Indonesia’s feature films have made much more of an impact in the premium space than its TV series, which for years have been dominated by long-running local low-budget mass-market soap operas. Global and domestic streaming attention changed the game. Janine Stein looks at a market celebrating two of its biggest, most expensive TV series ever and what’s being done to secure a production ecosystem to support the demand for bigger, better and more.
By many estimates, Indonesia will have premiered its two most expensive TV series by Christmas this year – Cigarette Girl (Gadis Kretek) by Base Entertainment for Netflix, which debuted on 2 November, followed by Tira, by Screenplay Films’ for Disney+ on 16 December.
For Netflix, the bet seems to have paid off (ed’s note: we’re going by Netflix’s published top 10 rankings. We have no visibility on what the platform’s internal criteria for success are).
The period/romance drama, with a guestimated budget of between US$250,000 and US$400,000 per episode – US$1.25 million-US$2 million for five episodes – is #1 at home and the first Indonesian series ever with enough engagement to secure a spot on the streamer’s global non-English TV top 10.
In its debut week (6-12 November 2023), the show placed 10th with 8.6 million hours viewed (1.6 million views), holding the spot the following week (13-19 November), albeit with slightly fewer hours/views.
In its second week on the global charts, Gadis Kretek was on the top 10 lists in eight countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, Costa Rica and Venezuela.
At home, Gadis Kretek is holding fast against goliaths. Netflix doesn’t disclose viewing/engagement data on a country level, but the story of a woman who dreams of crafting the perfect cigarette is triumphing against Korea’s Daily Dose of Sunshine, Strong Girl Nam-soon, Castaway Diva and Studio Dragon’s Doona!, starring A-lister Bae Suzy.
Maybe this feat isn’t super-surprising. It has long been said, and proved from as way back as the iflix days, that Indonesian audiences overwhelmingly prefer local content. Some figures put local TV video entertainment consumption at three to four times higher than western TV content.
Cigarette Girl joins a handful of Indonesian feature films and one true-crime documentary, made by the Singapore-based Beach House Pictures, that made it onto Netflix’s global non-English top 10s in 2022/3.
Titles include action movie The Raid 2 in January, and true-crime docu-series, Ice Cold: Murder, Coffee and Jessica Wongso in September/October 2023.
The Raid 2 was viewed for a total of 8.62 million hours between 2-15 January 2023.
Ice Cold: Murder, Coffee and Jessica Wongso spent two weeks on the non-English global TV series top 10, with 6.8 million hours viewed from 25 September to 8 October 2023.
It’s a long way from 2018, when Indonesia wasn’t mentioned at all in Netflix’s first showcase of 17 Asian original productions from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, India and Korea.
Long a thriving mass-market free-TV ‘sinetron’ market, Indonesia’s ambitions for premium TV production are as old as streaming itself, even if Netflix didn’t seem to prioritise it at the time.
The reasons may include the not-insignificant reality that Netflix was pretty much blocked in Indonesia from its launch in 2016 until the middle of 2020.
The hard-won peace accord with the powerful state-owned Telkom Group included censorship concessions as well as commercial arrangements.
Three and a half years on, Indonesia’s production ambitions enter 2024 with fewer broken hearts than the streaming platforms – including the iflix, which died, and GoTo’s GoPlay, which lives on as Everywhere under new owners – that tried to tap this mighty consumer market.
Approaching a new year, the industry’s confidence in the ability to tell universal stories is growing, and the production infrastructure and processes are stronger than they were last year, or the year before.
Many questions don’t have answers – yet.
Will Disney+ restart local production in Indonesia? What are Warner Bros Discovery’s (WBD) plans for Max in Indonesia? What’s brewing at the Emtek/SCM-owned Vidio with the arrival of Mark Francis, WBD’s former group lead for original production in Southeast Asia/Hong Kong/Taiwan, who joined the Jakarta-based domestic streamer in November 2023? Francis is the platform’s first dedicated content head since chief content officer, Tina Arwin, decamped after three years to join Amazon Prime Video’s Southeast Asia team in August 2022.
There is also the impact of French media giant Canal+’s mid-2023 investment in Viu, a regional streamer that made early and winning bets on shows like Pretty Little Liars Indonesia and Bad Boys vs Crazy Girls, among others. And the sale of domestic streamer GoPlay, which, in its heyday, greenlit a local version of Gossip Girl. The video platform was sold to Indonesian entrepreneur Edy Sulistyo in September 2023 after Indonesia’s GoTo Group ditched non-core assets in search of profitability.
If there is any certainty going into 2024, it involves Netflix’s continued commitment to premium originals in Indonesia and optimism that Amazon/Prime Video’s newly installed Southeast Asia team will make magic in Indonesia the same way it did in India.
Netflix’s upcoming projects include Timo Tjahjanto/Frontier Pictures’ feature, The Shadow Strays, which is already in production.
Of the seven new Indonesian originals announced in September 2022, Joko Anwar’s sci-fi thriller, Nightmares and Daydreams, about ordinary people encountering strange phenomena, doesn’t have a release date yet.
Netflix also had not at presstime announced a premiere date for Raditya Dika’s movie, Komedi Kacau (Comedy Chaos), about a down on his luck man who has to juggle managing his recently acquired comedy club and married life.
So that’s at least three that we know about.
Prime Video’s Indonesia content strategy hadn’t been made public by mid-November 2023, and there’s no clear indication on where unscripted originals rank – if at all – on the priority list for Indonesia.
