2022 was a banner year at the Indonesian box office. With the pandemic in the rear view mirror, movie-goers returned to theaters in a big way and pushed ticket sales of domestic films to an all-time high of 54 million.
A big part of this was the smash hit KKN di Desa Penari (Field Work in the Dancer’s Village), a horror film about a group of students in a remote village driven mad by spirits. In its initial run, the film sold 9.2 million tickets, shattering the previous record by nearly 3 million. Horror is leading the box office again in 2023 with Sewu Dino (A Thousand Days), from the same producer as KKN, notching nearly 5 million ticket sales.
KKN di Desa Penari benefited from unique circumstances. It was based on a viral Twitter tale that had been doing the rounds in Indonesia for a couple years, so there was already substantial pre-release marketing and word of mouth buzz. The easing of pandemic restrictions also released a lot of pent-up demand right as the film hit theaters.
But the simplest explanation for KKN’s success is that horror films are extremely popular in Indonesia, and they resonate with audiences. The second highest-grossing Indonesian film of 2022 was the horror movie Pengabdi Setan 2: Communion (Satan’s Slaves 2: Communion), a sequel to Pengabdi Setan, which was the number one locally produced box office draw of 2017.
One reason why the horror genre has such staying power in Indonesia is because it generally tells stories that local audiences are familiar with. Belief in the ethereal and the unseen runs high in Indonesia, and these horror films create experiences that are steeped in local mythology and lore not easily found outside the region. Movie-goers in Indonesia have likely embraced such films because they are tailored to local tastes and stories that people here grew up with.
2017’s Pengabdi Setan, a terrific remake of a 1980s cult classic by director Joko Anwar, is about pocong, a type of Javanese ghost based on Islamic burial practices that would be unfamiliar to most Western audiences. The second highest-grossing local film of 2018, Suzzanna: Bernapas dalam Kubur (Breathing from the Grave), is about an Indonesian scream queen who is transformed into a sundel bolong, another regionally specific ghost.
While home-grown horror has been a hit with audiences, adapting other genres for the Indonesian market has proven difficult. Indonesian comic book company Bumilangit recently partnered with Screenplay Films to launch a home-grown super hero franchise modeled on the cinematic universes of DC and Marvel. Gundala, directed by Joko Anwar, began laying the groundwork in 2019. Joko Anwar is one of Indonesia’s most talented filmmakers, and Gundala was a fine first entry in a planned cinematic universe.
But audience response was lukewarm, with the film selling 1.7 million tickets. Given the project’s sizable production costs, the studio was probably hoping for a more enthusiastic reception. The second film in the franchise, Sri Asih, was released in 2022 and sold less than 600,000 tickets. Although the Bumilangit films are based on Indonesian comic book characters, and Bumilangit has been around for a long time, they simply do not have the cultural resonance or commercial appeal of a shlocky horror movie about a sundel bolong or pocong.
Cost is also a factor. According to media reports, KKN di Desa Penari cost half as much to make as Gundala, but sold five times as many tickets. If producers know they can turn out low-budget horror films and audiences will show up, they have less incentive to experiment with bolder and more innovative styles and genres.
In 2020 industry analyst Bicara Box Office published an interview with Upi, the director of Sri Asih who had this to say about the dominance of horror at the box office: “I wish more genre films would be produced in Indonesia, and with a greater degree of variety. These days it is mostly horror, and that is basically telling the same stories over and over again. I am looking forward to psychological thrillers, crime, investigative thrillers, and more of the lot. And I wish the producers would be open to such genres and story ideas.”
This is a reasonable critique. There is scope for innovative and well-made takes on the genre, like Pengabdi Setan. But the bottom line is that horror sells, which is important given that increased purchasing power is driving more and more people in Indonesia to the movies every year. One of the largest cineplex chains in the country, CGV, saw revenue grow by 271% in 2022 as movie-goers started returning to cinemas in earnest. Industry leader Cinema 21 is planning an IPO this year which is expected to raise $1 billion.
When people go to the movies in Indonesia, they typically have a choice between local productions or foreign imports, like action blockbusters or superhero films. Cinema is an increasingly big business in Indonesia, and for now horror stories featuring kuntilanak, pocong, tuyul, wewe gombel and all manner of local ghouls, ghosts and monsters have a real chance of out-performing foreign blockbusters in any given week.
And that means, for better or worse, producers and movie houses will keep putting horror on the screen for the foreseeable future.