Hollywood imports rule the Hong Kong boxoffice

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HONG KONG -- The local film industry is perking up as the economy strengthens. But while boxoffice grosses and admissions are on the rise, the future of the local filmmaking industry continues to rely on big-budget co-productions with China in the increasingly polarized market.

Total theatrical grosses amounted to more than HK$1 billion ($128.3 million) in 2007, up from HK$945 million ($121.2 million) in 2006, while the number of admissions increased 4.2%, according to the Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories Motion Picture Industry Assn. "The public has a greater desire to watch films, which is a direct reflection of the recovery of the economy from the slump in the early 2000s," says Woody Tsung, CEO of MPIA. There was also a spreading of wealth among films. "The fact that it took at least HK$20 million to get into the top 10 means audiences are more willing to go to the cinemas. It also means the increase in total boxoffice is not buoyed by merely one or two blockbusters," Tsung observes.

Hollywood blockbusters are still keeping their stronghold on the local market, with 107 of the 231 films released in 2007 hailing from the U.S. The highest-grossing films were mostly U.S. imports, with seven Hollywood productions occupying spots in the year-end boxoffice top 10. The rest were Hong Kong-China co-productions, which proved to be the lifeline for local filmmakers.

Local Hong Kong studios and filmmaking veterans are turning to Chinese co-productions, which are almost guaranteed release in China -- if they pass the censors. In 2007, 22 Hong Kong-China co-productions and 28 Hong Kong productions were released. So far in 2008, the biggest blockbuster in Hong Kong is the $20 million sci-fi comedy "CJ7," a co-production between Star Overseas, China Film Group and Sony. The film, directed by and starring Stephen Chow, has made HK$51 million locally and reached the 200 million yuan ($28.6 million) mark in China.

However, industry insiders fear that the tightening of censorship guidelines that went into effect in early March might halt the release of upcoming co-productions in China, which might in turn affect their release dates in Hong Kong. And the censorship obstacles in China might prove a headache for purely locally made films as well. These films have a chance in China to succeed as imports, like the highest-grossing Hong Kong production of 2007,

"Simply Actors." Golden Scene produced and distributed films earning a respectable HK$9 million in the comparatively tiny Hong Kong market last year, and more than recouped its HK$12 million budget from the 10 million yuan gross in China. "The subsidy offered by the Hong Kong-government-operated Film Development Fund, which could cover up to 30% of the budget, can offset the advantages of the Hong Kong-China co-productions," says Winnie Tsang, managing director of Golden Scene.

Nevertheless, the market is now increasingly polarized, with high-profile Hollywood imports and cash-fueled cross-border co-productions occupying the top of the boxoffice lists, while midrange and small-budget independent films struggle. It's proving more difficult for independent distributors to strike gold, opines Audrey Lee, general manager of sales and acquisition of Edko Films. "In the past, we could get good results from imported films that were made with midrange budgets. But now it's so much harder to break the HK$10 million mark in boxoffice grosses except for high-profile and high-budget films," she says.

The recent absorption of New Line by Warner Bros. is an obvious blow to nonmajors as well, Lee adds. "New Line used to be a good source of big productions with good market potential. ... It presented us, the independent distributors, with high-potential opportunities. Now it is more difficult for us to acquire films with promising returns."   
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