Aussies, Kiwis plant flag for co-prod'n in Asia

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Film Auckland president Pete Rive notes that the 12 hours it takes to fly to Seoul or Beijing is the same time it takes to get to Los Angeles, a fact he likes to trot out as he pushes for more co-productions between Asia and New Zealand.

Also looking to East Asia for growth, Australia last month signed co-production treaties with China and Singapore and can boast that projects such as Roger Spottiswoode's "The Children of Huang Shi," are well under way.

Both Aussie and Kiwi producers are staking a claim in Asia this week at the 12th Pusan International Film Festival.

On her way to a host a reception on the second day of the Asian Film Market here, Jane Coombs, New Zealand's ambassador to South Korea, said her country has a lot to offer Asia, "and particularly Korea in respect of film."

"New Zealand is becoming increasingly well known for our creativity and talent and scenery, and we are very excited to be here at the Busan Film Festival, the best place in Asia for our filmmakers to create opportunities," Coombs said, adding that the event's networking was sure to build on an Audio Visual Cooperation agreement signed by both governments at Pusan in 2005.

A few New Zealand films in the Pusan market could be the start of a trend. Seoul-based Film Alchemy CEO, producer Namjin Lee formed a joint venture called Horrorholicks two years ago with Robin Scholes of Eyeworks Touchdown, a merger between European and New Zealand companies.

The joint venture now has three projects under way, including "Soul Mate" -- the tale of murder and ghosts centered on an Asian girl in New Zealand. Set to start filming in February for $3.5 million, the film has a mix of New Zealand government money and Korean private financing.

"New Zealand filmmakers have such great talents to make our horror films look magical," said Lee, who was off to Seoul to collect "Lord of the Rings" effects master Richard Taylor when she spoke to The Hollywood Reporter. Taylor and his crew at WETA workshop will help Lee with special effects.

For his part, Rive began fact-finding in Asia this year with a trip to Beijing, where he and a delegation of 19 visited the China Film Group, then flew down to the Shanghai International Film Festival in June. Most recently, he and Korean-Kiwi Melissa Lee were participants in a meeting of the Asia Pacific Producers Network, organized by Kevin Chang, the secretary general of the Korean Film Producers Assn. At the meeting last week outside Seoul, 40 producers from seven countries hammered out ideas for promoting co-productions, Chang said.

Rive added that he had a "positive feeling that it was more than just meeting and that business will in fact get done."

As for working in China, Rive hopes that with the signing of a Free Trade Agreement between tiny New Zealand (population 4.2 million) and China (1.3 billion), about six months off, more New Zealand filmmakers will start to develop multicultural stories.

With the number of Asian immigrants in New Zealand on the rise, producers there are looking for stories that they hope will attract moviegoers at home and sell to Asian territories overseas. With overseas sales, government underwriting becomes possible.

"The New Zealand film commission won't come in unless there are foreign sales," producer Paul Carran, head of four-year-old Film Factory in Auckland, said.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the major focus in production in 2007 has been the introduction of a new set of rebates and financing mechanisms designed to boost private investment. A number of Australian producers and their Chinese and Singaporean counterparts have been readying projects aimed at taking advantage of the two new treaties.

While details of the projects are unclear, they are expected to provide a boost to Australia's co-production output which, in the fiscal year through 2006 slipped to AUS$13 million ($11.7 million) in film and AUS$22 million ($19 million) in television -- the lowest levels in a decade.

Spottiswoode's "Children," currently in postproduction, is considered Australia's first official co-production with China, though it was made under a memorandum of understanding signed ahead of the official treaty.

"We knew there was a significant level of industry interest in the treaties that hasn't flagged," said Catherine Waters, manager of the legal affairs and co-productions branch of the Australian Film Commission. "The treaties will sanction those new financing opportunities that Australia will bring."

The new treaties are expected open doors to three way co-productions and have spurred interest in working with other territories, most notably Malaysia and India, according to film industry executives in Sydney.

A co-production with China guarantees the film will pass muster with Beijing censors and skirts around the import quota of 20 films a year.

For Singaporean and Chinese producers a co-production will unlock the benefits of the new producer offsets. For Australia "the test will be how the new offsets work and how we can use co-productions to leverage better deals," Screen Producers Association of Australia executive director Geoff Brown said. Brown said it is important to "facilitate a regional trade focus" that will go beyond the individual contact producers have with each other. To that end, a Singaporean trade delegation has been invited to November's SPAA confab in Australia to further discussions.

At the same time, Brown said his organization is looking at a possible treaty with India, which he called "the greatest opportunity over time" due to its large English speaking population. India's lack of local content regulations could prove a roadblock, he said.

Jonathan Landreth reported from Busan, South Korea. Pip Bulbeck reported from Sydney.
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