Although box office is still booming in many parts of the region, the Asian film market presents unique challenges to Western sales companies. Local product has a market share of at least 40% in the major territories, and as US studio product is also strong, there is little room for independent English or foreign-language movies. Although China and India both have an expanding middle class and are witnessing rapid multiplex development, both markets are problematic. Local product has a 96% share in India, while China's censorship and import restrictions show no sign of abating in the year the country is hosting the Olympic Games.
And yet the number of US and European sellers at Asia's biggest film market, Hong Kong Filmart, continues to rise. Most receive some kind of assistance - US sales companies receive a discount under the Independent Film & Television Alliance (Ifta), while the majority of Europeans attend under the umbrella of national film organisations.
Mathilde Aupetit, director of international sales for US-based Mainline Releasing/Lightning Entertainment has been attending Filmart for four years, but this was the first time she closed deals during the market. "Thailand is buying genre movies and we also sold video rights for a romantic comedy to Hong Kong," says Aupetit. "But the strength of local product in Asia does make it difficult."
Sellers of foreign-language films have an even harder time. "It's tough. Prices for sales to Japan, for example, are going down and deals are more difficult to do," says Yoann Ubermulhin, head of sales at France's Pyramide International.
Pascal Diot of Paris-based Idpl points out that most French films are targeted at an older audience, while Asian cinemagoers are young. "Also, France is not producing a lot of genre films, which is what Asian buyers are looking for," he says.
When turning to the West, Asian buyers tend to focus on effects-heavy action and horror, sourcing drama and comedy closer to home. There are exceptions, however. "Sometimes they're looking for classic romantic dramas," says ContentFilm International's Kristian Brodie. "Closing The Ring sold as well in south-east Asia as anywhere else. But, in general, opportunities to sell European drama are limited."
Another hurdle is that many of the more mature Asian markets are reaching saturation, with around 10-15 new films released each week. Asian distributors across the region complain it is difficult to get films into cinemas and even harder to keep them on screens for more than a few weeks. "They have to spend more on p&a, which increases their risk," says Idpl's Diot. "Some Japanese distributors are asking for subsidies from the French government to cover their costs."
But Asia is also a region characterised by constant development. While mature markets are saturated, they are also becoming more sophisticated in their buying tastes. "Last year, everyone was looking for action, horror or war movies; this year there's more interest in arthouse product," says Brigitte Suarez of Germany's The Match Factory. Sellers report demand for documentaries is also on the rise, particularly high-definition (HD) docs, due to an increase in the number of Hdtv channels.
Another trend everyone agrees on is the rise of India as a buying power. Local films continue to tower over the market, but the rise of an outward-looking middle class, along with a proliferation of multiplexes and new media platforms, is encouraging Indian distributors to travel further afield. "The numbers (for India) are going up substantially, primarily for theatrical, and the number of buyers is also increasing. It's becoming a real market," says Shoreline Entertainment's director of distribution Sam Eigen.
Eigen also points to growth in other Asian territories - he sold martial arts title Wushu Warrior to Vietnam, which is becoming more active as a buyer - and sellers reported more Russian and Eastern European distributors making the trip to Hong Kong, because it is not too far from home, and their own markets are also expanding.
Next year, Filmart runs from March 23-26, uncomfortably close to Mip-TV (March 30-April 3). But most international sellers say they plan to return. "The European market is getting saturated and we need to sell more in Asia," says Maria Jose Vadillo of Spanish producers association Fapae. "It's a happening place and we're still at the stage where we're exploring the market."
Silvia Wong, Jean Noh and Sen-lun Yu contributed to this report
ASIAN SELLERS BUSY WITH REGIONAL DEALS
As in previous years, few major deals were unveiled by Asian sellers at Filmart. This is in keeping with the event's role as a warm-up market where business is discussed but not signed off on until Cannes. Of the deals that were announced, most were intra-Asian.
Indeed, Filmart is increasingly becoming a launch-pad for big-budget Chinese epics, and films such as Universe Films Distribution's The Storm Riders II and JA Media's She Ain't Mean scored a raft of sales to Asian territories. But some sellers complained there were fewer non-Asian buyers at Filmart this year. The Weinstein Company's highly publicised output deal with Hong Kong's Sundream Motion Pictures was sealed before the market.
The Korean and Japanese sales companies were relatively busy although not all their meetings were for sales. "More producers are looking for co-producers at the project stage, which seems to be the trend here at the market," says Showbox's senior manager of international Soojin Jung.