This year’s FILMART conference programme offered a wide-ranging smorgasbord of topics, speakers and opinions with a little starpower sprinkled on top.
Almost every international screen industry conference event in the last few years has programmed sessions on doing business with China and online distribution, sometimes both together. FILMART has been no exception to that trend although, sitting next door to mainland China, it’s often hosted a wider range of Chinese presenters than many other events.
Last year FILMART ran a session which explored the explosion of reality and format television in the mainland market. This year, with the Chinese government about to introduce regulatory changes on online content, FILMART presented sessions on China’s online market, making Asian films in America, and making content with China. The rarely-sighted beast that is a globally successful “Asian film” was explored in a session mapping out “the new Silk Road”.
Busan festival director Lee Yong-kwan noted continuing growth in the Asian film market (12% during 2014) although China accounted for far more growth last year than many other markets in the region.
While much of the rest of the world’s box office was static last year, China’s grew, as did that for other less developed regions. China trumpeted almost 6,000 new screens in 2014, an increase of over 25%. However, with a calculator and a modicum of commonsense, it’s clear that the growth in number of screens wasn’t matched by an equivalent increase in box office earnings.
It might now be easier to go to the cinema in many parts of China, but not so many people do.
Some speakers reminded the audience “Asia” was not one territory, but several. China might continue to grow, but the tea leaves in some of the region’s more mature markets make for less promising reading. Japan’s box office take has been static for a decade, although local titles are now taking more of that spend than they were. Korea’s box office is behaving similarly, and it’s video market is now non-existent. Across the region, there’s less theatrical room for smaller local titles. In smaller population countries like Singapore or New Zealand, even Australia, “smaller” local titles are really all that get made.
One of the bigger challenges of discussing such a broad topic is the number of local perspectives required to offer a representative view of the region. While representing less than a half dozen Asian territories, the New Silk Road panel had 14 members. While the breadth of knowledge and experience was impressive, there was little chance of speakers exploring issues in any meaningful depth.
Spesakers did acknowledge that very few Asian titles travel well, either around the whole region or beyond. Last year’s exception (commercially speaking) would be The Raid 2, which played well almost everywhere it went. There was increasing anecdotal evidence of an increase in co-operation off-screen, especially at crew and services level, in financing, but the “Asian film” (as opposed to a Chinese, Korean, Singaporean, or Thai film) remains elusive.
Despite speakers’ aspirations for increasing global success of Asian content in global market, producers’ behaviour didn’t always match those aspirations or sugest that they necessarily cared too much about other territories. Chinese and Korean producers can finance and make a profit in their own territories, so there’s no need to look elsewhere to get product made.
Of the several Hong Kong and Chinese production companies making announcements during FILMART, most presented their press conferences in Chinese language without interpretation, and followed up with Chinese language-only media releases.
The American presenters, of whom Stu Levy, Chair of the Producers Guild of America (PGA) International Committee, was among the busiest, were characteristicaly direct. Levy observed that exhibition was dying, and that over the next decade exhibitors would be forced to accept a lot of changes to their models.
He cited in particular the reduction in the length of windows. Citing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2 as an example of a title heading for day and date theatrical and VOD release, Levy suggested that while some cinema chains were able to refuse the release, they wouldn’t be able to do that for long as more (and more mainstream) titles began to adopt that approach.
Addressing the international opportunities for co-operation and collaboration, Levy and other presenters were given the clear message that this year’s strengthening of the American dollar was a mixed blessing.
Many buyers of US fare expressed concern, having become accustomed to getting good prices (in local currencies) since the US dollar plummeted following the GFC. Producers and locations offices were happier, noting that shooting outside the US was again becoming more attractive as the dollar bought more.
In and among the sessions on locations and technology, Australian director and cinematographer Jason Wingrove talked shooting KFC’s Chase the Taste TVC, and the challenges of matching the production approach to the ground to be covered.
Much of the discussion around the potential of online exhibition, the business of major sponsor iQIYI, was littered with caveats as players waited for clarification on the changes coming to censorship regualtions in China for VOD services.
Implemented on 1 April, the early response to the new regulations is that they are undoing some of the gains China has made in combatting piracy, especially for TV content. China’s major VOD players have been moving over the last year to day and date release of episodes of major TV series (as have both broadcasters and VOD services in other parts of Asia).
The new Chinese regulations require TV content heading online to pass censorship as a complete series. If a series can’t head online in China until it’s available in its entirety to go through censorship, that advantage of making it available before pirated versions become available will be lost.
Also exploring opportunities online was session T for Transmedia: Immersive Storyworld, featuring Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez. The veteran transmedia guru (Avatar, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers) kicked off a lively session and later sat down with us for an extended interview.
Running alongside the market attendance numbers at the conference were good at all the sessions this writer visited, which might reflect the record number of attendees the market claimed this year.
FILMART (23 – 26 March) ran as part of the Hong Kong Entertainment Expo. Other events included the Hong Kong Asia Financing Forum (HAF, 23 – 25 March), the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF, 23 March – 6 April) and the Hong Kong Film Awards (22 April). The Asian Film Awards (AFA) ran 25 March in Macau.