Asian biz at Cannes reflects new prowess

Region's films competing, selling well at this year's festival

CANNES -- This year's Cannes festival and market are both bearing witness to the strength and diversity of the Asian film industry.

The main competition includes five Asian-made films and another couple with Asian themes or directors (Ang Lee's "Taking Woodstock," Isabelle Coixtet's "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo").

It could easily have included more if Lee Chang-dong had not been on the jury -- alongside Asian jurors Shu Qi and Sharmila Tagore -- or if the selectors had seen fit to include "City of Life and Death," from China's Lu Chuan or even one representative from the Indian subcontinent, the world's most prolific film industry.

The films are even selling well. CJ Entertainment reported a trio of new sales deals on the Park Chan-wook vampire romancer "Thirst " with Lolafilms for Spain, Paris Filmes for Brazil and Avsar for Turkey -- all before last night's official screening. Another Korean seller, Fine Cut, also added a high-profile French deal for Hong Sang-soo's Quinzaine entry "Like You Know It" with CTV International for all French-speaking territories.

While Asian economies, with their manufacturing and export bent, have not completely escaped the global financial crisis, the Far East movie industry continues to show resilience in the face of the global storm. Among other things, this is being driven by the mushrooming of the Chinese film market, creeping integration of the previously separate national film industries and changing tastes around the world, as witnessed by the movement of Japanese games and anime into the global mainstream and the paradigm-shifting success of "Slumdog Millionaire."

The oft-touted globalization of Bollywood may, finally, be taking root in different corners of the world. And Indian companies are responding by behaving less like an industry apart. Where self distribution used to be the norm for Indian groups, third-party sales companies are now being employed to expand reach. This week, Indian Film Co.-Studio 18 appointed Fortissimo to sell its "Road Movie," while UTV is seeing strong business through Madrid's Six Sales for its first-ever English-language film with no Indian angle whatsoever, the Heather Graham and Jennifer Coolidge-starrer "Ex Terminators."

"There are so many new markets for us these days," UTV Motion Pictures CEO Siddharth Kapur said. "In Poland, we used to sell one film per year, now we sell five. Last year, we scored our first-ever sales to Italy and Taiwan and expect more to follow."

Two Cannes ago, Chinese companies grabbed the headlines with announcements of high-profile projects and flashy funding schemes. Last year, it was the turn of India's movie majors Reliance and Eros to unveil Hollywood talent and global releasing deals. This year it is almost normal that firms from both developing superpowers are grabbing ink, though the deals are less frothy and perhaps more realistic.

A succession of pictures with budgets in the $10 million- $30 million range -- "Bubblegum Crisis," "Future X-Cops," "Iris: The Movie" and "Kung-fu Cyborg" -- have this week come to market through producers in Hong Kong, China and Singapore. Each aims to tap into the mainland China market, which is delivering year-on-year boxoffice growth in the order of 25%, and creating the basis for a "greater China" market or an Asian regional market, which have a degree of protection from the global "financial tsunami."

Friday, it was the turn of Easternlight Films, the specialty Asian label of L.A.-based sales company Arclight, to unveil an $18 million Chinese picture, "The Long March," an historic action drama with John Hay in the director's chair and the promise of thousands of extras on loan from the People's Liberation Army.

The Asian picture is not all rosy. The Korean film industry is in a painful slowdown after a bout of inflation and the withdrawal of private equity money; the first half of the year is a wipeout for the Indian boxoffice as a result of a standoff between producers and multiplex owners; and Japan's indie distribution sector is wracked by a quartet of company closures.

But seasoned observers in each country say that companies are using the cover of the global recession to enforce necessary deflationary measures and restore a sense of order to Asia's still heated markets.

"Companies need to be properly sized and positioned," said Tom Yoda, who heads both distributor Gaga Communications and the Tokyo festival. "But the strength of our Japanese content is still good."