As was to be expected, the Asian film industry was mostly absent from the physical edition of this year’s Cannes film festival and market. A trickle of filmmakers and stars made the red carpet, but the risks associated with travel, and the prospect of lengthy quarantines when returning to their home countries, dissuaded most industry execs from making the trip.
Asian buyers and sellers were however involved in both the Pre-Cannes Screenings (June 21-25) and the online version of the actual Cannes Marche (July 6-17), which ran concurrently with the festival. As with the back-to-back Berlin/Filmart period earlier in the year, many treated it as one long market, during which the Zoom meetings, calls and emails never really slowed down.
“Mornings were for meetings with the US, lunchtime was for Asia and we did Europe in the evening,” says Edko Films’ head of sales & distribution, Esther Yeung, who was both selling and acquiring during the market. “We started one week before the Pre-Cannes Screenings and didn’t have meetings during the Cannes period, just watched films.”
Indeed, many execs welcomed having the market split across two time periods as it gave them the opportunity to focus on different aspects of the business at each event. “We did Zoom meetings with European buyers during the Pre-Cannes Screenings and with Asian buyers during the actual Marché,” says Media Asia general manager Fred Tsui.
“Since almost all Asian buyers did not attend the actual Marché, it actually worked well for us. As for European buyers, they would have been too busy watching films and catching up with people to do Zoom meetings during the Marché itself.”
Although there were some exceptions, Asian sellers report that sales to US and European theatrical markets remain sluggish, as many are still recovering from lengthy cinema shutdowns or battling the Delta variant of Covid-19. Asian markets are generally in better health, but many have also been hit by Covid outbreaks and none have returned to pre-pandemic levels of box office, not even the mighty China market, which is tracking 14% down on the same point in 2019.
Sales to streamers are inevitably underpinning the business. “I can say that sales never disappeared through last year and this – there are always buyers from different sectors like broadcasters or platforms,” says Finecut director of international sales, Yunjeong Kim. She adds that the theatrical business didn’t completely evaporate either, at least for Korean titles: “There are also theatrical buyers checking in to find surprise or sellable commercial titles, which they need to fill the gap created by the low presence of Hollywood films.”
Hong Kong’s bigger studios also say they remain committed to the theatrical model, even if it means a lengthy wait for dates for a multi-territory release. “It depends on the scale of the production,” says Emperor Motion Pictures sales chief Miriam Cheung. “Our upcoming action film Raging Fire will be a theatrical release in Hong Kong, China and overseas markets, hopefully over the summer. It has to go theatrical first and we won’t necessarily do day-and-date with the streaming platforms.”
But in general, Asia’s theatrical buyers – whether focused on Asian titles, US action or European arthouse – are in the same precarious situation as those in the West. Box office is down in all Asian territories, as they battle new Covid outbreaks and/or slow rates of vaccination, and the streamers continue to scoop up worldwide rights to hot new films.
Some of Asia’s theatrical buyers remain active. Hong Kong’s Edko Films acquired a clutch of Cannes titles, some of which it pre-bought, such as Jury Prize winner Memoria and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, while others, including Titane, Nitram and The Worst Person In The World, it acquired after their Cannes screenings. Singapore-based Clover Films, which buys Asian films for multiple Southeast Asian territories, also acquired several titles during the Cannes market period.
But increasingly, the active buyers are those that have multiple revenue streams and don’t rely too heavily on box office income. Edko Films is also a major producer, seller and cinema owner, while Clover Films is in the process of being bought out by Singapore’s GHY Culture & Media Holdings, as part of a move to ramp up its production activities, which includes co-producing a slate of films with Chinese streamer iQiyi.
Clover Films managing director Lim Teck explains that, prior to the pandemic, theatrical box office accounted for 80% of the company’s revenues, but last year it started to do more business with the streamers: “We sold a slate of 60 Singaporean library titles to Netflix and started working with iQiyi on both sales and production. We’re thankful that we were able to pivot and lessen our dependency on theatrical income. Singapore is one of the region’s stronger territories but box office was still down by 75% last year.”
One market that was not buying during Cannes is mainland China. Beijing was one of three cities in Asia – along with Seoul and Tokyo – where buyers had the luxury of watching the Cannes official selection in a local cinema, thanks to the Marche satellite screenings. But so far no major deals have been announced on either the Cannes line-up or other market titles – a very different scenario to just a few years back when Chinese companies were aggressive buyers at every international market.
Of course, this is an unusual year for China – due to the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), cinemas are required to play patriotic domestic titles and release slots for anything else remain scarce. The market does have some diversified buyers, who can leverage theatrical risk across different revenue streams, but most are young companies that got walloped by China’s shifting regulatory landscape and the six-month cinemas shutdown last year. And the buyers that are still releasing films face other challenges.
“We can see there are some quality movies out there, but China’s theatrical market has changed massively since the pandemic and it’s difficult to know what the audience will respond to,” says Cindy Lin, founder of Infotainment China, which is hoping to release Cannes 2020 Label title Slalom later this year.
“Before Covid, China’s box office was driven by the younger generation, those born after the year 2000, but they now feel safer at home watching films on their phones. They need a really strong motivation to put on a mask and sit in a public space for a few hours – they don’t have the habit of staying in a cinema for so long.”
Looking forward to the rest of the year, the jury is out on whether any Asian market will enjoy full recovery - much depends on vaccination programmes and the control of new variants - while the region’s strict quarantine restrictions are making it unlikely that travel will happen any time soon. Asian buyers and sellers say they’re still deciding whether to attend the American Film Market (AFM), which is happening physically November 2-7, while the two biggest Asian events in the second half of the year – Busan’s Asian Contents & Film Market and Tokyo’s Tiffcom – have yet to confirm whether they’ll have a physical element.
However, the current uncertainty does not mean that the Asian film industry is moving online for good. Most industry folk are resigned to the fact that online deal-making will continue to happen year-round, and some may knock smaller events out of their calendar, but most say they’re looking forward to a return to physical markets and festivals, if not this year, then some time in 2022.
“It’s especially important for independent films which have no star cast or are not from established directors,” says Finecut’s Kim. “Without festivals, it hard for new talents to get the attention they deserve from critics, other festival programmers and buyers, as there are so many films out there.”
A common refrain among both buyers and sellers is that, while Zoom meetings are good for doing business with your existing network, it’s difficult to establish a working relationship with new companies online. The bonding still needs to happen over coffee, drinks or a dinner table, especially when it’s the first time you’re doing business together. “Physical contact is still very important,” says Media Asia’s Tsui.