This leaves a question mark over the return of Comedy Island Indonesia, a six-episode reality show greenlit by the previous team at Amazon Studios/Prime Video.
Comedy Island Indonesia, part of a trio of originals with separate adaptations for Thailand and the Philippines, premiered on 9 November 2023, with nine Indonesian actors and comedians, including Tora Sudiro and Nirina Zubir.
As this plays out, deeper questions continue to be asked about Indonesia’s production industry’s ability to service demand for bigger, better and even more premium productions.
The market’s shortage of writers/directors/crew in this space and the challenges this pose to scaling up is not a secret.
For decades characterised by mass-market serials made for US$10,000 or US$20,000 an episode, demand for premium series creators and crews able to work at five times that budget (at least) way outstrips supply – even after the Disney+ and WBD about-face on streaming originals that shrunk demand. On top of that, film production is thriving and box office revenues are vibrant across both local and U.S. titles.
Like elsewhere, the rise of premium TV production is grounded in the film industry, which in Indonesia started in the mid-1920s, and the two continue to develop hand in hand.
Film remains a pillar of domestic entertainment, with blockbusters like MD Pictures’ 2022 horror drama, KKN di Desa Penari, which is the highest grossing local movie of all time; Falcon Pictures’ Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss! Part 1 (2016); and Rapi Films/Joko Anwars’ Satan’s Slaves 2: Communion (2022).
Rapid growth of cinemas in the key cities and provinces “allows local films to recoup production costs and improve the production quality with bigger budgets,” says film industry veteran Erlina Suharjono, who co-founded i.e. entertainment in 2021 after more than two decades with Warner Bros and Cathay Organisation.
Speaking during the ContentAsia Summit in Bangkok at the end of August 2023, Base Entertainment’s Tanya Yuson, co-founder and chief creative development officer, said feature films had given the production industry experience with higher budgets and production values.
“We’ve always had higher budgets and higher production values for feature films,” she said. “Now there are platforms willing to bridge that gap, that’s what we’re bringing over [to TV].” she said “It’s just going to be a bit of a learning curve, the market needs to see that you can have that kind of quality in a TV series”.
Anthony Buncio, SVP, streaming of Screenplay Films Indonesia, which is behind the upcoming Tira, also underlines Indonesia’s theatrical achievements, surfaced in the streaming world with titles like Timo Tjahjanto/Frontier Pictures’ The Big 4 (2022), which was on Netflix’s global top 10 non-English film list for three weeks in 2022/3 and on the top 10 in 65 countries.
Buncio says theatrical and streaming are proving to be mutually beneficial.
“As producers, we know that we have a second life in OTT. So it emboldens us to take more risk and explore”.
Indonesia’s shift in storytelling involves much greater effort in “trying to meet audiences where they are, translating stories [like Gadis Kretek, adapted from a popular novel] that connect with audiences and giving them a premium platform to play that out,” Yuson says.
“We’re refining more than changing,” she adds. “When you’re in a storytelling culture, you’re not really changing the game as much as elevating the next story from what came before... Part of that is us listening to the audience, trying to see where they’re coming from, putting our ears to the ground”.
The listening is showing a storytelling geography spreading beyond Jakarta or Central Indonesia, into areas with different dialects and perspectives. Another trend indicates that light young adult stories, which powered the first wave of premium streaming, may have plateaued in 2023 compared to 2022, and demand is rising for stories with more complex characters dealing with more serious issues.
Horror as a comfortable fallback – what Yuson describes as “comfort food for theatrical, the old standard”, is also changing. Although the genre remains a mainstay, audiences are demanding entertainment they haven’t seen before, particularly for theatrical release. “You can’t just make any horror and it does well,” she says.
Developing an end-to-end production infrastructure for Indonesia is an ongoing conversation. Buncio says protocols and processes, including IP development/pitching, have been streamlined, with clear criteria and guidelines set in place. Screenplay also has a stringent “post-mortem” process, which enables the company to adapt quickly to market changes. “We’re always looking for better ways of working so that storytelling is relevant in today’s landscape,” he says.
Some of the processes being rolled out have been adapted from Hollywood, where both Yuson and Buncio have worked. “But there’s no one system fits all,” Buncio says, adding that the systems being developed for Indonesia are customised to fit existing reality and local culture.
An essential element is longer development time for ideas as well as for writing, Yuson says. “Traditionally, even in other territories in Asia, you want to get the script quickly, and then you want to go into production quickly. That’s traditionally how it’s been done. So I think one of the shifts is allotting time and really making the effort to make sure scripts are in their best form before you even go into pre-production,” she adds.
Crafting the kind of emotion and realistic experiences that connect the series with an audience is a holy grail. “We want those emotions, those real life experiences in the script,” Buncio says.
Easier said than done, although Buncio doesn’t see it as a choice. “In Asia, we tend to repress a lot of those feelings... but we have to or else we are on a surface level in scripting”.
Younger writers and directors, like Sidharta Tata (Quarantine Tales, Pertaruhan: The Series) and Jason Iskandar (Quarantine Tales, Akhirat: A Love Story), are being welcomed into this developing ecosystem. “We try to find ways that make sense to build and bring in new writers, directors,” Yuson says. “Obviously we’ve worked with a lot of the veterans... but we love working with new talent... Series are always great proving grounds.”
▶ Published in ContentAsia December 2023 magazine