HKIFF: Fest Laid Plans

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HONG KONG -- Set to open its 33rd edition at a time when the Hong Kong Hang Seng Index struggles to stay above the 12,000-point mark, the Hong Kong International Film Festival is reinventing itself.

In an effort to generate fresh sources of revenue, festival organizers are increasing sponsorships, setting up co-branding initiatives and even shaking up their approach to programming.

"What we've done is open up more revenue streams. The spectacular thing is that we managed to raise more money than last year," says Soo-Wei Shaw, executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, the organizer of the festival, as well as its sister events, the Hong Kong and Asia Film Financing Forum and the Asian Film Awards, held concurrently from the fourth week of March.

"In this global economy, there are a lot of challenges when it comes to financing," adds Shaw, who joined the HKIFF Society in October. The HKIFF has lined up cash sponsorship deals with international brands including Lexus, Grey Goose vodka and Northface as an incentive to encourage online donations to the Society. As for the main source of income for the festival -- ticket sales -- the fest saw a 20% increase in the first three days of accumulated sales, compared with last year.

One of the organizers' primary objectives is to transform the festival into a "lifestyle event" by expanding its sidebars, including an exhibition and a book celebrating the 25th anniversary of Tsui Hark's Film Workshop; an Ingmar Berman installation exhibition; and live music performances accompanying films, under the heading "Archival Treasures."

"Sidebar events really take over this city," Shaw says. "This is in an effort to draw new audiences because we're presenting different ways for the audience to interact with the films. Film is the highest form of art because it encompasses all other art forms -- from literature to music to dance -- and we can certainly attract many different audiences through the appreciation of all these different art forms."

The festival program also is getting a jolt of new energy thanks to a screening of DreamWorks Animation's "Monster vs. Aliens," the first 3-D movie featured in the festival's 33-year history -- though that has irked some festival purists, who view the event as primarily a showcase for the sort of Hong Kong films local audiences might not otherwise have the chance to see.

But Shaw contends the selection was driven by a desire to stay current in a changing global film environment. "Monsters vs. Aliens" "would be the beginning of a larger 3-D component at the festival," she says. "I want the festival to embrace the interaction and appreciation of films on different platforms."

The festival still will be highlighting major releases by Hong Kong studios like Emperor Motion Pictures' Jackie Chan starrer "Shinjuku Incident," which opens the festival.

Along with the screenings, there will be an unprecedented number of "meeting the filmmaker" sessions. "More filmmakers are looking for opportunities in Asia," Shaw notes, adding that the recession is helping them do so. "The flights are cheaper, the hotels are cheaper and Asian filmmakers want to watch movies from their region. In the past, filmmakers could not attend their own screenings because they might be involved with their own projects, but since there's a slowdown in production, it's causing the availability of numerous filmmakers."

These filmmakers will find plenty of opportunities at the Hong Kong and Asia Film Financing Forum, a platform created to bring together Asian filmmakers and financiers from around the world that's now in its seventh edition.

"HAF is a part of the broader picture envisioned by the HKIFF Society, which not only functions as cultural promotion, but also embraces the commercial element of film," says Ivy Ho, deputy director of the HKIFF Society, which oversees its operation. She adds that the number of applicants has jumped 20% this year. "Filmmakers and investors who had participated in HAF are spreading the word throughout the industry. We get a lot of new participants by referral."

The HAF is now attracting major Hong Kong studios like Media Asia, whose "Punitive Homicide," to be directed by Teddy Chen, is among the 27 HAF projects seeking financing this year. The studio's decision to participate is not only a mark of the forum's success but also an exercise in creative financing, says John Chong, deputy chairman and CEO of Media Asia, and producer of "Homicide."

The $4 million "Homicide" marks the first time Media Asia has utilized HAF as a platform to enlist investors. "I believe that we can reach another group of investors who want to finance new projects," Chong says. "The film industry is going through a difficult time. We can be more creative, even with film financing."
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