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Kong boosts Asia’s international filming image

Kong Skull Island ensembleThe adventure movie Kong: Skull Island has boosted Vietnam’s international image as South-East Asia’s production profile rises among Hollywood producers.

Set in the 1970s during the Vietnam War era, Kong: Skull Island (pictured) follows a group of American soldiers as they encounter the legendary great ape on a mysterious island.

The movie comes 12 years after Peter Jackson’s remake of the original King Kong story, which used elaborate set building and visual effects to shoot entirely in New Zealand. 

The producers of Kong: Skull Island spent around a month filming on location across Vietnam and the project became the biggest movie ever to shoot in the country. 

“Hanoi is a truly magical place,” says Ilt Jones, the film’s supervising location manager, in comments to KFTV. “There are a lot of great people and everyone’s so friendly towards foreigners. It’s one of the top locations of the 45 countries I’ve worked in throughout my career.”

Jones describes the Vietnam shoot as a “magical life experience”. He adds that several South-East Asian countries were scouted as director Jordan Vogt-Roberts was looking for an exotic palette of visuals that recalled the memorable images of Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, among other influences.

“Beyond Hanoi, the production infrastructure is not really fleshed out,” Jones says, “but the government made things smoother by having easy equipment imports. The service company we worked with – Indochina Productions – was an invaluable bridge between cultures as we built roads and dredged swamps.”


Thailand remains the production centre

Despite the picturesque thrills of Vietnam, Jones considers Thailand to be the production centre of South-East Asia in a practical sense, offering a good range of equipment and experienced crews, alongside more stable politics. There are also the world-famous Thai beaches to lure producers.

Vietnam Pan locationSteven Mortimore is a location manager who has scouted Asia extensively over the past 20 years, most recently for Joe Wright’s fantasy movie Pan and the upcoming superhero film Wonder Woman. His view of Vietnam contrasts with Jones’ experiences on Kong. 

“The infrastructure [in Vietnam] is still not on par with Thailand, or other Asian service companies sadly,” Mortimore tells KFTV.

“The local service companies come and go, and are only interested in making a short buck and moving on. No-one has put an anchor down and established a trusted and reliable service company.

“Every time I work in Vietnam I end up working with a different service company. Ultimately this has not helped the country grow in any way.”

Mortimore adds that the country’s culinary culture and hospitality remains a major plus point that helps counter any negative experiences.

“The two things about Asia though that really make it stand out at the end of the day are the hotels and food,” Mortimore says.  

“Regardless of what kind of day that you have had either scouting or shooting, the chances are that you will then retire to a rather special hotel with a service and food menu that you will not find anywhere else in the world. In general, no-one can really compete with Asia for this kind of escape.”

Nicholas Simon is an executive producer with Indochina Productions – with offices in Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, and in Vietnam – and agrees with Ilt Jones that Thailand is still the region’s production hub with a substantial service industry. Thailand now has a 15% filming incentive, but the programme is undermined by a low per-production cap of just over a million US dollars.

Thailand“The incentive is not that intriguing because of the cap,” Simon tells KFTV. “For movies below about $20m, Thailand (pictured) does become competitive when compared to the more limited crew base in Malaysia.”

He also confirms to KFTV that Kong: Skull Island has boosted Vietnam’s production profile in Hollywood and the shoot has the potential to lead to formal incentives further down the line.

Malaysia has offered a 30% filming incentive for the past few years and has the only world-class studio facility in the region. Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios lies on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula near the border with Singapore and offers five stages, plus water tanks. Netflix took over the facility for two seasons of the glossy period adventure series Marco Polo.

“The studio space was plentiful in Malaysia and the rebate and cost of crew and general logistics made it all more cost-effective,” says Tim Coddington, a line producer on Marco Polo, in comments to KFTV. “Smaller films might find Thailand a better fit and there’s good local crew, but if you’re a larger production moving around a lot internationally and transporting your own people, Malaysia works better.”


China grows as an Asian production hub

China dominates the East Asian production market and will continue to grow in regional dominance in the coming years. The country has a reputation for intense bureaucracy and has strict production codes that Hollywood has struggled with in recent years.

Ilt Jones, for one, is not a fan of China as a filming location, having worked there on Michael Bay’s action sequel Transformers: Age of Extinction. Hollywood has now largely shifted to working with the Chinese on co-production projects rather than filming US shoots on mainland China, although the under-performance of The Great Wall - filmed entirely in China as the largest ever US-China co-production (pictured below) - is likely to impact future projects.

Still, broad international ties with China are strengthening, with Pinewood China opening in Beijing as a representative office in the autumn of 2016 as the company consults in the country on filmmaking expertise and studio development. 

The Great WallSteven Mortimore tells KFTV that Thailand will need a good studio complex to become a true global hub, but he thinks China is likely to eclipse Thailand. He says travel in China had become easier for Wonder Woman scouting trips in 2015 and a new high-speed train with a good wi-fi service made domestic travel faster and more efficient. 

“China already has some great studios, plus some incredible plans for further developments which would make them that hub,” Mortimore considers. “The crew are evolving well and a great infrastructure is being built for the long-term.  

“The locations are there for sure, and the government is relaxing and making filming permissions more straightforward, I believe.

“I am sure that China will really start to get busy and popular. The local service company Gung Ho Films, whom I have worked with now on a few occasions, was excellent – they really know what they are doing.”

More eastern parts of Asia have had flirtations with Hollywood, but longer-term prospects seem less likely. Martin Scorsese recently doubled Taiwan for 17th century Japan in his film Silence, after seeking advice from Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee. 

Japan itself is rarely feasible for Hollywood shoots as the country lacks filming incentive support and other parts of the world can become convenient doubles. James Mangold’s 2013 X-Men spinoff The Wolverine recreated many of its Japan settings in and around Sydney.

While China’s movie market will continue to grow, Thailand seems likely to remain the place where foreign producers want to film. The country’s incentive gives the nation’s production industry a real opportunity to grow its global appeal, but the government will need to be open to further changes if they’re to truly compete internationally.

Kong image: Vince Valitutti/Warner Bros. Entertainment. Vietnam image: Steven Mortimore. The Great Wall image: Jasin Boland/Universal Pictures.


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