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Video-on-Demand and Mainland Censorship Dominates 2015 FILMART

The growth of video-on-demand services, both in Asia and beyond, has had huge impact on the film industry over the last 12 months, while the next year may well be focussed on assessing the impacts of China's streaming legislation.

Photo: The Monkey King: Mainland blockbuster.
The Monkey King: Mainland blockbuster.
Photo: The Monkey King: Mainland blockbuster.
The Monkey King: Mainland blockbuster.

The 19th edition of the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FILMART) was the biggest yet, with more than 7,100 buyers and 780 exhibitors from over 30 countries and regions taking part. The Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), the event organisers, reported that the number of buyers was up by 6% compared to the previous year, while the number of overseas visitors grew by 8%.

As usual, Hong Kong's film and TV production companies took the opportunity to launch their new content through a string of star-laden press conferences and flashy booths, all fronting the trade show floor at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre. Assessing this year's level of activity, Ricky Tse, Founder of Hong Kong-based Bravos Pictures, said: "More new titles were announced this year than in previous editions of FILMART. The event has become an essential platform for both sales and acquisitions as you can meet most of the Asian buyers and sellers under one roof."

The range of films being launched at FILMART demonstrated how Hong Kong is now serving three distinct audiences with different kinds of content. There are, of course, censorship-friendly co-productions for the mainland, then edgier action films and thrillers for global export and, finally, the smaller films that cater more to the tastes of Hong Kong audiences.

New big-budget titles heading for the mainland include The Deadly Reclaim, Benny Chan's historical action epic, and Soi Cheang's The Monkey King 2, starring Aaron Kwok and Gong Li. In terms of edgier fare, there's Juno Mak's crime thriller Sons Of The Neon Night and The Mobfathers, Chapman To's black comedy. Among the smaller local films launched was the horror film Knock Knock! Who's There?, the directorial debut of award-winning actress Carrie Ng.

Hong Kong producers are all searching for that Holy Grail of the one film that ticks all three boxes – and Pegasus Motion Pictures believes it may have found just that in Ip Man 3, the upcoming action sequel focussing on Bruce Lee's master, Wing Chun. Global fanboy networks were set buzzing when the news broke at FILMART that US boxer Mike Tyson would be joining the cast of the film and was set to spar with Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen.

FILMART, though, is not just about Hong Kong content and, as usual, the event attracted large delegations from the rest of Asia, North America and Europe. For this year's iteration, the HKTDC reported double-digit percentage growth in the number of visitors from Indonesia, Japan and Taiwan.

One such visitor was June Wu, founder of Ablaze Image, a Taiwanese sales and distribution company. She was in Hong Kong to promote Chen Jianbin's award-winning A Fool and Tom Lin's A Zinnia Flower. She said: "March is the perfect time to introduce new titles – I usually initiate talks at FILMART and continue discussions during Cannes.

"In terms of this year's FILMART, there were definitely more attendees from mainland China and more Korean VOD [video-on-demand] platforms. There seemed to be fewer European and US buyers, but I always get to meet Asian buyers in a very efficient manner during FILMART."

Despite Wu's concerns, US sales companies actually seemed to be out in force at FILMART – a record 47 US sellers attended the market, including 26 supported by the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA). According to many of them, they now felt it necessary to travel to Hong Kong as the number of Asian buyers at Berlin's European Film Market (EFM) in February has decreased.

Overall, US companies seem to be particularly keen to form partnerships with their Chinese counterparts. In recent weeks, Lionsgate forged a co-financing pact with China's Hunan TV and Robert Simonds' STX Entertainment signed an 18-film co-financing deal with Beijing-based Huayi Brothers.

More US companies are also starting to sell Chinese-language movies. Arclight Films' Asia arm, Easternlight, did roaring trade at FILMART, courtesy of Wu Jing's 3D war epic Wolf Warrior, while IM Global was selling a whole raft of Chinese films under its output deal with Huayi Brothers.

Assessing the USP of FILMART, Elliot Tong, Head of Asian Sales and Acquisitions at Arclight Films, said: "It's definitely useful to meet all the Asian buyers who attend FILMART, but don't make the trip to Berlin, largely because it's cold and clashes with Lunar New Year. Otherwise we'd have to wait until Cannes to meet them. It's good to get a few months head start when you are planning for the rest of the year."

