Indonesia's Blank Screens

The western movies showing in Jakarta last weekend included My Sassy Girl, released in 2008, New Daughter and Blood Creek, both released in 2009, and Source Code, released last April.

"There are no new Hollywood films showing in Indonesia because of a boycott by distributors regarding a new tax. This was supposed to be ‘resolved' already but it hasn't been," wrote Chris Holm, a Jakarta-based moviegoer, on Facebook. "The idiot official responsible can't be contacted, of course. Why? Because he is with a delegation attending f***ing Cannes."

"He" is Syamsul Lussa, the Director of Films at the Culture and Tourism Ministry. France's Cannes Film Festival, which runs from May 11 to May 22 is perhaps the world's most prestigious film festival. One imagines he will be watching many western films.

The US Motion Picture Association stopped exporting films to Indonesia on Feb. 1 over a new royalty tax that the Indonesian Cinema Companies Union said would have a "significant detrimental impact on the cost of bringing a film into Indonesia. On Feb. 17, the union imposed a boycott of western films. The government, according to local media, promised a resolution by the end of March but the impasse continues.

A blog started by an outraged moviegoer named Marvel Sutantio and called Indonesian Movie Crisis, ("How the Indonesian movie industry was brought down by greedy tax & customs officials"), charged that "These guys in the Directorate General of Customs and Excise made up a greedy rule that threatens to destroy the Indonesian movie industry. Not just for imported films, but for the national movie industry too.

"My parents went through the 1960s hell where American movies were boycotted, and only sucky Indonesian movies remain. Well I don't want history to repeat itself; I'm doing what I can to prevent that. My only hope is the news that I've translated could notify the international world about this crisis. This whole tragedy and crisis is personal, not just for me, but for the thousands of 21 Cineplex and Blitzmegaplex's employees, and their families too. So hear ye, hear ye, I got a story to tell."

Djonny Sjafruddin, the head of the Indonesian Cinema Companies Union (GPBSI), said the foreign film distribution boycott in the country has cut the motion picture industry's income by 60 percent.

"Since the Motion Picture Association stopped exporting their films to Indonesia, we, the cinema industry, have begun feeling the effect, especially in small towns such as in Central Java," Sjafruddin said. In an attempt to cope, the industry has been running second-class foreign films and previously run movies.

In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of other government decisions that are so opaque that nobody can figure them out. In 2007, imported liquor suddenly vanished from the country, either because the government was attempting to clamp down on the booze black market, which was estimated at 75 percent of the total liquor brought into the country, or to stop companies from bribing their way through customs, or to placate Muslim conservatives, who frown on drinking alcohol, or for other unexplained reasons, possibly because military officials controlled the liquor trade.

A single legal importer was allowed to bring liquor into the country. But for months the comp-any attempted to get the government to raise the quota to meet demand that was four times higher than the legal limit. Then the situation was said to be solved, and then it wasn't solved. It was possible to buy liquor in certain places, and in certain places it wasn't. The situation is somewhat better now but prices remain absurdly high by regional standards and there are still occasional shortages for no apparent reason.

Similar mystery surrounds the movie situation.

"The tax-scheme controversy is slowly killing the Indonesian cinema industry, while the government wants to add more screens across the nation," Sjafruddin said. "But if there is no film, what will be screened in the new screens? Indonesian films have not really been able to attract the market."

"Maybe 15 to 20 percent of Indonesian films can attract audiences," he said. "Does the audience really want to watch films with the same ghost concept all the time? I guess not, because the audiences are not stupid."

Dian Sunardi, the head of marketing at BlitzMegaplex cinemas, one of two major cinema chains in the country, testified to the decreased drawing power of the films currently on offer.

"We still receive some film stock from major studios, including from Hollywood through other distributors," Dian said. "However, the number of visitors has dropped 15 percent to 20 percent compared with last year."

Even the Jakarta administration is feeling the impact.

"So far, cinemas have contributed 20 percent of the Rp81 billion (US$9.5 million) in entertainment tax collected for the first quarter of the year," said Iwan Setiawandi, the head of the Jakarta Tax Office. "But in previous years, cinemas have contributed as much as 40 percent to 50 percent of the Rp 350 billion entertainment tax collected annually in Jakarta."

Industry representatives and moviegoers like Herda Aprillia, a member of the Indo Harry Potter online fan community, can only hope the matter is resolved soon. "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 2" — the last installment in the hugely popular series — is due to be released in July.

"I am actually staunchly against pirated films. But what else can you do? I am not going to wait until the DVD is [officially] released or fly to Singapore only to watch the film," Herda said.

With reporting from the Jakarta Globe