For want of studios

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Growth of Vietnamese film industry inhibited by lack of production facilities

 
Crumbled sets at the Hanoi-based Co Loa Studio. Directors said the critical lack of professional studios is hindering the local film industry's development.

If there is one aspect that clearly underlines the state of underdevelopment of Vietnam's film industry, it is the state its studios are in, or what is left of them, that is.

In 2008, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism launched a plan to restore the Co Loa Studio, located some ten kilometers from Hanoi, with an estimated investment of over VND5 trillion (US$240.38 million).

It was the first time the government was taking action to revive the 15-hectare studio, which was built in 1959 in cooperation with Germany and the Soviet Union.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the studio was considered the capital of the country's film industry, as many classics were shot there, including the award-winning Vi tuyen 17 ngay va dem (Days and Nights at the 17th Parallel) by veteran director Hai Ninh.

But, it was later abandoned and almost inactive for many years until the government commissioned several historical films and series to celebrate Hanoi's 1,000th anniversary, leading to the demand for a studio which was large enough for films estimated to cost hundreds of billions of dong.

More than VND106 billion ($5 million) was put into the project's first phase, which was completed in February. An indoor studio covering 450 square meters was restored with a hi-end lighting system. Several other facilities, like a 500-seat dining cafeteria and accommodation for filming crews, were also built.

Since the renovation, the studio hosted the crew of two of the anniversary projects TV series Thai su Tran Thu Do (Great Tutor Tran Thu Do) and Huyen su Thien Do (The Story behind Moving the Capital).

However, after filming ended last year, the studio has again been abandoned. Recent rains have turned it into a swamp with tall grass growing everywhere. All the settings and backgrounds made by the two filming crews have almost been destroyed.

Dang Tat Binh, director of both serials, told the Tuoi Tre newspaper that all the outdoor backgrounds that they'd erected in the studio premises like the entrance to Thang Long City with a citadel nearly 150-meters long, a royal court room, and streets with rich and poor houses have been damaged by rains and storms.

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"After this rainy season, it's certain that those places will return to their original form uninhabited land," Binh said.

According to Binh, the Co Loa Studio only leases out its premises and filming crews have to make the sets themselves.

Due to financial limitations, they did not dare to make long-lasting sets with high-quality materials, the director said.

"In fact, over the past few years, it has been clear that all the backgrounds made at Co Loa would be used for filming then and there. There has been no long term objective because of the shortage of funds.

"As long as we are yet to have a real demand for producing historical films, the demand for building a studio is an illusion," Binh said, adding that in Vietnam at the moment, it's even difficult to find a studio for a contemporary film.

The newspaper also quoted a director, who wished to stay unnamed, as saying that the problem with Co Loa is that no specific zoning plan is available for the studio to attract investors.

Meanwhile, many land lots that the studio has leased to other agencies, as well as those illegally taken by surrounding families, are yet to be returned, although they have been requested to do so long ago.

"With such progress, it will be very long before Vietnam can have a proper studio," he said.

On the other hand, despite suspicions and criticisms, leaders of the studio have expressed high expectations for the project.

In an interview with Cong an Nhan dan online (People's Police Online), Director Nguyen Van Nhiem said that in the project's second phase, they will build an outdoor studio, including post-production facilities. In the future, sets will be built with high-quality materials that can be used for historical films in many different time periods.

They will also serve contemporary films, he said.

He said it is expected that by 2015, the studio will be able to shoot 30 films per year, and the number will increase to 35 by 2020.

Deputy director Phan Van Hoa added that five indoor settings covering 3,000 square meters and an underwater studio will also be built.

The culture ministry has asked the studio's leaders to send a proposal to Hanoi authorities seeking another 100 hectares to expand the studio, the news source reported.

Real demand

Dao Ba Son, director of Long Thanh cam gia ca (the Ballad of a Thang Long musician), which won the Canh Dieu Vang (Golden Kite) national film award in 2010, said it was difficult to find sets for his film that is set in Thang Long (now Hanoi) some 200 years ago.

"It will be ideal to have a studio that is specifically made for historical films," he told Thanh Nien Weekly.

Contemporary films also feel the lack of good studios, although they do not need the complicated sets that historical films do. All the sets they construct have to be destroyed after filming to make room for other functions like leasing premises for other films or TV shows, the representative of a production company told Tuoi Tre.

"Apart from financial and space constraints, our studios are built without consideration of the need to promote tourism, so it's not possible to talk about long-term plans."

Meanwhile, at least one person is planning to build his own facility instead of waiting for a revamped Co Loa Studio to become available.

In an interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, director Tran Luc said he totally understood the troubles caused by the absence of a proper studio, so he is planning to build a studio covering two hectares in Gia Lam District, Hanoi.

 "With a studio, we can be more proactive, and save more money," considering that crews no longer have to wander around to film scenes with different settings or adjust filming angles to adapt to chosen backgrounds, he said.

"Vietnam is currently facing a critical lack of studios," especially in the north, he said.

Luc said the studio will be built in three phases, with the first one expected to be completed early next year. After completion, it will not only be used for his Dong A Production Company's films, but will also be leased out.

He said his studio will reproduce the northern delta in the early 20th century, and therefore will offer opportunities for local directors to make films based on literary classics of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

"The studio will allow the making of different types of films in the country," he said.

Last year Le Thanh Hai, a photographer, made headlines when he opened a 700 square-meter studio, also in Gia Lam, that boasted advanced technology and post-production facilities.

However, Son said, Vietnam's government still needs to build one or two really good studios if it is to provide a significant boost to the growth of the local film industry.

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