam’s industry has opened up considerably since the introduction of a 2007 cinema law that eliminated quotas and has led to many new independent film companies starting up.

Thailand has long been one of the region’s powerhouses, but the political difficulties in the country, which culminated in a bloody crackdown on “Red Shirt” anti-government demonstrators in April and May, damaged its image as a safe haven for filmmaking. Inasmuch as countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia provide an alternative location for film production, the two nations have benefitted from Thailand’s loss. But there are signs Thailand is regaining lost ground, and biz officials say that overall, the impact of unrest will be limited.

Cedric Eloy, CEO of the Cambodia Film Commission, is working to train Cambodian crew to provide the kind of local staff a Hollywood or other foreign production might be looking for.

“You won’t find a first assistant, but you will find a good second assistant here,” Eloy said at the Pusan fest.

The number of foreign co-productions is running at four or five a year, compared with just one a year ago, and Eloy is optimistic on the outlook for Cambodia.

There are no tax incentives as such, because there is little tax levied on a foreign production anyway. The government also has bought equipment that foreign filmmakers can rent cheaply.

Ngo Thi Bich Hanh, veep of sales and acquisition at Vietnam Media, says the number of movies made in Vietnam will grow, because there is pressure on TV stations to provide domestic content, and this may be extended to cinemas.

“Most of the movies are made for the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday. But the majority of people in Vietnam are young, and we hope to expand like China or Korea,” Hanh says. “Everything is open in Vietnam, and the government is trying to step back to allow for a bigger private sector.”

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