Box office reality bites filmmakers hard

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A scene from Lua Phat (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam), a highly anticipated action fantasy which grossed one third of its US$1.42 million investment after premiered last August

This year's much-anticipated action fantasy, "Lua Phat" (Once Upon a Time in Vietnam), which premiered last August, has brought back just one third of its US$1.42 million investment.

Yet, this is better than nothing. It could have been worse. The $500,000 action flick about gang fights in Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown, "Bui doi Cho Lon," ended up being banned from screens in June after the censors found it too violent, even after the main slashes were cut.

"Duong dua" (The Race), the next big action flick, also ended short at the box office despite gathering generous praise from critics.

The series of losses, not surprisingly, have given filmmakers pause. Should they pursue commercially successful formulas or try to combine their artistic sense and public interest? Is the latter option feasible? Can it be done?

Some people say money has become dearer and comedy is the way to success at the box office, because people like to laugh.

Vu Thi Bich Lien, director of Song Vang Film Production Company, told Tuoi Tre newspaper that comedy is the "safest course."

Lien said there are three movie genres that can survive in Vietnam comedy, thrillers and martial arts, but Vietnamese filmmakers have not been able to present convincing works with the last two, partly because they are hindered by the censors. 

She said a comedy movie only needs a human story and charming cast.

Looking back over the past few years, movies without the funny element have not been favored by Vietnamese moviegoers.

"Thien menh anh hung" (Blood Letter), a martial arts/historical movie by Victor Vu was a 2012 New Year blockbuster, so was "Dong mau anh hung" (The Rebel), also by the overseas Vietnamese director of "Bui doi Cho Lon," Charlie Nguyen, in 2007. But ticket sales could not match the original investment.

And unlike Hollywood blockbusters like "The Lone Ranger," "After Earth," or "White House Down," Vietnamese movies rarely have other chances after bombing at home.

Low-budget comedies have become a major trend across Asia, which is witnessing box office revenue growth that can surpass North America in a couple decades, insiders opined at the 18th Busan International Film Festival last month.

"Lost in Thailand" became a cinematic phenomenon in China last year. The $5 million production about three men on a wild road trip gained more than $200 million at the local box office to become the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, only a few dollars short of breaking the box office record of James Cameron's fantasy flick "Avatar."

South Korea's box office hit this year, "Miracle in Cell No. 7," is a local drama comedy about love between a mentally ill father, accused of murder and rape, and his daughter. It grossed $82 million.

Thai romcom horror "Pee Mak" earned $33 million across Southeast Asia cinemas including those in Vietnam this year, after spending just $2 million in the making.

Vietnamese filmmakers also wish to be there some day, when their movies will go beyond the shadows of import films to enter box office hit lists.

Charlie Nguyen, following up on the shattered dream with "Bui doi Cho Lon," is working on two comedies that are expected to be Vietnam's "Lost in Thailand," while fellow action star Victor Vu is also set to launch two other comedies.

Meanwhile, several fresh on the local film scene have started to win expensive laughs.

Thien Do's debut "Tien chua" (Funny Money), a dark comedy about young people addicted to spending, earned VND5 billion ($237,140) after eight days in cinema last month, and Ham Tran's "Am muu giay got nhon" (How to Fight in Six Inch Heels) a romcom chick flick about a short-legged girl in a long-legged world, made more.

Still, local filmmakers say it is hard for them to assess whether a film will sell or not because the local industry is "incomplete" and it is hard to predict what viewers will take to and not.

Dinh Thanh Huong, general director of Galaxy Cineplex, which is also a movie producer, said that filmmaking in Vietnam is a risk.

Huong said six movies have earned lower than expected incomes this year, forcing directors and producers to think harder before making any investment.

"We always have to work with some critics and a group of potential audience members after a work is completed in order to assess market response.

"But still, the taste of the general public is something you can hardly get a grasp of, as it keeps changing."

She also said that the restriction of foreign movies like in China and India might be a helpful policy as it saves local movies some air.

"Making movies in Vietnam is a constant risks, but we'll lose the industry (to foreigners) if we stop."

Ngo Thi Bich Hien, director of the Ho Chi Minh City branch of "Lua Phat" producer BHD, said filmmaking is an artistic investment and she accepts the risks involved.

"Comedy, in the current situation, is a safe choice financially. But we still have plans for other genres like thrillers, and dramas.

"We will try to balance public taste with the artists' wish to pursue their creativity."

BHD had decided at the beginning that money would not describe the success of "Lua Phat," but they wanted to make a breakthrough film in the genre, Hien said, noting that it was the first fantasy film distributed widely in the country and abroad.

She told Tuoi Tre the movie has been sold to more than 20 countries including the North American market, which was "an unprecedented success."

Be young, be simple

The artistic pursuit is more vibrant among the short film community, where "box office" means next to nothing.

Projects like "We make movies" or online short film festival YxineFF have become laboratories for young filmmakers, whose job has been simplified these days with modern gadgets like smart phones and tablets.

Many participants in such projects are graduates from film schools and they have delivered short films online or done TV serials at first. Several of them have matured to become acclaimed filmmakers like Tran Anh Hung, Phan Dang Di or Bui Thac Chuyen, the latter two known among indie directors in Vietnam able to win international awards.

Di, whose "Bi, dung so" (Bi, Don't Be Afraid) won two Critics Week awards at Cannes in 2010, said the local movie industry just needs to stay simple if it wants to find a way out.

"We cannot swing or fly as beautifully as in Chinese martial arts films, we cannot deliver top-notch effects like in US movies, we cannot put up cheerful dances like in Indian movies, or moving romances like in South Korean ones.

"So let's stop chasing after something that does not belong to us. Let's start with something small, like going deep into daily fun and misery."

He said it's a normal story anywhere that movies lose or win, and that should not be a reason for filmmakers to immediately switch to comedy.

He expressed sadness that there were few filmmaking chances in Vietnam, prompting a director, once getting a chance, to think first about how to make money, "instead of staying calm for a moment to see what they need, to target a stable audience base."

The 37-year-old also said that more than being simple, the industry needs a deeper makeover.  "We need blood change for development."

He said the few filmmaking chances that come up are given to experienced directors, and producers were not willing to take a chance with younger people.

He pointed to the French movie industry, saying it nosedived after the golden days of the 1960s and 1970s, so it gave chances to young directors who delivered around 100 movies to the screens every year soon after.

The director said he cannot promise that young directors will be better, but they would bring "surprises."

"We should not totally rely on the safe directors who keep serving the same old dishes."

Most directors with state studios are over 50 and masters of war and diplomatic movies, while those with private firms are also around 40, Di said in the report. "There's a clear generation gap between them with the 20-year-old moviegoers."

He said several Vietnamese American directors have joined the market recently, bringing their Western experience, but they too have become familiar and predictable.

Di said Vietnam has never had a serious program to support young directors, and those who are operating are only doing so thanks to foreign funds. They need more money and official endorsement to meet and exchange experiences with each other as well as with filmmakers aboard, he added.

"We keep talking about reform, so we need to start to search for young talents and assist them. Or it will be like we plant no tree, but keep holding the basket, waiting for its fruits."

The director said, without mentioning names, that some young directors have been discouraged after the distribution of their works was restricted or even banned because they didn't follow the "traditional formula."

Foreign entertainment companies are flocking to Vietnam, targeting its young population, so Vietnam needs a young army to counter that instead of "keeping them down with unnecessary rules," he said.

"Without enough Vietnamese movies on screens, without the diversity and necessary fascination, we will just end up paying money for foreign products.

"We won't have the chance to listen to Vietnamese in cinemas at home, let alone make it heard in other countries."

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