Will pre-buying international projects become more popular with Hong Kong distributors as they fight for screens and good-quality product in this lively market? Liz Shackleton reports
Hong Kong, with its annual box office of around $172m, is dwarfed by the mainland China market, but it remains a territory where independent films can be sold freely without import quotas or major censorship concerns.
It is also a vibrant market — in 2010 box office grew by around 13% in line with a growth trajectory stretching back four years. But as in many other Asian markets, the growth is mostly due to new multiplex openings and premium ticket prices for 3D movies. Local distributors say it has become tougher than ever to release independent foreign films.
Their challenges range from local market conditions to global issues such as a reduction in the volume of available product. “It’s becoming much more difficult to find good independent movies,” says Edko Films’ general manager of sales and acquisitions Audrey Lee. “The US studios have cut back on production, so they’re buying independent product to fill the pipeline.”
Back in their home market, distributors struggle to secure screens as exhibitors lean towards 3D tentpoles with higher ticket prices. Even distributors affiliated to one of Hong Kong’s four major cinema chains find this a problem. “Six to eight pictures are opening each weekend so everyone is struggling with the limited number of screens,” says Belinda Tang, head of Hong Kong operations for Orange Sky Golden Harvest. “Of course we can use our own theatres but we still need to book into other circuits.”
‘Everyone is struggling with the limited number of screens’
Belinda Tang, Orange Sky Golden Harvest
Another common gripe is the sorry state of ancillary markets: video is all but dead in Hong Kong, the territory only has one major free-to-air television buyer in TVB and pay-TV is also limited. “We can only get second window pay-TV from companies like Cable TV and [IPTV player] Now TV which is two and a half years after theatrical,” says Deltamac Hong Kong’s senior distribution and marketing manager Gilky Wan. “The first window is retained by regional broadcasters who prefer Asian or US studio films.”
Meanwhile, marketing costs continue to rise in this small but highly evolved media market. “Options are limited because there are no new outlets, but there’s a lot of media so you can’t just focus on one,” says Golden Scene managing director Winnie Tsang.
Yet despite this catalogue of woes, there is a surprisingly high number of distributors in Hong Kong and new players keep emerging. Last year, veteran producer and property developer Hsu Feng launched Tomson International Entertainment Distribution, which aims to be involved in film financing, international sales and talent management, in addition to distribution.
Such a competitive environment is naturally a boon for international sales companies selling into Hong Kong — especially those with independent 3D product — and prices are going through the roof. Three of last year’s top 10 independent foreign films were 3D releases, including the top two: Step Up 3D and Resident Evil: Afterlife. However audiences are becoming more aware of the amount of 3D each film really contains and exhibitors have been reducing ticket prices for some releases.
Outside the 3D craze, recognisable franchises, such as the Twilight series, and big star vehicles continue to lead the way. Times are more difficult than ever for arthouse or non English-language product, despite the fact Hong Kong has historically had a discerning audience. The territory now only has three cinemas which screen specialty product — Broadway’s Cinematheque and Palace IFC and the Grand, co-owned by MCL and Shaw Brothers.
Even mainstream Japanese and Korean films — once a mainstay of the Hong Kong box office — have recently not been performing well. Japan has a huge cultural influence on Hong Kong, which laps up the country’s fashion and pop culture, but there are signs of audience fatigue for the wave of Japanese manga and TV series adaptations.
Last year, the only Japanese live-action film considered a hit was Tetsuya Nakashima’s drama Confessions, released by UA Films. “It did well because of the strong story, and the director has a fanbase in Hong Kong,” says UA Films’ distribution and marketing manager Jennifer Hung.
‘We may consider pre-buying’
Yvonne Chuang, Tomson International Entertainment Distribution
But it seems unlikely there will be any consolidation or dramatic exits from Hong Kong’s distribution sector. It is more probable buyers will be selective in their acquisitions and club together on distribution, as Golden Scene and Panorama Entertainment did last year on The Expendables. Those which have affiliated distribution outlets in other territories, such as China and Taiwan, will also attempt to beat the competition by buying for multiple territories.
It is also likely some distributors will become more proactive and rely less on finished product. “We may consider pre-buying or otherwise get involved earlier in the production process to lock up certain territories,” says Yvonne Chuang, Tomson’s senior vice-president and general manager.
