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FILMART Truly Comes of Age with its 20th Anniversary Iteration

Some 20 years since it was first held, the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FILMART) is now firmly established as one of the industry's major trading platforms and a crucial nexus for filmmakers from both the East and West.

Photo: MEG: A global project from Hong Kong-based Flagship Entertainment.
MEG: A global project from Hong Kong-based Flagship Entertainment.
Photo: MEG: A global project from Hong Kong-based Flagship Entertainment.
MEG: A global project from Hong Kong-based Flagship Entertainment.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (FILMART) has grown up in tandem with East Asia's dynamic film industry. It has also witnessed a huge boom in the mainland market, which 20 years ago generated less box office revenue than Hong Kong.

Over the years, the annual market, organised by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), has evolved from simply being a networking event conveniently timed between the Berlin and Cannes film festivals in February and May. Today, it is a fully-fledged trading platform where real business is done.

Acknowledging the significance of this, Kevin Adege, Senior Sales Manager for London and LA-based sales agent Content Media, said: "We make all-rights deals with the various territories that attend FILMART, with the vast majority of our films being released theatrically in Asia. The region as a whole has proved to be extremely dynamic for us."

According to Nicolas Kaiser, a Sales and Acquisition Executive for Paris-based Memento Films, he usually closes a couple of deals at FILMART, while also using the event to introduce buyers to new films that are tipped for official selection in Cannes. He said: "It's a productive market, but not as busy as Berlin, Cannes and the American Film Market. As a result, you're able to do more meetings, catch up with people and refresh your knowledge of the region."

Although China's movie market is currently hogging headlines with its explosive growth – its annual box office hit US$6.78 billion in 2015 and is poised to overtake North America in 2017 – international sales agents say the Asian territories they mostly sell to are South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong. China remains difficult to do business with, largely due to its import quotas, censorship requirements and recently-enforced restrictions on video-on-demand (VOD).

Highlighting the problems here, Kaiser said: "Most of our China deals are for VOD, rather than for theatrical. All-rights deals are next to impossible for arthouse films in China and, while TV deals are happening, they tend to be complicated."

Nonetheless, the lure of the mainland market is certainly helping FILMART to grow. This year, the market attracted more than 800 exhibitors and 7,300 visitors. This represents an increase of 3% on the previous year, despite a rise in costs resulting from a strong Hong Kong dollar.

Film companies from North America, Europe and the rest of Asia all say they're looking to China for financing and co-production opportunities, in addition to straight sales. Despite the obstacles, Chinese distributors are also still acquiring theatrical rights to some foreign product.

During this year's FILMART, China's HGC Entertainment bought Content Media's sci-fi title Higher Power, while Lemon Tree took South Korean crime thriller A Violent Prosecutor from Showbox, and Turbo Films acquired animation Bad Cat from Sydney-based Odin's Eye Entertainment. Lemon Tree also recently acquired the Japanese drama While The Women Are Sleeping, which received its world premiere at this year's Berlin Film Festival.

Two other clear trends emerged during this year's FILMART. Firstly, producers from both the West and East are still striving to put China co-productions together, despite the difficulties such projects have faced in the past. In a second development, China's online video platforms are becoming aggressive investors in Chinese-language content.

Chinese co-productions enable foreign producers to bypass China's import quotas, as approved projects are classified as local films. In recent years, though, US and other Western film companies have found it difficult to satisfy China's co-production requirements or to find suitable scripts.

At the same time, though, Chinese producers are also pursuing co-productions in an attempt to learn how to globalise their product. Speaking at a seminar on global production, Tin Mok, Chief Executive of LeEco APAC, said: "Both US and Chinese producers require an intermediate stage in their relationship. They can go through the co-production process as a way of learning from each other."

China's streaming platforms started to make their presence felt at FILMART in 2015, with both LeEco and iQiyi being particularly active this year. Youku Tudou, a rival operator, has gone quiet while going through the process of being acquired by digital giant Alibaba.

LeEco, which recently acquired Hong Kong rights to all FIFA football matches between 2016 and 2018, launched a slew of new movies and web series at FILMART through Le Vision Pictures, its film affiliate. New film projects included Daniel Lee's action suspense title The Lost Tomb and Guo Jingming's fantasy epic L.O.R.D., starring Fan Bingbing.

