Q&A: Soo-wei Shaw

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As the new executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, Soo-wei Shaw has, in her six months on the job, rapidly brought about needed changes and revenue-generating initiatives at the struggling 33-year-old festival. In a gloomy global economy, securing financing and sponsorships were first and foremost on her agenda. But beyond the bottom line, Shaw's plans to promote the festival to a new generation and a greater audience -- through online marketing, a blog called the Buzz and an iPhone application that serves up the event's program -- reveal her dedication to reviving interest in the long-vibrant Asian filmmaking community in which she was raised. Shaw shared her vision for the future of the festival with The Hollywood Reporter's Karen Chu.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What was most in need of change at the festival when you came on board in October?

Soo-wei Shaw: The festival really needed to be relevant to the next generation. The first few things we did were to change the communication platform for these audiences. Previously, there was a lot of outdoor advertising, but no digital initiative. Knowing the way that our future audiences are developing, we knew we would need to embrace new technologies and relevant programming to gain access to these new audiences. We're also bringing in a record number of world-renowned filmmakers to speak at schools, to develop the new generation of filmmakers. Hong Kong used to make 300-400 films a year; now we're making 50. The best that the festival can do is to help people create again, to give people an avenue to tell their stories, and to give them a platform to showcase their stories. We're working with schools in Hong Kong to showcase the best of their students' films.

THR: How will you bring about these changes?

Shaw: We're one of the lowest-financed film festivals in the world. We worked very hard in marketing because we needed the money. When I started six months ago, we had no sponsors. The biggest challenge and the first thing we had to do was to raise money so that we can afford to bring people like Oliver Stone, Arthur Cohen and Wong Kar Wai in to speak to the students. What the HKIFF Society also needs is to continuously bring in new sources of income, to have better year-round activities for the community. One way is to build a permanent venue -- a single house theater -- to showcase festival programming throughout the year. That's what we've been planning.

THR: What is your goal for the growth of the HKIFF?

Shaw: In the short term, we want to make the festival relevant for the community, the local industry and the new generation and position it as a lifestyle event that encompasses the entire value chain of Asian film: film financing, screenings, seminars and awards. In the long term, we see the festival as relevant to the international community of consumers who want to visit Hong Kong to watch films they might otherwise not to be able to see, and also to the industry for whom it's a discovery platform for Asian films and filmmakers and a place to launch global films into Asia. Of interest to buyers is a new section we call the HKIFF Industry Screenings at Filmart. It's programming that's specifically for the industry. Ultimately, the value of the film is that as many people see it as possible. The key viewers we want to reach out to are the general audience, the film critics and the jury members of the Asian Film Awards.

THR: How is your work experience helping you tackle the challenges of running your first international film festival?

Shaw: I spent most of my working life attending film and television markets and festivals. For the past four years in Singapore, I was responsible for developing the Asian Film and Television Market and the Asian Music Festival. What I found beneficial is the experience I gained working in the public and private sector. This has been useful to the position I'm in now, where we're a nonprofit organization partially funded by the government.

THR: Some in the local film industry have received your appointment with skepticism, saying you lack experience as the head of a film festival and you're not from Hong Kong. How do you respond?

Shaw: There are no borders to film or filmmaking. In Asia, the strength we share is a common culture. The more countries of Asia there are to make a strong, sustainable industry, the better it'll be for producers, directors, filmmakers. I spent most of my working life at festivals, and I've worked both sides of the red carpet, working in Singapore as an organizer for the Singapore Film Commission, attending film festivals from a participant's point of view. The reason the HKIFF Society board has hired me was for my experience. They concluded, out of hundreds of applicants, that I was the best person for the job.

THR: As the granddaughter of Run Run Shaw, one of the most influential figures in Asian film during the past half-century, do you think the Shaw name was a factor in your appointment?

Shaw: Having a name certainly helped with the publicity of the festival, but it may not help with the development of the festival. That is certainly a credit to the hard work and dedication of the entire festival team. Moreover, the Shaw Organization is not involved with the festival at all.

THR: Did being a member of the Shaw clan affect your choice of working in the film industry?

Shaw: Absolutely. I spent most of my time in a cinema from birth. I spent every day in the project room, the boxoffice and the concession stand. My grandfather has always been an inspiration to me. He is a firm believer of film festivals in showcasing the films Asia has to offer. He founded the Asian Film Festival in 1954, which was held in Tokyo. So that had a huge impact on my life and where I am now. I started in marketing, then got involved with the film financing side of it at the Singapore Film Commission, then moved into film distribution, acquisition and promotion. I cannot imagine doing anything else.
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