FilMart: Hong Kong Returns, Buoyed by Positive Current Trends
After three editions that were canceled due to a combination of COVID and bad timing, Hong Kong’s FilMart film rights market may have finally had some things go its way. It opens March 13 with many factors now moving in its favor.
Not least of these are the moves by the Hong Kong government to end its previously harsh and persistent disease-control measures. The city wound down its disruptive quarantine and tracking measures at the end of 2022, opened its borders in January and finally dropped its mask mandate in the last 10 days.
“We saw an immediate jump in interest from buyers and sellers after Chinese New Year’s border opening and there were no more restrictions on the food and beverage sector,” says Gloria Chan, section head for the entertainment industry at FilMart organizer, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
The market organizer had been working behind the scenes for many months, attending Busan’s Asian Contents and Film Market and the American Film Market, where it offered incentives for former market participants to make a return to Hong Kong. But it needed the policy and industry stars to align for their efforts to come together in time for March. “We now have the good fortune to be the first major film market of the year in Asia,” says Chan.
Chan adds that the number of companies setting out their stand as 2023 FilMart exhibitors tops 700 and is more than 80% of pre-COVID 2019. Buyers and other market participants can register later than those taking stands and their final numbers won’t be known until the end of the event, but Chan is confident of “very high levels” of participation.
The apparent return of mainland Chinese companies and a fleet of 30 provincially backed umbrella stands is especially important to FilMart, which continues to see itself as a critical gateway between the Chinese film and TV industries, Asia and the rest of the world.
“All of us agree that face-to-face meetings are critical to this industry. They build the rapport and inter-personal relations [that go beyond simple dealmaking],” says Chan. “But the pandemic also caused a shift in usual practices for producers, distributors and markets, and we want all parties to think about these changes and share.”
Those changes range from the macro — economic disruption, rising interest rates, the entrenchment of the China-U.S. cold war and a hot war in Ukraine — through to the industry-specific.
On that front, factors include the pandemic-fuelled boost that made video streamers not only as financially powerful as any Hollywood studio, but also into cross-cultural vectors, more supportive of local content production policies and boosters of TV content at the expense of theatrical film.
Understanding the ebb and flow of streamers’ policies towards acquisitions and original production is now essential to divining the future of the film marketplace. Happily, FilMart is for the first time able to count on all three of the major Chinese SVOD platforms — Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku — as exhibitors and a March 13 seminar will explore how Asian content travels.
A recent report by analysis firm Media Partners Asia forecast that Netflix will increase its spending on Asian content — acquired and produced — by some 15% in 2023. That reflects a SVOD subscriber base in Asia that continues to grow when other regions are stagnating and one that is driven by local and regional content. The mainstays are local-national shows, Korean TV drama (and, increasingly, unscripted shows) and Japanese anime, but also Chinese TV drama, which is making a breakthrough in Southeast Asia.
The region’s theatrical box office is a more mixed picture. Japanese box office made a strong anime-fueled recovery in 2022. Bollywood suffered while South Indian films like “RRR” won new fans. And the Korean theatrical market, until 2019 the fourth largest in the world, remains sluggish. It is still suffering from a backlog of unreleased titles and, additionally, the draining of talent from film to TV.
The brightest spots on the Asian theatrical front currently are Hong Kong and mainland China — though the impulses behind them are different.
The cinema business in China plummeted in the second half of 2022 under the weight of COVID restrictions, so the recent $1 billion Chinese New Year season could be considered no more than a rebound. However, it is being powered by quality movies, a reopening to Hollywood imports and policy changes at the top of Chinese film administration.
The new regime at the Film Bureau under Mao Yu appears to be far more business-friendly. Film censorship is being accelerated, Chinese producers are being courted by regulators and asked to resubmit scripts and previously rejected movies, and China’s studios are being given a greater say in their films release dates. That will allow greater forward visibility and more efficient spending of marketing budgets.
There may also be more hope for China’s battered indie film sector as approvals flow again, China’s domestic film festivals return as in-person events and Chinese art films start to travel again to overseas festivals. There were half a dozen Chinese indies at the recent Berlin festival, including a female-led detective drama in Berlinale Series.
These developments must, logically, be a good underpinning for HAF, the three-day project market that accompanies FilMart. Its selection and its Lab incubator program skew heavily towards titles from across Greater China.
Hong Kong film has enjoyed a fortuitous box office revival since cinemas reopened in mid-2022. Multiple all-time records have fallen as a string of hits including “Warriors of Future,” “Table for Six,” “Mama’s Affair,” “The Sparring Partner,” “Chilli Laugh Story,” “Detectives vs. Sleuths” and “Hong Kong Family” have resonated with local audiences. In the last couple of months, courtroom drama “A Guilty Conscience” has become Hong Kong’s all-time BO champion (with HK$109 million or $14 million to date) and begun a successful career in the mainland too — $23 million and counting.
Explanations for the success include “revenge consumption”; audiences’ return to family and local values after more than three years of social strife; and Hong Kong filmmakers’ ability to adapt, and reinvent themselves again and conjure success from adversity. That’s giving Hong Kong companies like Edko, Emperor and newcomer Changin Pictures new confidence, and Media Asia the ability to pitch one of the city’s biggest film projects of all time — the quintessentially local “Twilight of the Warriors: Walled In,” a gargantuan action title set in Kowloon’s famous “Walled City.”
There remain real question marks about the impact of Hong Kong’s 2021 film censorship law, the city’s ever-closer political and economic alignment with mainland China and how the city government’s recent instruction to “tell good stories” will all translate into film and media policy.
But in the near term, at least, thousands of FilMart and HAF participants are feeling good about being back in Hong Kong.