The Indonesian island of Bali is no stranger to Hollywood. It provided the backdrop, cast and folk narrative for 1935’s Legong: Dance of the Virgins, a silent exploitation film whose poster advertised “native customs, native music, native cast”, and in 2010 it was where Julia Roberts found herself in Eat Pray Love.
The island could be making more movie cameos after it was revealed at the Cannes Film Festival on July 9 that “Southeast Asian content producer and financier United Media Asia [UMA], which entered into a strategic partnership with Hollywood agency CAA [Creative Artists Agency] in 2020 […] plans to build a large-scale film and TV production facility in Bali, Indonesia,” according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Variety magazine also noted this month: “The deal will see CAA help represent and arrange financing for local-language film and television content in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, as well as advise on the company’s overall entertainment strategy.”
The partnership appears to have the blessing of Indonesia’s minister of tourism and creative economy, Sandiaga Uno. “I am very excited to see United Media Asia’s effort to build and cultivate Bali as a world-class hub for international content,” he said in a statement provided by CAA. “UMA is a promising company with an advanced vision to promote Indonesia’s best assets of arts, creativity and culture while at the same time bridging the gap between Asia’s creative with Hollywood’s cinematic universe.”
Perhaps most importantly for Bali, the development promises to introduce some economic diversification. “Through their productions, UMA will employ thousands of local talent [sic] to bolster the Bali economy, which has been severely impacted by the global pandemic,” the statement continued. Bali’s GDP (gross domestic product) contraction of 9.3 per cent in 2020 was the worst among Indonesia’s 34 provinces, with hotel occupancy rates hovering around 10 per cent, according to financial newspaper Nikkei Asia.The island is currently under partial lockdown owing to a devastating surge of Covid-19 infections in Indonesia, which recently surpassed India’s daily case numbers to become Asia’s virus epicentre. The latest wave has halted proposals to reopen Bali to international arrivals until “the situation [is] more conducive”, Uno recently told Reuters. Although no firm details on the production hub are available, it should offer a glimmer of hope for the embattled destination, not least because the benefits could be twofold.
As well as potentially employing thousands in a new industry, it could inspire “film tourism”. This is described by academics as a branch of cultural tourism that “refers to the growing interest and demand for locations which become popular due to their appearance in films and television series”. When done well, film tourism can be “an excellent vehicle for destinations’ marketing and also creates opportunities for product and community entrepreneur development such as location tours or film heritage museums”, according to travel industry website Tourism Tattler.
Just look at what the Lord of the Rings trilogy did to raise New Zealand’s tourism profile, or how captivating Singapore looks in Crazy Rich Asians (2018). The highest grossing movie in China in 2012, Lost in Thailand, inspired record numbers of travellers from the Middle Kingdom to lose themselves in Chiang Mai.
Arguably, Eat Pray Love helped shape Ubud in its image, with one scholar suggesting that “EPL-motivated tourists” had a major impact on “the commodification of agricultural places and the commodification of social practices and sacred rituals”.
In a 2016 paper titled “Film Tourism Indonesia Style”, the authors note that Indonesian cinema has, thus far, been unsuccessful in inspiring movie-related domestic travel, perhaps because “most Indonesian films are set in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia, or in a big city with no clear identity”.