Despite the proliferation of new media platforms in Asia, the region’s genre filmmakers are sticking to tried-and-tested formulas to finance their films.
Asia may be at the cutting edge of digital technology, but as last week’s PiFan film festival in South Korea demonstrated, new media has yet to have an impact on the financing of genre and other low-budget independent films.
The festival features a highly-respected projects market, Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF), that draws filmmakers from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and South-East Asia – all trying to finance the kind of “Asia extreme” genre and fantasy movies that have drawn a large fanboy following in the West.
Projects in this year’s selection included Indonesian filmmaker Joko Anwar’s slasher pic Modus Anomali, about an amnesiac serial killer, and New York-based David Kaplan’s Exquisite Corpse Tokyo, a horror film based on the 1920s surrealist game. Budgets ranged from $60,000 to $3m, with $100,000 generally considered the benchmark of a low-budget Asian film.
NAFF also featured a seminar on new media in which execs and academics from the US, Europe and Korea discussed the latest advances in the distribution of movies via VoD, IPTV and mobile phones.
Korea famously leads the world in broadband and mobile phone penetration and has millions of subscribers to wireless services and IPTV. Korea Telecom (KT) owns a film studio, Sidus FNH, and its rival SK Telecom buys films for theatrical release as well as new media platforms.
Korea also produced the world’s first film shot entirely on Apple’s iPhone 4 – Park Chan-wook’s 30-minute Night Fishing – which premiered at this year’s Berlin.
But back at NAFF, filmmakers were ploughing tried-and-tested furrows to finance their projects – co-production, government subsidies and equity from good old-fashioned video companies and broadcast TV.
“Some indie directors upload their films for free onto sites like YouTube or Vimeo, so they get some audience but they don’t get any revenue,” says Korean director Kim Sung-ho, who was pitching vampire flick A Girl With A Sushi Knife at NAFF.
He adds: “Korea mobile phone companies have financed short films from famous directors, but the idea behind that was to promote the latest iPhone release.”
Kim has directed three shorts and two features, all financed by Korean TV networks, including MBC and Arirang, or local film festivals. The shorts were part of omnibus projects – a popular method of supporting new talent and low-budget filmmaking in Asia – including the Show Me The Money omnibus, backed by the Jeonju International Film Festival and Korean conglomerate KT&G.
Meanwhile Korea’s VoD and IPTV companies are spending their acquisition budgets on proven properties and big-budget films, much to the disappointment of those who were hoping this medium would compensate for the disappearance of DVD.
“Everyone’s trying to recoup from IPTV but they’re looking for big films, not indie product. They have to turn a profit like everyone else,” says veteran producer Jonathan Kim, who recently joined CJ E&M in a consultancy role.
He also observes that, ironically, big Asian studios like CJ are becoming an important source of finance for low-budget movies. CJ recently launched a low-budget label, Filament Pictures, for films costing under $1.2m. The intention is to keep product flowing through the studio pipeline and expand market diversity, much like the US studios’ genre and specialty divisions.
It’s a similar situation in Japan, where Nikkatsu has launched the Sushi Typhoon extreme gore label, except that outside the big film producers, it’s video rather than TV networks that are providing the finance for low-budget films.
Japan has long had its “pinku” softcore porn industry, an experimental training ground for new talent, which morphed into the AV (adult video) industry and kept legions of video companies afloat. Even with the decline in Japan’s mainstream video industry, there are still plenty of companies willing to finance low-budget genre films.
“The video market is down, but companies feel safe with low-budget productions, as they can predict each film’s revenue due to the fanbase in Japan,” says Yukie Kito, who recently produced the ultra low-budget Schoolgirl Apocalypse [pictured] and was pitching Exquisite Corpse Tokyo at NAFF.
Meanwhile, Japan’s new media companies have yet to get actively involved in film financing. Indeed, Japan is lagging behind Korea in terms of online and mobile phone distribution of movies, despite the fact that consumers have some of the most sophisticated handsets in the world.
“People prefer to watch TV shows and short sketches on their mobiles while they’re on the train. Watching films is difficult because you’ll be interrupted after ten minutes,” Kito says.
Mobile TV broadcaster BeeTV, owned by NTT DoCoMo and Avex Group Holdings, is an example of how the market is moving in Japan. The company produces romantic serials, which are broadcast in short weekly episodes to mobiles, and later released on DVD.
Mainland China is an exception to the continued reliance on old media – mostly because TV is state-owned and strictly regulated and DVD never had a chance to flourish. Therefore online video sites such as Youku, LeTV and Voole.com have more space to grow and attract audiences, even if many are still operating in the red.
They’re also aggressively involved in both financing and acquiring local movies, and also work with their advertising clients to produce product placement-backed films.
However horror, the staple of low-budget indie filmmaking, is problematic in China due to strict censorship rules. More horror movies are getting past the censors, such as current hit Mysterious Island, financed by Hong Kong producer Mei Ah Entertainment.
But the video sites have been striving to clean up their image and tend to stay away from gore and horror in favour of less problematic romance and comedy films.