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Video-on-Demand, Pan-Asian Stars and IP Dominate Busan Film Festival

A subdued Busan International Film Festival nevertheless brought to the fore many of the issues facing the industry, including acquiring original source material, fending off Netflix and casting actors with a truly pan-Asian appeal.

Photo: Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon – an internet-evolved hit.
Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon – an internet-evolved hit.
Photo: Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon – an internet-evolved hit.
Old Boys: The Way of the Dragon – an internet-evolved hit.

According to a number of attendees, this year's Asian Film Market at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) was unusually quiet. Despite this, it still managed to address two of the major issues currently facing Asian content producers – the acquisition of source material to turn into films and TV shows and uncovering acting talent that travels well.

Source material – ideally with a built-in fanbase is the Holy Grail of the film and TV industries. If a novel, comic book or video game already has a loyal following, it's far less of a risk to turn it into a movie or TV show than to work with writers on an entirely original project.

The Asian Film Market's first-ever Entertainment-Intellectual Property (E-IP) Market played host to a number of seminars focussing on just how to successfully, and legally, adapt IP into different languages and across different distribution platforms. It also presented 10 original Korean works – ranging from unproduced scripts to web cartoons and dramas – to potential buyers. An impressive array of companies took part in the pitch process, including China's Alibaba Pictures, Huayi Brothers and Huace Media, along with Korea's Showbox and Opus Pictures.

The event even resulted in an early deal when Beijing-based Alpha Transmedia acquired the rights to The Cravings, a web drama originally produced by Korea's Kirin Productions. Alpha and Kirin now plan to jointly produce a Chinese version of the series.

One of the major themes of the event was the impact the internet is having on IP-related issues. Many movies in China, notably last year's hit Old Boys: The Way Of The Dragon, start life as 'micro-films' uploaded by internet users, while internet novels are also regularly adapted for film and TV. Increasingly, user comments and other forms of online feedback are used to refine the scripts of feature-length versions.

Highlighting the changes this has wrought on the creative process, Jay Choi, Chief Executive of Local Productions for Warner Bros Korea, said: "The barriers between creators and users are crumbling in the internet era. You can now have an internet drama that is created by professional staff, but millions of people can also watch it and give feedback. They can even get involved in the creative process. The internet has resulted in a new era of imagination for the audience."

According to Choi, while the internet makes it easier to steal content, it has also made it much easier to pay for content. Just as we no longer have to visit a book store to buy a book, we no longer have to go to the cinema to watch a film. Jeong Taesung, Chief Executive of CJ E&M, a Korean studio, sees internet payments as giving heavily populated countries, notably China and India, a distinct advantage. He said: "You can charge a very small amount per word or unit but, with a billion customers, companies like Tencent can potentially earn huge revenues."

Tencent, the Shenzhen-based internet giant, has grown into a US$150 billion digital titan, at least partly on the back of micro-payments for online novels, animation and video games. Speaking at one of the IP seminars, Edward Cheng, Tencent's Vice-president, said: "The US and Japan used to rule the world when it came to animation, but now China is creating more of its own IP.

"In 2012, we launched Tencent Animation. Rather than just import famous works, we started to support animation creators in China and now we are the biggest copyright owner of comic books there. We are currently mining this treasure trove with a view to turning many of them into films."

Over at Busan's Asian Casting Market, meanwhile, the other big issue facing producers attempting to make films that can travel outside of their home market was being addressed – how to find bilingual acting talent with pan-Asian appeal? Overall, language skills are becoming ever more important, a consequence of the growth in China-Korea co-productions, as well as the Japanese film industry's hesitant attempts to become more international.

As part of a way of remedying this, the market presented six actors and actresses, all of whom were bilingual or deemed to have the potential to work outside their home market – Taiwan's Mark Chao and Sandrine Pinna, Japan's Satoh Takeru and Nagasawa Masami and Korea's Kim Woo-bin and Kim Go-eun.