Meanwhile, iQiyi announced investments in several new projects – including Sun Entertainment's action thriller The Brink, produced by Soi Cheang and Paco Wong, and China 3D Digital Entertainment's crime thriller The Death Notice, directed by Philip Yung – as well as an output deal with Hong Kong-based Media Asia. iQiyi will stream Media Asia titles on its China platform, as well as invest in the Hong Kong company's upcoming slate of films.

Media Asia was one of several Hong Kong and Chinese mainland companies to unveil a busy range of new film projects at FILMART. Among its new titles are John Woo's Manhunt, starring Zhang Hanyu, and Three, an action thriller coming courtesy of Japan's Masaharu Fukuyama and Johnnie To. The latter movie is tipped for Cannes selection.

In addition, Emperor Motion Pictures unveiled Yuen Woo-ping's action film Hand Over Fist, while start-up company Young Live Pictures announced two action titles – The Game Changer, starring Huang Zitao and Peter Ho, and Kungfu Is Not Fighting, directed by Marco Mak.

Young Live Pictures, a Hong Kong-based subsidiary of China's Yongle Group, says that in addition to big-budget mainland projects, it would also support local talent through smaller projects aimed at the domestic market. Expanding on its strategy, Grace Chan, the company's Distribution Manager, said: "We aim to develop and finance Hong Kong stories as well as cherry-pick mainland Chinese titles for international distribution."

Photo: A Violent Prosecutor: A new Korean crime thriller.
A Violent Prosecutor: A new Korean crime thriller.
Photo: A Violent Prosecutor: A new Korean crime thriller.
A Violent Prosecutor: A new Korean crime thriller.
Photo: Sword Master: A “crossover” Chinese action title.
Sword Master: A "crossover" Chinese action title.
Photo: Sword Master: A “crossover” Chinese action title.
Sword Master: A "crossover" Chinese action title.

In terms of other announcements, press conferences were held for Universe Films Distribution's Call of Heroes, directed by Benny Chan, and Distribution Workshop's Sword Master, directed by Derek Yee and produced by Tsui Hark. The Hangzhou-based Huace Media Group was also busy, signing a three-picture deal with Malaysia's Asia Tropical Films, acquiring remake rights to South Korean drama Canola and closing a deal with South Korean mobile platform Kakao to adapt five Daum webtoon comics.

While sales of Chinese-language product to North America and Europe have recently been soft, Western buyers said they're encouraged by the increasing volume of martial arts and action titles on offer at FILMART. Commenting on this, Doris Pfardrescher, Chief Executive of the distributor Well Go USA, said: "Recently China has been making a lot of comedies, dramas and romantic comedies. These do really well at the China box office, but only really work with Asian audiences in North America."

Well Go USA recently released Hong Kong production Ip Man 3, starring Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson, in North America, where it grossed an encouraging $2.7 million. During FILMART, Pfardrescher also snapped up Call of Heroes and Sword Master for North American and UK distribution. Maintaining that these Chinese action titles cross over to a much broader "fanboy" audience, she said: "For the first time in a couple of years, I'm seeing more martial arts and wuxia movies coming out of China and Hong Kong."

FILMART also hosted the first press conference by Flagship Entertainment – a Hong Kong-based joint venture between US studio Warner Bros, Li Ruigang's China Media Capital (CMC) and TVB, the Hong Kong broadcaster. The event saw Flagship unveil its debut slate of Chinese-language productions, including a number of mainland-focussed dramas and comedies, as well as several projects described as "global tentpoles", but not of the martial arts variety. Projects under the global tag included Crater, a CGI-driven disaster movie, and MEG, an action title about a deep-sea predator.

Explaining his aspiration for the joint venture, Kevin Tsujihara, Chairman and Chief Executive of Warner Bros, said: "With Flagship, we plan to make great movies that showcase China's fabled history, stories, values and lifestyle. More than just making movies, though, we want Flagship to represent a true cultural exchange between our companies and our countries."

Photo: Three: Tipped for glory at Cannes.
Three: Tipped for glory at Cannes.
Photo: Three: Tipped for glory at Cannes.
Three: Tipped for glory at Cannes.

The Hong Kong International Film and TV Market (FILMART) 2016 took place at the Hong Kong Convention Exhibition Centre from 14-17 March.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Hong Kong

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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