Intl talking points

Source: Pixabay / Plus M / Niccolò Caranti (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

[Clockwise L-R]: AI, ‘12.12: The Day’, Pietrangelo Buttafuoco

Screen International’s editorial team has selected some of the topics that will impact the international film sector this year.

See here for our UK and North American industry talking points.

Funding cuts, right-wing politics create challenges in Europe

A number of governments around Europe are clawing back the bumper public spending of the Covid-era by cutting funding to cultural organisations. In the UK, the British Film Institute is among those to suffer a reduction in funding. In the Netherlands, Dutch filmmakers are concerned about what the first budget of a coalition potentially led by Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom will bring – both for film funding, and for the generous backing for International Documentary Film Amsterdam (IDFA) and International Film Festival Rotterdam. However, it is far from certain Wilders will ever lead a Dutch government.

In France, a reeling industry is hoping there is no repeat of the right-wing smear campaign that was widely blamed for the poor box office performance of Mehdi Fikri’s family drama After The Fire, about a family’s fight for justice after a young man is killed in police custody.

Elsewhere, creatives are looking for routes away from right-wing politicians – such as in Georgia, where local filmmakers have established the Georgian Film Institute, a separate body from the state-controlled Georgian National Film Center; and Hungary, where internationally acclaimed talents are avoiding national funding due to its inevitable constraints – such as Gabor Reisz, with his Venice award-winner Explanation For Everything.

In March, polemicist Italian author, journalist and TV host Pietrangelo Buttafuoco will take over from Roberto Ciccutto as president of the Biennale, which runs the Venice Film Festival. Buttafuoco’s appointment was celebrated by Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government; all eyes will be on this year’s Venice selection to see if conservative interests are encroaching there too.

In Poland however, filmmakers are hopeful a new government led by prime minister Donald Tusk means an end to the kind of political interference that saw the country’s then hard-right justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro compare Agnieszka Holland’s Green Border, about the treatment of refugees on the Polish border, the film to Nazi propaganda from WW2. But the president of Poland, Andrzej Duda, who echoed Ziobro’s comments, remains in place.    

Sales companies could eye further consolidation 

The international sales market is already distinctly different from just a few years ago, with several major players becoming part of bigger groups such as The Match Factory with Mubi, and HanWay Films with Cohen Media Group. This provides a steady financial base for those companies but could mean more risk for those without supporting partners. Greater consolidation is therefore possible. It is likely more sales companies will also make the move into production, giving them a greater degree of control over what they sell.

The market is tough for arthouse titles, with theatrical buyers still extremely cautious post-pandemic, and prices low. A glimmer of hope may come from the strike-related struggles of the big streamers; as they rein in their costs, there could be opportunities for low-budget dramas to find international sales representation and audiences through the tried-and-tested method.

South Korea aims to rebound after a rocky year

While K-content has seen a meteoric rise around the world in recent years, South Korea’s local film industry has endured a string of setbacks over the past 12 months.

In August, allegations emerged that box office figures had been inflated for more than 300 local films over the past five years. The claims surfaced during a rough period for Korea’s theatrical film sector, which is still struggling to recover from the pandemic. According to the Korean Film Council (Kofic), film admissions in the first half of 2023 were just 57.8% of the average attendance during the same period from 2017 to 2019.

Two local titles offered some hope with action sequel The Roundup: No Way Out taking $80.5m from nearly 10.7 million admissions over the summer and political thriller 12.12: The Day topping $90m from more than 12 million ticket sales since its release in mid-November, to end the year on a positive note.

But the woes extended beyond theatres to Korea’s leading international film festival in Busan, plagued by internal and local political problems that saw the resignation of festival director Huh Moonyung, chairman Lee Yong-kwan and director of the Asian Contents & Film Market (ACFM) Oh Seok Geun as well as the dismissal of managing director Cho Jongkook.

South Korea’s film industry will be aiming to reverse the downturn and reduce the chaos in 2024.

Arab filmmakers further empowered by Saudi funding

Building on the strengths of the pioneering Doha Film Institute and Marrakech film festival’s Atlas Workshops, the Red Sea Fund is the latest vital addition to the creation of a vibrant, exciting Arab film industry. In just three years, Red Sea has supported more than 240 projects with features selected for Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto and beyond. Seven titles supported by the fund were submitted for the international feature film Oscar, with two making the shortlist: Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters, selected by Tunisia; and Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother Of All Lies from Morocco.

The fund can award up to $500,0000 per project and has empowered filmmakers to finance their projects without taking the long-established European co-production route. It is also translating into bumper box office. Ali Kalthami’s Saudi thriller Mandoob, which secured both development and production support from the fund, premiered at Toronto and broke local box office records in Saudi for a homegrown title when it was released in December. Projects backed by Red Sea should be closely followed by international industry in the year ahead.

Malaysia is emerging as a filmmaking force

'Tiger Stripes'

Source: Films Boutique

‘Tiger Stripes’

Malaysian cinema has gained major prominence, with emerging talent securing international recognition at Cannes, Venice and beyond – and looks set to further strengthen its reputation in the year ahead.

Amanda Nell Eu’s Tiger Stripes premiered to award-winning success at Cannes and was the country’s Oscar entry. Jin Ong’s Abang Adik, Cho We Jun’s Hungry Ghost Diner, Chong Keat Aun’s Snow In Midsummer and Chia Chee Sum’s Oasis Of Now also made waves at major festivals and secured accolades.

The year will start with Fire On Water, the latest feature from Jagat director Shanjhey Kumar Perumal, receiving its world premiere at Rotterdam; the festival will also close with a Malaysian film, M. Raihan Halim’s comedy-romance La Luna. There are also new films in the pipeline from Chong, whose Snow In Midsummer premiered in Venice Days; Woo Ming Jin, of Locarno award-winner Stone Turtle; Yeo Joon Han, of Venice award-winner Sell Out; and Emir Ezwan, whose debut feature Roh was a breakout horror hit and selected as Malaysia’s submission to the Oscars in 2020.

However, fresh talent from the country is also facing challenges. Tiger Stripes director Eu disowned the censored version of her film that was cleared for local release while Ng Ken Kin’s Pendatang, Malaysia’s first crowdfunded feature, was released for free on YouTube last month to bypass local authorities, which were unlikely to approve a title about the dangers of racial extremism. As these and other Malay filmmakers push boundaries, the world is taking notice.

International industry prepares to grapple with reality of AI

Artificial intelligence was a key sticking point in the 2023 strikes, especially for SAG-AFTRA. The US actors’ union secured informed consent and fair compensation in its negotiations – meaning companies seeking to use digital replicas of performers must obtain consent at time of use, and provide reasonable description of what the digital replica’s intended use will be.

Compensation levels have been designed to pay the performer for the equivalent amount of work they would have done; while background actors are equally protected from their replication without consent, and digital replicas cannot be used to avoid paying background actors.

Companies must also obtain the consent of actors who they use to create composite images through ‘generative AI’ – technology that inputs data from several sources to create a new output, in this case a new ‘actor’.

Concerns remain, however; SAG-AFTRA board member Matthew Modine voted against the agreement in part due to the AI details, which he called “A Faustian bargain”; while leading US producer Gale Anne Hurd said that generative AI is “designed to put us out of business”.

Hollywood companies could look to move projects abroad to territories with less worker-friendly protections, in a potential short-term benefit to the non-US industry. In the longer term, though, the international sector will have to face up to the existential AI threat too. “It’s presenting a lot of new opportunities,” said UK-based Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor Theo Jones in September. “But it’s going to be disruptive.”