Photo: Wolf Warrior: 3D epic.
Wolf Warrior: 3D epic.
Photo: Wolf Warrior: 3D epic.
Wolf Warrior: 3D epic.
Photo: A Fool: Award-winning.
A Fool: Award-winning.
Photo: A Fool: Award-winning.
A Fool: Award-winning.

On the other hand, European sales companies are still finding it tough to sell their content into Asia, as most local markets are solely focussed on Hollywood and local-language films. Despite this, they still find it worthwhile attending FILMART in order to cement relationships with distributors and build audiences. In recent years, European sellers have found that Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong are open to strong European dramas with A-list casts, while India, Indonesia and the Philippines favour genre movies.

Susanne Davis is Film Sale Support Project Director for European Film Promotion (EFP), which organises an umbrella stand at the market for European sales companies. She says: "FILMART has grown steadily over recent years with more buyers attending from a range of Asian countries.

"The EFP's presence here always functions as an annual networking base – highly important in Asia – making it easy for interested and well-prepared buyers to get in touch with various sales agents with regard to European films. A few sales were brokered this year with a number of final deals now in the pipeline. On the whole, rights mainly go to VOD platforms, TV and pay-TV at FILMART."

This is particularly true when it comes to the mainland China market, where sales to cinema distributors are hampered by China's import quotas. Both US and European sellers, though, are becoming more optimistic about digital deals. This is largely on account of the rise of China's ambitious video streaming platforms, notably Youku Tudou, iQiyi, Tencent, Sohu and LeTV.

Over the past year, US online platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, along with their Chinese counterparts, have made a huge impact on the global film business. Unsurprisingly, then, much of the talk – and nearly all the seminars – at FILMART revolved around how to adapt to these changes.

Speaking as part of a panel entitled Find Your Opportunities in the Media Convergence Age, Tom Ara, a US attorney specialising in media law, said: "We are at the beginning of an era known as studio 2.0. Ten years ago, if you had told anyone that big-budget TV series would be produced for the internet, they would have said you were crazy. Now, though, platforms like Netflix are becoming both producers and distributors and, unlike traditional studios, they have direct access to the distribution platform."

Although they sounded a note of caution, the panellists indicated that digital distribution could open up the notoriously tough US market to more Asian content. One such optimist was Jason Rubin, Brand Manager for US distributor Cinedigm, operators of the genre-driven ConTV over-the-top (OTT) platform. He said: "We released a lot of [Hong Kong film director] Johnnie To films and knew there was crossover with grindhouse and gaming culture, so we used a robust recommendation engine to better understand the behaviour of our audience."

As with Netflix, China's online distributors are also becoming major producers and financiers of content. No less than three FILMART panels were dedicated to the impact this is having on China and the wider Asian markets. In some cases, viewers in the region are said to be shifting to watching content on mobile devices even more quickly than they are in the US.

Overall, much of the discussion at FILMART revolved around how to serve this mobile audience, as well as how to build entertainment brands that can be exploited across multiple platforms. On the sidelines of the event, executives from both Asia and the West were discussing one of the key factors seen to be pushing Chinese online companies to produce their own content – the mainland government's clampdown on overseas-sourced content.

As of 1 April 2015, China's State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) is insisting that all foreign films and TV series must be submitted for censorship and obtain a permit before they can be streamed. TV series can't be submitted until they've finished their original broadcast, meaning that shows such as Game Of Thrones could face delays of up to nine months before being available in China.

The new rules could encourage companies such as Youku Tudou and iQiyi to focus more on making their own films and TV series, although US TV shows have been a big driver of traffic in the past. UK television has also gained a foothold in China through the popularity of shows such as Sherlock and Downton Abbey. While nobody drew any firm conclusions during FILMART, the entire industry will be watching to see how the new rules affect content sales into the region over the coming year.

Photo: Will mainlanders miss out on their Game of Thrones fix?
Will mainlanders miss out on their Game of Thrones fix?
Photo: Will mainlanders miss out on their Game of Thrones fix?
Will mainlanders miss out on their Game of Thrones fix?

FILMART is one of ten events under Hong Kong's month-long Entertainment Expo, which also includes the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF), Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) and ties-in with the Hong Kong Film Awards. The 2015 event ran from 23-26 March.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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