Saturday, May 18, 2024

Hong Kong FilMart’s Expansion Is Built on Hopes of China’s Entertainment Engagement

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COVID, changing money flows and a new superpower Cold War of sorts may have, over the past few years, helped to reduce the connections between the film and TV industries of China and the rest of the world — so, will the 2024 edition of FilMart, whose organizers continue to claim bridgehead status, be the market to increase those connections? 

Candas Yeung, the Trade Development Council associate director who takes over as head of FilMart this year, says that visitor and exhibitor numbers have crept up again this year — to an anticipated 7,500 and 715, respectively — and that fully 40% of market participants hail from mainland China. 

“That’s a pretty significant proportion and they are very active in the market, both buying and selling, and making some announcements,” Yeung says. “Clearly, Hong Kong remains a crucial intermediate link between mainland Chinese and the rest of the world’s entertainment industry. We will try to support them through things like our business- matching efforts and to help these companies promote their films and provide opportunities for financing, networking and collaboration.” 

Mainland Chinese companies including Linmon (which claims that English is its internal working language), Alibaba and iQiyi are expected to make cross-border announcements this week. 

Such outreach, however, has been at a low ebb in recent years. 

After a decade of chaotic embrace, a disconnect may have been triggered in 2018 when the Chinese government reined in companies like Wanda that were seeking to buy big stakes in Hollywood. In America, Trump-era sanctions and security concerns also added to the pullback. 
But other wedges have also come between the two sectors. These include pandemic-era restrictions on travel and communications, and shifting box office trends. 

For the last two years, Hollywood and films from other countries have been relegated to less than 15% of the mainland China box office. There are signs that may be picking up, but they remain slight. 

“Negotiations and sales to mainland China — the main attraction of Hong Kong — have become unpredictable,” says Susanne Davis, executive at European Film Promotion. “But there seems to be a slight return in terms of acquisitions from China.” 

Due to poor bilateral relations, Chinese audiences have entirely missed the boom in Korean cinema that the rest of Asia has enjoyed. Oscar-winner “Parasite,” for example, was not released in China.
Similarly, U.S.-China film co-productions have largely ceased following a rethink by Hollywood studios and China’s still prickly censorship regulations. “Mulan,” Disney’s last attempt at a co-venture with China, was fraught with political and social problems and disappointed at the box office. Last year’s “Meg 2” was a rare exception in that it was authorized as a co-production, but it struggled creatively. 

The bilateral doldrums have coincided with a moment in which Chinese filmmakers have raised their game creatively and scored big with an understanding of mainland audience tastes. Hits include sci-fi blockbusters (“The Wandering Earth” parts I and II), muscular patriotic movies (“Wolf Warrior,” “Battle at Lake Changjin”) and crime stories with Chinese characteristics (“No More Bets”). But while they reap B.O. benefits locally, commercial Chinese films have not created a significant export trade beyond the Chinese diaspora markets. 

“The Chinese cinema market is working pretty well. So, lots of Chinese directors are making films that just cater to the domestic market. In terms of cinema language and also topics, these may be quite localized and very difficult for international audiences,” indie filmmaker Jia Zhangke said in a recent interview with Variety

“International film festivals are also very important for connections. For the past few years not many Chinese films have been selected [at festivals], so some young Chinese directors may have thought there was a boycott. I don’t believe there was anything political in this, but rather was due to the difficulty of travel and communications,” he added. 

Jacob Wong, who heads the Hong Kong — Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) and is an advisor to the HKIFF and Berlin festivals, spent several months in China during the pandemic years and watched literally hundreds of new, indie Chinese movies. 

“There is a lot of creative energy. Chinese people have always been very resourceful. And, somehow, they always get the money together, allowing films to continue to be made,” says Wong. 

His HAF is this year unveiling the first edition of the HKIFF Industry — CAA China Genre Initiative. Its six projects — with recurring crime and money topics — are a fascinating window into young mainland film thinking. 
Wong says that while Chinese filmmakers will continue to raise 90% of their production budgets within mainland China, they are increasingly participating in overseas project markets. 

“Most of them are independents. And most are participating in order to achieve status. Europe is still the center of the universe as far as filmmaking recognition goes,” says Wong. 

Hong Kong filmmakers, who plied their trade in the mainland market for a decade or more, have now largely turned local again and have given the city’s box office a more local flavor — “A Guilty Conscience,” “Table for Six” and “Goldfinger” were local blockbusters.

And now the Hong Kong authorities are looking west and creating a new fund for Asian and European co-productions

But there will be competition as other Asian governments also use entertainment to step up their soft power initiatives. On Monday, FilMart will see Thailand host ‘Thai Night’ and unveil some of its thinking behind a new Thailand Creative Culture funding and support body.

Tuesday will see Japanese and Saudi Arabian companies talking up their plans within the ACBS Annual Conference, which also forms part of this week’s Entertainment Expo. And throughout the week there will be much talk of co-production. 

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