JAKARTA -- With undeniably dreamy backdrops and colorful local culture, the Indonesian island of Bali has lured foreign filmmakers for nearly as long as there has been film.
From "Legong, Dance of the Virgins," a cultural exploitation film shot in 1935, and the 1992 cult documentary "Baraka" to the 1994 surf biopic "The Endless Summer II" and the 2010 screen adaptation of the bestselling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" starring Julia Roberts, the island has a lengthy filmography. Bali has also been seen as a desirable location for smaller-scale productions such as television commercials.
Now, a group of local and foreign investors want to bridge the gap between Hollywood's cinematic universe and Indonesian creatives by building movie-grade film studios on the island.
Unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival last month by local group United Media Asia and Creative Artists Agency in the U.S., the venture promises economic diversification for Bali's tourism-dependent economy, which shrank 9.3% year-on-year in 2020, according to Indonesia's National Statistics Agency.
"Through their productions, UMA will employ thousands of local talent[s] to bolster the Bali economy, which has been severely impacted by the global pandemic," Missy Davy, spokesperson for Creative Artists Agency, said in a statement. "Bali is the ideal location to create a production destination."
The plan appears to have the backing of the Indonesian government. "I am very excited to see United Media Asia's effort to build and cultivate Bali as a world-class hub for international content," Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Uno was quoted as saying in the same statement.
UMA was founded in 2018 by Indonesian actress and producer Michy Gustavia and is backed by a $20 million investment by media conglomerate Kompas Gramedia. Its focus is local content in the Indonesian language for the country's 270 million people. Indonesia, with the world's fourth-largest population, has an average age of just 29.7 years compared with 38.1 in the U.S.
Box office receipts in Indonesia have grown 7% annually over the past five years, according to The Jakarta Post newspaper. Indonesians are also voracious consumers of on-demand platforms such as Netflix, with user penetration projected to reach 18%, or 50 million people, by 2025.
"Indonesia's entertainment market is one of the fastest-growing in the world, if not the fastest, outside of China [and] UMA is strategically positioned to capitalize on the increasing global appetite for local content," Davy said.
But does Bali -- an island that still experiences regular electricity brownouts and flash floods in urban areas -- have what it takes to become a regional film hub on par with Australia's Gold Coast or South Korea's capital Seoul?
Andre Dananjaya of NGO Kopernik, which produces film projects that campaign for human rights issues, believes it does.
"From sound and costume designers to cinematographers, Bali has thousands of talented creative professionals that could be engaged by foreign production houses if they do start operating in Bali," Dananjaya said.
"Studios are limited but with Bali's diverse landscapes it is more likely that producers would choose to shoot on location rather than in a studio," he said. "And when it comes to steady electricity, film production companies almost always use backup generators, so main electricity supply isn't an issue."
Lakota Moira, a Bali-based U.S. national who produced "Pulau Plastik," or Rubbish Island, a new movie-length documentary about plastic pollution in Indonesia, voices similar sentiments.
"There is so much good talent on this island but too much of it is spent on creating commercial content for Instagram or weddings -- work that does not necessarily foster their potential," Moira said. "And when they are hired by filmmakers from overseas, it's usually just as fixers or [microphone] grips. But if we had a platform that could expose their work to wider audiences, it would broaden their horizons and give them much more creative license."
Frenchman Omri Ben-Canaan of Baliprod, a busy production house that produces television commercials and offers fixing services for documentary makers in Bali, says he has also been mulling the idea of opening movie-grade film studios on the island for some time.
"We've been overwhelmed with enquiries since we opened five years ago, in part because there's virtually no competition," he said. "During this time I realized there is huge potential in Indonesia for feature-film production. And while most large studios in the world are above the equator, we're below it. That gives us a lot more opportunities in a year to shoot here when it's the rainy season in Bangkok.''
Of course, a huge obstacle at present is the pandemic and restrictions on international travel it has brought. Indonesia has been hit extremely hard and is still reeling from the latest wave of coronavirus cases driven by the highly infectious delta variant. As of last month, the country is indefinitely closed to all non-Indonesians without existing work permits. And the country's vaccination rate remains far below the government's goal.
The cinematic ambition is also going to need serious government support to compete with other regional film hubs. The currently booming Australian film industry received $665 million in government rebates in the past 10 years. And the Korean Film Council recently announced a $17.8 million stimulus package to support the South Korean film industry during the pandemic.
In February, after a year of the worst box office receipts since the Asian economic crisis of 1997-98, Indonesian state-owned production house Perum Produksi Film Negara was given a new mandate by the government: Invest in potential blockbusters and homegrown content to stop the local movie industry from going broke.
PFN was reportedly allocated 1.97 trillion rupiah ($137 million) to finance 135 hours of film and content production this year. Yet there is no information on the public record about new movies it has financed and the government did not respond to enquiries from Nikkei Asia.
"The Indonesian government has the best intentions," Ben-Canaan said. "But the laws are so antiquated and it's a nightmare just to get journalist visas for filmmakers from overseas, whereas in Malaysia or Bangkok they give tax incentives to shoot there."
He added: "If that changed, there would be nothing stopping Bali from becoming a big film hub because it has everything else we need to make it happen."