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Rumours of new route into China cinemas enthrall FILMART attendees

With Asia-Pacific now the world's second largest film market, more global players than ever before headed for this year's FILMART, where news began to circulate of possible new access routes into the lucrative Chinese cinema circuit.

Photo: Big on entertainment: FILMART 2014.
Big on entertainment: FILMART 2014.

Entering its 18th edition in 2014, the Hong Kong FILMART has grown to become the largest film and TV contents market in Asia. On a global level, only the American Film Market (AFM) and the markets at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals are bigger. This year, FILMART attracted 770 exhibitors from 32 countries, along with 6,500 buyers and other industry professionals.

As one of nine events under the 10-year-old Entertainment Expo Hong Kong umbrella, FILMART coincides with the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) and the Hong Kong International Film Festival, both of which attract leading filmmakers, producers, distributors and film festival programmers from around the world.

HAF is a financing event and sees a number of the leading Asian filmmakers – such as the Philippines' Brillante Mendoza and China's Sheng Zhimin – seeking funding for their upcoming projects. As a consequence, the Expo is an irresistible lure for sales agents, broadcasters and European funding bodies, such as France's CNC.

One of the secrets behind FILMART's success has been its timing. It takes place just a few months before the Cannes film festival in May, enabling Asian film sales companies to showcase their new product ahead of the world's largest film industry gathering. Western sales companies also attend FILMART, believing that it provides them with an opportunity to focus on those smaller Asian buyers who may not make it to Cannes.

This year, nearly all the major Hong Kong film companies chose FILMART to unveil star-laden slates of new movies. Romantic comedies featured heavily – largely thanks to the recent success of this genre at the Chinese mainland box office. Media Asia introduced Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 (starring Louis Koo and Miriam Yeung); and Lawrence Cheng's Break Up 100 (with Ekin Cheng and Chrissie Chau); while Universe Films Distribution announced Paris Holiday (starring Koo and Fiona Sit). Even Dante Lam, the renowned action maestro, is showing a more romantic side with his upcoming To The Fore, a love story set in the competitive world of cycling, a movie he is directing for Emperor Motion Pictures (EMP).

Speaking at a round table event for the HAF/Fox Chinese Film Development Award, Hong Kong producer Mathew Tang, however, cautioned that it's difficult to second-guess the mainland market. He said: "After each movie comes out, everyone has their own theories, but we can't identify find the best method. For every film that's a success, there are 50 or 60 similar films that fail."

Tang, who works in association with Bill Kong's Edko Films Ltd, maintained that he never expected the company's 2013 smash hit, Finding Mr Right, to be anything like as successful on the mainland as Cold War, its cop thriller.

Speaking at the China Daily Asia Leadership panel later in the week, Cheung Chi-sing, Vice Chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, said the mainland market had become something of a blessing and a curse for Hong Kong producers. Highlighting the pressure to cater to mainland tastes via Hong Kong-China co-productions, he said: "Most of the major movies released in the last few years have been co-productions with producers in mainland China. Less than 30 films made by Hong Kong companies last year were filmed locally – and they were all small productions."

Given the vagaries of the mainland market, not to mention the censorship that restricts some of Hong Kong's favourite genres, local producers have been obliged to look beyond China to markets in the US, Europe, Latin America and other parts of Asia. Cop thrillers, action and martial arts movies appear to be the genres that work best in international markets – and Hong Kong companies had plenty of those to highlight to buyers at FILMART.

EMP was promoting Kung Fu Jungle starring Donnie Yen – fast-becoming Hong Kong's most popular action export – while Mei Ah Entertainment announced Unforgotten, a US$12 million sci-fi action thriller to be directed by Soi Cheang (The Monkey King). In terms of other upcoming productions, Distribution Workshop (HK) Ltd held a press conference for Overheard 3, a second surveillance thriller sequel starring Lau Ching Wan and Koo, due to open across Greater China in May. Actor Leon Lai – a busy man as he was also serving as the Entertainment Expo Ambassador – is also planning to turn director with Wine War, an action drama for Media Asia.

In terms of actual deals, FILMART has traditionally been a place where negotiations are started, but then concluded at Cannes or other markets later in the year. This year, however, a number of companies indicated they had actually put pen to paper during the course of the Hong Kong event.

Thailand's GTH sold its ghost story, The Teacher's Diary, to several South-East Asian countries, while South Korea's Lotte Entertainment sold Chinese remake rights to Top Star, the tale of an over-ambitious talent manager, to Beijing-based AIM Media. Thailand's Five Star Production also sold English remake rights to two titles – The Second Sight 3D and The Screen At Kamchanod – to US-based Convergence Entertainment.

