Nicholas Simon shares why the region could be the industry’s next great growth story and how ‘Kong: Skull Island’ was a game-changer for Vietnam.
After 20 colorful years of hustling, servicing and co-producing international film projects in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and more, American producer Nicholas Simon has come to be known as Hollywood’s man in Southeast Asia.
The 48-year-old Wisconsin native first arrived in Hanoi via New York in 1993 with the hope of becoming a journalist. But Simon says he immediately realized that he didn’t actually enjoy writing — “a pretty big problem for an aspiring writer,” he says. After a series of odd jobs during Vietnam’s heady period of reopening to the West — including a gig negotiating a contract to repaint three Russian oil rigs — Simon, while “drunk in a bar,” met the French producers of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo, which was then shooting in the country (it would go on to win the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in 1995). Simon offered to help out on the project in an informal capacity and the next year co-founded Vietnam’s first joint-venture production company, Sud-Est Productions, with contacts he met through the film. Over the ensuing years, he has co-produced or provided production services to dozens of international projects shooting in the region.
Today, he runs Indochina Productions, a production and film services company launched in 2010 in Bangkok and active throughout the Southeast Asian region, along with territories further afield in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh. The company is coming off one of its strongest years to date, with Simon having line produced the five-week Vietnamese shoot of Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment’s Kong: Skull Island. The firm also co-produced the Thailand-set prison boxing drama A Prayer Before Dawn, backed by James Schamus’ Meridian Films, which will get its world premiere May 19 in Cannes as a Midnight Screenings selection.
The Hollywood Reporter met with Simon in his Bangkok offices to discuss how Netflix and Amazon are reshaping the Southeast Asian film sector, his experience shooting in an active Philippine prison and why Sri Lanka could be the next boom territory for international film production.
How has Kong: Skull Island affected Vietnam’s place in the industry?
It’s changed the Vietnamese industry in terms of the perceptions from both abroad and within. The producers, Legendary and Warners, were very happy with the experience, and they’re recommending that other projects look at the country. Now people see that, yes, it’s possible to do a tentpole in Vietnam, which is a game-changer.
Where are some of the more remote places that you have worked?
We do one or two projects a year in Bangladesh. We shot a second unit and plate unit sequence there for The Avengers. There was another Hollywood tentpole that unfortunately was canceled at the last minute because of the ISIS attack [in July]. They have some beautiful, unique colonial locations. But there’s very little tourism industry, and if you don’t have a strong tourism industry, international productions often just won’t come because people generally want to be comfortable — nice accommodations, great food, service culture and everything else. They really go hand in hand: A great tourism industry helps attract international productions — and once you have more international productions, they’re the best promotion for the local tourism industry.
For A Prayer Before Dawn, screening in Cannes, you shot in a working Philippine prison, correct?
Yes, we shot for several days in a live prison in Cebu. The rest of the film was shot in Thailand, but this was the easiest way for us to get a couple thousand prisoners as extras.
Where else is it most exciting to work in Asia right now?
We see huge potential growth in Sri Lanka. There’s a tremendous cinema history there — some real classics were shot there, like Bridge on the River Kwai and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — but everything was completely put on pause during the hostile period. Now Sri Lanka has had consecutive years of peace, and things are really starting to go. There are such incredible natural wonders there, and unlike a place like India, it’s very underpopulated, which makes staging large productions so much easier.
What’s your take on where Southeast Asia is currently headed?
I feel really fortunate to be here in this part of the world — it’s an amazing time. Whatever Trump may want, the world is already globalized. Here we see the film industries operating on an international level, a regional Southeast Asian level and a local level. What’s fun now is that a lot of money and interest is coming in from the outside. Netflix, Amazon and iFlix are going to be pouring capital into the region with the goal of creating more local content for local audiences — but with the goal that this content might also be able to work on a regional or even global level, which is very interesting.
How do you think the investments from the streaming giants might reverberate through these still-developing local screen communities?
It’s just starting, and the companies are still building their strategies. An influx of cash like this is either scary as hell — because it increases the price of everything across the board — or, if put to use in smart ways, it can really elevate the standards of regional production. What I like is that Netflix and iFlix have smart people on the ground who know the markets, so now it comes down to finding the right local partners. From what I’ve seen, they’re choosing really strong people who have the right intentions.
How is the rise of the Chinese industry impacting this region?
Right now, it’s only positive. After the success of Lost in Thailand, there’s been a huge amount of production from China coming into the region, both international co-productions and local Chinese films. There are three Chinese features in production in Chiang Mai right now, with real money behind them. China has issues with crew — costs have gone up exponentially, especially for English-speaking crew — just because so much is being made and the supply of really experienced Chinese production professionals is limited.
WHERE TO GET THE BEST INCENTIVES IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
Three countries in the fast-growing region are aggressively luring international film and TV shoots with generous cash rebates and production incentives
In a splashy announcement at Cannes in 2016, Thailand unveiled its first national film incentive. As of January, Thailand offers a 15 percent cash rebate on all in-country production spending. Every production with a local spend of more than $1.5 million will automatically get the 15 percent rebate. The total can rise to as high as 20 percent — an additional 3 percent is available if a project hires a Thai actor or actress for the lead role or key Thai production staff, and another 2 percent is available for movies deemed to promote Thai tourism. British director Vicky Jewson’s buddy action flick Close is the first film to receive approval for the new incentive scheme, the Thai government announced at Cannes on Wednesday.
Malaysia operates a hefty 30 percent cash rebate for all in-country production spending. The rebate was introduced in mid-2013, at the same time as the opening of Malaysia’s flagship $150 million Pinewood Iskandar film studio. Netflix’s period adventure Marco Polo was the first major U.S. project to take advantage of the incentive; both seasons of the lavishly produced but short-lived show shot at Pinewood Iskandar.
To help compensate for the high costs of working within its borders, the city-state of Singapore offers a 40 percent cash rebate of total local spending. The Media Development Authority of Singapore requires that all qualifying film and TV shows must portray the country in a positive light. Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians is expected to shoot in both Singapore and Malaysia later this year, taking advantage of both territories’ rebates.
This story first appeared in the May 19 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.