This year's Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (Filmart) gets underway at a difficult time for the international film industry - a period when production finance is scarce and travel budgets are being trimmed. But while ripples from the global financial tsunami - as it is known in this region - are sure to be felt at the four-day market (March 23-26), visitors will also find that East Asian film industries are relatively buoyant.
China's box office continues to climb and although Japan's overall box office is flat, local productions are increasing their market share. Korean admissions and production funds have been dwindling - but producers are learning to make smarter films for less money and some strong Korean titles are set for release in the coming year.
Hot Korean product that will be on offer at the market includes United Pictures' Jeonwoochi, which is Choi Dong-hoon's follow-up to hit gambling caper Tazza: The High Rollers, and potential Cannes-bound titles such as Park Chan-wook's Thirst and Bong Joon-ho's Mother, both handled by CJ Entertainment.
China boosts the region
Japan's offerings range from edgy arthouse titles such as Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll, handled by Asmik Ace, to genre titles such as Shochiku's $18m action drama Kamui. From Hong Kong, buyers will get a taste of Johnnie To's Vengeance, sold by France's Kinology; Alan Mak and Felix Chong's surveillance thriller Overheard, from Distribution Workshop, and Jeff Lau's $10m sci-fi movie Kungfu Cyborg.
Most Asian territories are being hit by local as well as global problems - China's censorship regime is not likely to ease in the year the country is celebrating the 60th anniversary of Communist rule. But the momentum of mainland China's film market is keeping the region afloat. Multiplexes are still springing up on the mainland and production houses and film funds keep emerging - the most recent being Peter Ho-sun Chan's Cinema Popular, which is raising $73m to make 15 films over three years.
However, China's continuing growth will also make Filmart more of a local affair than in the past few years. Although the total number of exhibitors and pre-registered buyers has risen compared to last year, the gains are mostly due to an increase in Hong Kong and mainland Chinese companies. Participation from the rest of Asia Pacific is flat and there will be a smaller presence from some Western territories such as France and Spain.
'We're pleased that under the current difficult circumstances, we've managed to increase the scale of exhibitors. But the trend of long-haul visitors will probably be down due to tighter travel budgets,' says Benjamin Chau, assistant executive director of Filmart organiser the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). 'In previous years, the larger (western) studios have sent more than one person, but some are now only sending one person or relying on their Asian reps.'
Other factors are also affecting attendance - the timing of this year's market is quite close to Mip-TV (March 30-April 3). Meanwhile, Unifrance is bringing half the number of companies it brought last year because some have decided instead to attend the French film festival in Tokyo (March 12-15).
Assistance from national promotional bodies remains a big influence on whether US and European sales companies attend the Hong Kong market. Indeed, the number of exhibitors from two of the territories most affected by the global financial crisis - the US and UK - remains roughly the same due to support from the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA) and the UK Film Council (UKFC). Around 30 US companies will be attending, while the Ukfc is bringing a delegation of 15 sellers including some new to Asia such as AV Pictures and Jinga Films.
AV Pictures managing director Vic Bateman says he hopes to close some Asian territories on comedy horror Lesbian Vampire Killers, which was a hot seller at the European Film Market (EFM) in Berlin. 'We sold a lot of European territories at Berlin, but most of the Asian buyers there were arthouse distributors,' Bateman says.
Asian sellers also regard Filmart as a place to reach Asian buyers in contrast to the more European-focused EFM. According to Mike Suh, head of sales and distribution at Korea's CJ Entertainment, there were only a few buyers from territories such as Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore at the EFM. 'Berlin is good for promoting titles and focusing on European buyers, but we expect to close more deals with US and Asian buyers at Filmart,' says Suh.
Meanwhile, Filmart's schedule of screenings, seminars and networking events will keep delegates busy when they are not on the trade-show floor. Panel discussions will focus on Hollywood in Asia and the distribution of Asian product in the US and international markets, while the Hong Kong Film Development Council (HKFDC) will be holding a two-day forum as part of its initiative to promote Hong Kong filmmaking talent.
Networking events include Japan Night, China Night and a party hosted by the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) and the Locarno International Film Festival. The market will also host more than 100 screenings - including the China Night screening of Feng Xiaoning's disaster movie Super Typhoon and the Asian premiere of Philippe Claudel's I've Loved You So Long.
A series of press conferences has also been arranged to announce the upcoming slates of Hong Kong production houses Salon Films, Big Mei Ah Entertainment, Universe Entertainment and the joint venture between Hong Kong's Emperor Group and the Shanghai Film Group.
As usual, Filmart is being held as part of the wider Hong Kong Entertainment Expo which includes nine film and media-related events. Among these, the Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum (DELF) has a strong film angle as it explores the success of Wellington, New Zealand, as a digital entertainment hub. Guest speakers include Weta Digital's Matt Aitken, The Lord Of The Rings producer Barrie Osborne and Chinese director Jia Zhangke (24 City).
And for the third year running, the star wattage at Expo will be pumped up on the opening night when the event hosts the Asian Film Awards. Michelle Yeoh heads the jury which will hand out awards in 13 categories. In the previous two years, Korean films The Host and Secret Sunshine scooped the top honours. This year, another Korean title, Kim Jee-woon's Oriental Western, is the favourite going in with eight nominations including best director and best film.
ENTERTAINMENT EXPO AT A GLANCE
Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (Filmart): March 23-26
Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF): March 23-25
Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF): March 22-April 13
Asian Film Awards: March 23
Hong Kong Film Awards: April 19
Hong Kong Music Fair: March 26-28
IFPI Hong Kong Top Sales Music Award: April 11
Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum (DELF): March 24
Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards (IFVA): March 13-22