Asian producers regard selling remake rights as a growing business opportunity, especially as recent years have seen it become more difficult for completed films to travel around the region. That's not because box office isn't booming in Asia.

Even as FILMART was taking place, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) announced (at CinemaCon in Las Vegas) that box office returns in the Asia Pacific region had reached US$11.1 billion in 2013. This saw it overtake Europe to become the second largest region outside of North America.

In most Asian markets, though, audiences are either watching Hollywood movies or their own locally-produced films. The market share for Korean and Japanese movies in Hong Kong – or for Chinese mainland films in South-East Asia – is disturbingly slim.

Even in the Greater China market, which speaks and reads different dialects of the same language, filmmakers are finding it more difficult to make films that appeal equally to audiences across the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. At the HAF/Fox round table, one Hong Kong producer, Abe Kwong, Head of Development for Beijing-based Wanda Media, advised Chinese filmmakers to focus on their local audiences. He said: "It's impossible for filmmakers to merge the three markets. We should focus on our own market and try to make the best films we can."

Kwong and his fellow HAF/Fox jurors, Tang and Giddens Ko, a Taiwanese director, did however concede that films made for Hong Kong and Taiwan have to be produced on smaller budgets, as both are now small markets compared to the mainland. Speaking about his recent experiences on Tales From The Dark, a two-part feature comprising segments from six directors, Tang said: "We couldn't release it in China because it's a horror movie, so the directors only asked for 'friendly' wages. They are entitled to a bonus, which they probably won't receive."

While local filmmakers grapple with the sensitivities of Chinese censorship and cultural differences – with the hindsight of many decades of experience in dealing with the mainland – the rest of the world also now clamouring for a piece of mainland action. China's phenomenal box office growth is one of the major factors drawing US and European film executives to FILMART.

This year the event was buzzing with speculation as to whether the Chinese government will issue a second licence for the import of foreign films. There was also intense interest as to how China's online video platforms could offer an easier route into the booming mainland market.

Photos: Seeking mainland movie success: Finding Mr Right (left) and Firestorm.
Seeking mainland movie success: Finding Mr Right (left) and Firestorm.

Currently only one state-owned company – the China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) – is allowed to import foreign films for release in Chinese cinemas. During FILMART, however, two Hong Kong-based companies, China Railsmedia Corp Ltd and i-marker, said they were working with the China National Culture & Art Corporation (CNCAC), a state-owned entity that expects soon to be issued with a licence to compete with CFGC.

The news surprised many at FILMART and could strengthen Hong Kong's role as the gateway into China. The political situation, though, is complicated and the full details behind the new licence – if any – have yet to be revealed.

On the other hand, China's online video platforms bypass cinemas completely and have been stocking up on Western movies and TV shows, notably House Of Cards, Sherlock and Breaking Bad. The leading online video companies, including Youku Tudou, iQiyi, LeTV and Sohu Video, are making big bucks from advertising and are starting to roll out subscription services. Although the Chinese government is keeping a close eye on the sector, censorship for content distributed via online platforms is currently far more relaxed than for cinema releases.

At a panel on FILMART's opening day, Youku Tudou's Senior Vice President, Allen Zhu, illustrated how his company is expanding beyond simply acquiring content to also investing in Chinese-language films, such as Edko Films' Firestorm and Old Boys: The Way Of The Dragon (based on the hit microfilm). He said: "We are able to observe audience behaviour through big data technology, so we can see where we should invest."

iQiyi Founder and CEO, Gong Yu explained how this relatively new industry is also opening doors for non-English-language foreign content in China, saying: "Korean TV shows, such as You Who Came From The Stars, have huge audiences in China, through video platforms, but they're not even being broadcast on TV."

All this was music to the ears of the US and European producers, distributors and sales executives who had made the trip to FILMART. With the promise of the China market opening up, the potential for working with the Asian counterparts, coupled with the wide range of Asian films and TV content on offer, they're likely to be back in 2015 for the 19th FILMART and 11th Entertainment Expo.

By that time, the only thing that seems certain is that the size and dynamics of the mainland market will have completely changed. Yet again.

Photo: FILMART: snapping at Cannes’ heels for film expo supremacy.
FILMART: snapping at Cannes' heels for film expo supremacy.

The Hong Kong International Film and TV Market (FILMART) 2014 ran from 24-27 March at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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