The global reach of the film industries of Asia:
The Asian continent boasts some of the largest film industries in the world. A few decades ago movies produced in Asian countries were only screened in the domestic market. Outside of these markets the Asian film genre were often given a cult status, such as the Godzilla movies from Japan, and followed by a small population. But over time the popularity of Asian cinema has increased in many Western markets. This has led to successful collaborative ventures between US, British and Asian film production companies on films such as the Oscar award winning Slumdog Millionaire and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Two of the prominent film industries of Asia are the Hong Kong film industry and the Indian film industry.
The Hong Kong and Indian film industries:
The Hong Kong film industry gained worldwide recognition in the 1970s for producing action movies. The success of the movies was in part due to the iconic status gained by Bruce Lee. A martial arts expert, Lee performed his own stunts and became popular for portraying Chinese nationalism in his movies. His fame and success opened the door for other martial arts experts to make the transition into the movie industry. This included stars like Jackie Chan, who beganhiscareerasastuntmaninsomeofthemoviesthat were written and directed by Bruce Lee. The Hong Kong movies were dubbed in English for Western audiences and inspired a new generation of actors and directors in Hong Kong, such as John Woo. In the 1980s the action- comedy genre became popular and stars such as Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie Chan became brand ambassadors for products throughout Asia. This popularity led to roles in Hollywood movies, which have provided opportunities for collaborations between the two film industries.
The Indian film industry is the largest in the world in terms of movies produced in a year. The Indian market is diverse in terms of regional languages and customs, and therefore there are a number of film industries producing movies in regional dialects. In addition to the popular Bollywood, the Hindi film industry located in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the Tamil and Telegu film industries are also popular with audiences in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. Indian films are known for their songs and choreographed dance routines. Like the Hong Kong industry, Indian films started gaining acceptance in the international market in the 1970s and today around 10 per cent of India’s film industry revenue comes from the international market.
So, what factors have contributed to the increased international appeal of movies from the Asian film industry? The answer lies in the growth of the Asian Diasporas in the West, who sought entertainment that reflected their culture. The production of low-cost video- cassette recorders (VCRs) gave the overseas Asian community access to Asian-made movies. Initially, the movies were available through small shops in Chinatowns and Indian bazaars in many cities in the United States, Europe, Australia and the Middle East. But as the community grew, small cinemas started to screen these films, making them available to non-Asian audiences. Australia is one such country where Asian cinema has been successful in increasing its market share. The arrival of international students and migrants of Chinese and Indian background has increased the demand for Asian movies in the country. Today, it is common to see Asian movies being screened in small theatres and even some cinema houses. Australian cities have also been used as a location for filming movies from Asia, such as Jackie Chan’s Mr Nice Guy and Salman Khan’s Bollywood film Main aur Mrs Khanna, which were both shot on location in Melbourne. The growth of the industry has also attracted Australian musicians and actors who have appeared and worked on a number of projects. Recently, Australian pop idol Kylie Minogue appeared in the Indian movie Blue in which she performed one of the songs penned by Oscar award winning musician A. R. Rahman.
Challenges and opportunities for the industry
Despite the growing acceptance of films from Asia, there are a number of challenges that threaten to harm the growth of the industry. For the Hong Kong film industry, the greatest challenge is the lack of funding for new movies. The problems for the industry began in 1997 when the Asian financial crisis affected funding sources as well as consumers’ spending power. It was hoped that the handover to China would bring about a boom in the industry but this failed to materialise. The breakout of the SARS virus also affected cinema attendances and many financiers faced losses. In India the source of funding for movies has been a controversial topic. There are claims that many films are funded by individuals who are affiliated with the underworld, similar to the situation Hollywood faced during the time of prohibition. The involvement of criminal elements in the industry has seen film producers, directors and actors being targeted by warring criminal gangs harming each other’s interests.
The Indian film industry also faces pressure from political and religious parties. Many film actors enter the Indian political system, as they are well received by the population. However, this relationship has opened up the industry to involvement from certain groups who oppose the content of certain films or the views of those involved in them. Such a situation took place in 2009 when police had to be deployed to protect cinema houses that were screening the film My Name is Khan. The star of the movie was Shahrukh Khan, a popular actor who is also part owner of one of the cricket teams playing in the Indian Premier League. Khan had spoken in favour of allowing Pakistani cricket players to feature in the Premier League. With the political relationship between India and Pakistan at an all-time low, Khan was labelled a ‘traitor’ by the Shiv Sena, an influential party in the state of Mahrashtra where the Bollywood industry is based. Supporters of the Shiv Sena threatened to attack cinema houses that screened the movie. This threat was subsequently disowned by the party and the movie went on to be a success.
In addition to these pressures, both industries face rev- enue losses due to piracy. The weak intellectual property law in these countries has contributed to this issue. But even outside of their domestic markets the issue of piracy and intellectual property protection remains a concern. The Asian film industries have only recently taken an active interest in promoting their films overseas, and only a small proportion of movies made in these countries are distributed globally through official channels. Most films are made available through pirated copies which are sold in Chinese and Indian shops. As the popularity of these movies grows, the potential loss of revenue from the overseas market could be quite significant.
Acknowledging these concerns, the industries have altered their approach in the last few years. There are stronger financial cases being made to attract banks to fund the movies, and the creation of megaplexes in malls has seen the return of cinema goers. On the global front, collaboration between industries is seen as the key for future success of Asian films. Award-winning movies such as the Taiwan, Hong Kong and US venture, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the British–Indian collaboration Slumdog Millionaire, are exs of how the film industries can work together and learn from each other. The success of these ventures indicates that the future of the Asian film industry is bright.
1. With role do you believe governments can play in encouraging the global reach of the film industry?
2. What steps can the Asian film industry take to deal with the piracy problem?
3. Disney and other American companies have success- fully entered some Asian countries and have established studios and theme parks.
How can the local Asian film industry compete against the growing popularity of Hollywood movies and products in their domestic market?
4. What role do you believe countries such as Australia can play in the growth and success of the Asian film industry?