Photo: Tencent Animation: Supporting creators in China.
Tencent Animation: Supporting creators in China.
Photo: Tencent Animation: Supporting creators in China.
Tencent Animation: Supporting creators in China.
Photo: Bad Guys Always Die: A China/Korea coproduction.
Bad Guys Always Die: A China/Korea coproduction.
Photo: Bad Guys Always Die: A China/Korea coproduction.
Bad Guys Always Die: A China/Korea coproduction.

Welcoming the initiative, Choi said: "The good thing about the Asian Casting Market was that it gave us the opportunity to make casting offers on the spot to actors that are difficult to cast in our home countries. We could also discover each actor's strengths, in addition to the general information that is widely available."

Thanks to the strength of Korea's TV dramas, Korean acting talent is now popular all across Asia. Actors such as Kim Soo-hyun and Lee Minho are the good-looking, carefully groomed products of an industry that has a clear-cut strategy for creating strong content and exporting it across the rest of the continent.

While China and Japan also have stars, their huge domestic markets have also rendered them less proactive when it comes to exporting such icons. In terms of Hong Kong, its pan-Asian stars, such as Andy Lau, Chow Yun Fat and Aaron Kwok, still have box office clout, but don't appeal to the younger demographic, while the industry seems to be struggling to attract newcomers.

There were signs in Busan, however, that mainland companies are now becoming more aggressive when it comes to working with and developing pan-Asian talent. Beijing-based Huayi Brothers and Feng Xiaogang, a leading Chinese filmmaker, recently teamed up with Korean director Kang Je-gyu to co-produce Sun Hao's Bad Guys Always Die (starring Chen Bolin, a Taiwanese actor, and Son Ye-jin, a Korean actress). In a similar move, China's Alibaba Pictures is investing in Real, a Korean action film starring Kim Soo-hyun.

Heyi Pictures, the film production arm of Chinese streaming giant Youku Tudou, also invested in Bad Guys Always Die, with the movie premiering at BIFF. Youku has also teamed with BIFF to produce two collections of short films. The first focussed on the work of Asian master directors, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand), Wang Xiaoshuai (China), Im Sang-soo (Korea) and Naomi Kawase (Japan). By contrast, the second collection had more of a focus on Asian newcomers.

Reflecting on the issue of nurturing pan-Asian appeal, Matthew Liu, President of Heyi Pictures, maintained that Korean films are not hugely popular in China as they as not as spectacular as Hollywood movies, while also lacking stories that reflect the lives of Chinese audiences. He did, however, acknowledge that Korean talent has become extremely popular in China, largely thanks to imported Korean TV dramas.

He said: "Chinese audiences have a very strong acceptance of Korean actors and actresses, so we need to make good use of them. We need to work with them in stories that resonate more closely with Chinese audiences. We will use talent from both sides and leverage the industrial processes of the Korean movie industry."

Away from BIFF's programming line-up and the Asian Film Market's new initiatives, the market itself was quieter than in previous years. This was largely a consequence of bad timing, with the event following the MERS scare and the Chinese stock market crash. It also coincided with the MIPCOM content market in France and Golden Week in China.

Those film sales companies that had booked their meetings ahead of time and scheduled market screenings did, however, report brisk business. US-based Arclight Films, which now has a Beijing office, reported sales of several titles to Korea, India and Vietnam, while also engaging in a number of discussions with regard to selling its library to video-on-demand (VOD) buyers.

Highlighting the importance of this latter move, Elliot Tong, Arclight Films' Head of Asian Sales and Acquisitions, said: "There's a huge drive to establish VOD platforms before Netflix and Amazon launch in Asia. This has seen a lot of companies ramp up on VOD acquisitions. For us, this has allowed us to revisit our libraries and see which titles are available to be licensed for online platforms."

Photo: The BIFF 2015: One of Asia’s leading film events.
The BIFF 2015: One of Asia's leading film events.
Photo: The BIFF 2015: One of Asia’s leading film events.
The BIFF 2015: One of Asia's leading film events.

The Busan International Film Festival 2015 took place at Korea's Busan Cinema Center from 1-10 October.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Busan

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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