Producer Tran Thi Bich Ngoc on Fighting Piracy, Championing Filmmakers, and Vietnam’s Huge Potential
Tran Thi Bich Ngoc is an established Vietnamese film producer with a long track record of success and an eye for great stories. Among her latest projects are Bui Thac Chuyen’s Glorious Ashes, Vietnam’s submission to the 2024 Academy Awards for the best international feature film category.
In 2022, the rural drama received its world premiere as the first Vietnamese film selected for the main competition of the Tokyo International Film Festival. One year later, Ngoc returned to the festival as a jury for the same main competition, which was chaired by German director Wim Wenders.
While Ngoc has made a name for herself as a successful producer, we wanted to talk to her about what it’s like making movies in an emerging film market like Vietnam, where local talent, filmmakers with a great story to tell, and an audience hungry for local films are all helping fuel the industry. Yet there’s another side to the story that we wanted to ask Ngoc about, where issues, including piracy, remain an enduring challenge, and awareness about the problem and sensible tweaks to both cultural norms and the laws could make a huge difference to create the thriving industry Vietnam is capable of.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
We last spoke in 2021 during Covid. You talked about Vietnam’s emerging talent and censorship regulations. What changes has the Vietnamese film industry seen since then?
The Vietnamese film industry has recovered well after Covid. Just the top five local films in 2023 have reached over $40.8m (VND1,000 billion) at the box office, compared to the total box office of local films at $36.7m (VND900 billion) in pre-Covid 2019. This positive sign is again evidence that local films are still the audience’s favorites. But looking at the number of local films produced, it has dropped to only 27 titles this year from 42 before Covid.
What can you tell us about the current Vietnamese film industry? How is it contributing to the global creative community?
On the international scale, Vietnam has gained much recognition in 2023 through Pham Thien An’s Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and the documentary Children of the Mist by Ha Le Diem, which was shortlisted for the Oscars.
There were also some important changes to the law?
2023 was also the first year when the amended cinema law was implemented, which led to some positive developments. The first Danang Asian Film Festival took place last May and will have its second edition in July 2024. There is also the new Ho Chi Minh International Film Festival that is expected to take place in April 2024. Such exciting news is made possible by the cinema law amendment that allows cities to hold their own international film festival. Vietnam has continued to be an attractive movie market, with a growth rate of 20% year-on-year at the local box office. It also has a crop of young, talented filmmakers. But to continue the steady growth, a lot still needs to be done, such as providing strong training and education for film students, easing the foreign investment procedure in film production, and emphasizing the importance of copyright and content protection.
From your perspective, how big a threat is digital piracy to Vietnam’s creative marketplace and the overall Vietnamese film industry?
According to Akamai Technologies, Vietnam ranks eighth in the world for access to illegal websites, while the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) puts Vietnam on the priority watch list for IP violations. To build an industry based on creativity, copyright is a serious issue. IP protection needs to be seen as the foundation for the industry to grow. So much needs to be done.
What is being done in Vietnam to address digital piracy? And what more do you think should be done to close the gaps?
The past decade saw some positive improvements from the government. The law on intellectual property was also passed in the latest amendment and became effective in 2022. Since its launch in 2005, the intellectual law has gone through three updates to comply with international law and all the international organization regulations that Vietnam is a member of. However, effective implementation requires the collaboration of all sectors: society, the movie community, and legal implementation.
Can you explain how that collaboration might work?
Most people still favor “xem chùa” (Vietnamese for free watching). Filmmakers and producers have spoken out, but mainly only when their own products are leaked. Their voices are still fragmented, and they are not strongly unified. As a result, there is a lack of pressure and motivation for the law enforcer. Penalties are in place for violators who might even be charged with a criminal offense, but there’s a lack of motivation to follow up each case to the fullest. Besides, the definition is not clear on commercial loss for film studios to claim their IP violation case.
Have you experienced copyright infringement? What actions could you take if that happens?
That was my fear when I released my film Glorious Ashes last year. Since we are independent filmmakers, we don’t have much finance and resources to take action if that happens. The “notice and takedown” procedure in Vietnam does not exist. If the film gets leaked, it takes a while to get to the authorities because of all the procedures and paperwork. The process will be repeated if another illegal website screens the film. The right holder cannot claim directly to the internet service provider so it’s best to protect ourselves first. I took cautious action with the protected link and the KDM for DCP, but the fear still loomed.
How can the Vietnamese film industry prepare its creators for new threats to copyright?
There are quite a lot of IP conferences going on nowadays for creators. This is a good sign in a way to educate creators on how to value and protect their IP. This is productive, but these activities need to reach out to the community to change their perception of IP gradually. IP violation nowadays means dealing with digital platforms over internet service providers, so the need to include these ISPs in the campaign is crucial.
What about changing people’s mindset around piracy?
The need to change people’s behavior on free watching is significant. This takes time and money, but it must be done through educational campaigns in schools and universities over a long period of time. The procedure for claiming IP also needs to be simplified, where “notice & take down” should be implemented, as the spreading of materials on the internet is so fast nowadays. If the IP claiming procedure needs to go through many approval levels, it cannot help producers when a violation happens. IP protection will need to be considered as a foundation for the creative industry. It cannot be done by any sector alone but by a strong and tight collaboration among them.
This interview is the first in a series we’ll be conducting with filmmakers in the Asia Pacific region on their work with a focus on content protection and safeguarding their work and livelihoods.
For more stories on international filmmakers making a difference, check these out:
Featured image: Producer Tran Thi Bich Ngoc