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In the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Filmart, Asia’s leading film and television trade show, was faced with a dilemma. Forge ahead with the event, which typically takes place in late March and gathers content buyers and sellers from all over the globe, or postpone until the summer out of an abundance of caution over the viral outbreak that was just beginning to leak over the border from mainland China.
“We decided to postpone until August, thinking we would definitely be able to hold our usual physical event by then,” says Peggie Liu, senior manager of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC), which organizes the event. “At that time, no one ever imagined that the pandemic would last so long.”
Fast forward a full year, and Filmart, now dubbed Filmart Online, is preparing for its second annual all-digital edition. In the interim, the event’s organizers have gone from responding to a situation of dire necessity to operating from a position of strength. “We are very experienced at putting together a world-class physical exhibition, but when it came to creating an online event, we were basically starting from scratch,” Liu explains.
Working 12-hour days for weeks on end, Liu’s team at the HKTDC managed to stage an online version of Filmart last August that was in keeping with global industry expectations for the market’s brand. But doing so required a rethinking of how a trade show functions. Because buyers and sellers would be hailing from all over the world, Filmart needed to establish new support teams in the major regions — and time zones — across the globe, to provide around-the-clock customer service as various markets switched on to do business over the event’s new online portals.
Ultimately, the event went off without any major hitches (or system crashes): The marketplace hosted more than 670 exhibitors from 38 countries, providing a platform for the release and promotion of nearly 2,000 film and television productions. Six industry conferences and more than 2,000 business matching meetings were arranged over the event’s all-new digital systems — and nearly 7,000 buyers engaged in the market.
The 2021 edition of Filmart Online, which runs March 15-18, is expecting even greater participation, and Liu’s team is leveraging the various lessons learned from the first attempt to build an even more robust industry offering. “People are very easily distracted when they are participating in an event online — people walk into the room; there are different things going on on their screen — so we learned that search functions and user friendliness are very important for the platform,” Liu says. “We’ve worked hard this year to make it very easy and intuitive for users to find and access what they need,” she adds.
Going digital also has helped organizers better understand the industry operators they are serving. “Because it’s an online platform, we have data, which tells us who is meeting with whom — and which countries and companies are doing business where,” Liu explains. “This allows us to structure things better and do better publicity, because we have a better idea of what people are looking for.” Whereas in the past, Filmart’s relationship with exhibitors largely dissipated once they disappeared into their booths to do business, now organizers are digitally hosting and organizing all of the materials and meetings that take place, giving them much more insight into the dynamics of the business they are facilitating.
The response from the industry in 2021, so far, suggests buyers and sellers have become plenty accustomed to online markets by now. All of Hong Kong’s major film studios have secured digital booths for this year’s Filmart Online, as have major mainland Chinese companies such as iQiyi Pictures, Huace Media, New Classics and others. The major Japanese and Korean studios will be present as usual too. Conference and panel discussions will be hosted live in the Hong Kong time zone, and then made available for streaming on demand. Topics range from the burgeoning international streaming business — featuring David Simonsen, Warner Media’s senior vp of business development in Asia, along with senior execs from Chinese giants Tencent Video and iQiyi — to documentary film production, television formats and best practices for virtual and remote production amid the pandemic.
Looking past the pandemic, whenever that might come, Liu says the return of in-person gatherings, events, screenings and forums will be as welcome to Filmart organizers as it will to everyone else — but they won’t be abandoning all of the valuable lessons the pandemic forced upon them.
“Entertainment is a human centered industry — people need to be together to build relationships and get the most out of their collective creative potential,” she says. “But a hybrid digital and physical model will be the future of film markets.”
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