2007 Hong Kong Filmart

After years of fragmentation, the confab is benefiting from organizers' efforts to consolidate the country's various film events.

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Just a few years ago, Hong Kong held its film festival and its film awards presentation in April, its film market in June and a film-financing forum whenever it could get enough resources together. Each did its own thing with little coherence, joint planning or acknowledgment of the other. Not surprisingly, industry response was as fragmented as the events themselves.

From the start, there was talk of pooling the events into one, but getting all involved on the same page was no small task: Enticing Hong Kong's free-spirited film industry to collaborate with a quasi-government body -- even if it was to give Hong Kong a film event worthy of its status as a leading film production center -- seemed futile.

But, after years of negotiation and two years into fruition, Entertainment Expo Hong Kong is proving that nothing is impossible, and, indeed, unity has become its biggest strength. Now in its third year, the expo will start with a bang March 20 with the inaugural Asian Film Awards, which will hand out kudos in 10 categories, and continue over the next 23 days with the Hong Kong Filmart, the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Hong Kong Film Awards presentation, the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), the Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum, the Hong Kong Music Fair, the IFPI Hong Kong Top Sales Music Award and the Hong Kong Independent Short Film and Video Awards.

The time was right for the addition of the Asian Film Awards, according to Wilfred Wong, chairman of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.

"With more than 4 billion people in Asia -- 60% of the global population -- a celebration of Asian cinema is long overdue," he says. "We aim to make the AFA the most prominent and definitive film awards for the region by highlighting excellence in Asian filmmaking and by bringing broader attention to the rich and diverse stories and storytellers from all over Asia today."

By all accounts, the EEHK is starting to hit its stride. As an umbrella event, it has been able to draw on the corresponding synergies and attract much higher numbers for each individual event than ever before.

Filmart organizers report a 33.9% increase in exhibitor numbers, from 304-407, and a 62% increase in buyer attendance, from 2,286-3,706, in the past three years. Attendance for the HKIFF has jumped from 8,000 in pre-expo days to an expected 12,000 this year.

"Filmart is in its 11th year, and I think we've taken some detours," says Sophia Chong, senior service promotion manager at the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which organizes the Filmart and is responsible for coordinating the EEHK events. "But with the advice of industry members, we have been able to develop a better understanding of the business and been able to make the right decisions on a lot of things, like who to invite and what to do.

"The effect has been very positive, and we have had very good feedback from both buyers and sellers," Chong continues. "This year, the film festival and Filmart are opening on the same day, and we've been able to attract a bigger and better crowd drawing on these synergies."

Adds Wouter Barendrecht, principal at Fortissimo Films and one of the founders of the HAF, which has funded a number of well-received projects lately, including Li Yu's "Lost in Beijing," Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Invisible Waves" and Zhang Yang's "Getting Home": "I think the expo is a great thing. As an industry, we have been lobbying for years to make it one singular, big event. You can see the impact on the market in the past few years; the quality of the buyers is also getting better. It's going in the right direction."

Indeed, timing is everything. With the increasing number of festivals and markets around the globe, finding an attractive time for travel-weary buyers and sellers had not been easy. However, the dissolution of Mifed and the American Film Market's move to November made March a viable option. With the Berlin International Film Festival in February and the Festival de Cannes in May, it gave the EEHK a foot in the door before June's Shanghai International Film Festival and TV Market and the Pusan International Film Festival in October.

Jeffrey Chan, head of distribution and sales for Media Asia, says that by combining Filmart with a film festival and an awards ceremony, EEHK organizers have set the event apart from the competition.

"I don't see Pusan and Shanghai being serious contenders as far as the market goes," he observes. "Pusan is still rather inexperienced, and Shanghai is essentially a TV market. The only competition there will just be for time. Filmart used to lack a festival. Now, we've got that synergy working, and we've even got a film awards (ceremony) this year."

The EEHK has another leg up on Pusan and Shanghai in that it also has incorporated music and digital forums to offer a bigger draw. Events like the IFPI gathering are expected to add local star power to the expo, which already will draw big Asian names like South Korea's hip-hop sensation Rain to the Asian Film Awards.

While Universe Films COO Alvin Lam isn't that enamored with the March dates, he concedes that there are few other windows that could work for the expo.

"The Entertainment Expo (Hong Kong) is getting a lot more attention, and the packaging of the whole event is getting better," Lam says. "Pusan is too Korea-centric, and, as for Shanghai, you really can't mix film and TV -- that's why they have separate markets at Cannes. And Berlin mostly caters to European buyers. If we can make Hong Kong work, then it'd be great if we could make our deals here and didn't have to go to Berlin."

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