Hong Kong top 10 independent foreign films, 2010
|Rank||Film (origin)||Distributor||Release date||Gross|
|1||Step Up 3D (US)||Golden Scene||Aug 12||$2.5m|
|2||Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D (Ger-Fr UK)||Edko Films||Sept 30||$2.4m|
|3||The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (US)||Golden Scene||June 30||$2m|
|4||Aftershock (Chi)||Media Asia Distribution||July 22||$1.95m|
|5||Salt (US)||Anytime Pictures||July 22||$1.5m|
|6||Confessions (Jap)||Emperor & UA Films||Oct 14||$1.4m|
|7||The Expendables (US)||Panorama & Golden Scene||Aug 26||$1.35m|
|8||True Legend (Chi)||Edko Films||Feb 11||$1.3m|
|9||Piranha 3D (US)||Sundream Motion Pictures||Sept 9||$1.2m|
|10||The Borrowers (Jap)||Intercontinental||Dec 25||$975,000|
Source: Motion Picture Industry Association
Selected independent Hong Kong distributors
Owned by Taiwan’s CMC Entertainment, Deltamac (HK) handles mainstream product, such as the Saw series, upscale English-language titles, including Knowing and The Young Victoria, and occasional foreign-language films. The company is also a leading video distributor.
Upcoming titles The Lincoln Lawyer, Haywire, The Hungry Rabbit Jumps, Oceans 3D
Who to know Gilky Wan, senior distribution and marketing manager
Bill Kong’s Edko is a leading buyer of independent films and distributes Universal Pictures product in Hong Kong. Edko owns the Broadway Cinemas circuit and is a leading producer of Chinese content.
Upcoming titles Sanctum 3D [pictured], Biutiful, Monsters, Another Year
Who to know Audrey Lee, general manager of sales and acquisitions
Hoi Wong’s First Distributors handles international festival favourites and other acclaimed films. Its biggest hits have included Michael Haneke’s Hidden and Transamerica, while last year it released Cannes titles The White Ribbon, Fish Tank and A Prophet.
Upcoming titles Soul Kitchen, In A Better World
Who to know Hoi Wong, executive director
Golden Scene, founded by Winnie Tsang, has struck gold with the Step Up and Twilight franchises, but it also acquires upscale English and foreign-language titles. It has also become a producer and sales company for Hong Kong films.
Upcoming titles Coriolanus, Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole, The Tree
Who to know Winnie Tsang, managing director
INTERCONTINENTAL FILM DISTRIBUTORS
Part of Kadokawa Intercontinental Group which also owns MCL cinemas, IFD handles a wide range of indie product, titles from Japanese parent Kadokawa and sub-distributes for Paramount and DreamWorks.
Upcoming titles Umizaru 3: The Last Message, 1,778 Stories Of Me And My Wife
Who to know Michael Wong, general manager, acquisitions and operations
The Hong Kong distribution arm of Orange Sky Golden Harvest (OSGH) has recently been focusing on Japanese and Thai titles with occasional Western releases such as The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus. OSGH operates 250 screens across Asia including 32 in Hong Kong.
Upcoming titles Space Battleship Yamato, Gantz, Phobia 3, The Tempest
Who to know Belinda Tang, head of Hong Kong operations
Also a major video distributor, Panorama has recently handled an eclectic theatrical slate including The Expendables, Hachiko: A Dog’s Story, Bruno and The Wrestler. Last year, the company brought live 3D FIFA World Cup 2010 matches to cinemas in Hong Kong.
Upcoming titles A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures, The Beaver, Henry’s Crime, Carnage
Who to know Allan Fung, managing director, Sarah Cheung, programme sales and acquisitions manager
SUNDREAM MOTION PICTURES
Owned by pay-TV operator i-Cable Communications, Sundream’s recent releases include A Single Man and Piranha 3D, which was its biggest hit in 2010. The company has an output deal with The Weinstein Company and is also a producer of Chinese content.
Upcoming titles The King’s Speech, Scream 4
Who to know Nan Wong, general manager, distribution and acquisition
TOMSON INTERNATIONAL ENTERTAINMENT DISTRIBUTION
Launched last year by producer and property developer Hsu Feng, Tomson aims to be involved in distribution, international sales, financing and talent management.
Who to know Yvonne Chuang, senior vice-president
Affiliated to UA Cinemas, UA Films (aka Lark Films Distribution) focuses on quality English and foreign-language product and sometimes teams with Emperor to distribute titles such as Japanese hit Confessions. It scooped Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games at the AFM.
Upcoming titles Season Of The Witch, Last Night, Limitless, Larry Crowne
Who to know Jennifer Hung, distribution and marketing manager