Asian Film Market flexes muscle

Optimism surrounds four-day sales event

BUSAN, South Korea -- The 4th annual Asian Film Market opened Sunday alongside the Pusan International Film Festival, uniting buyers and sellers for four days around a varied cinematic lineup including crime thrillers, love stories and historical dramas.

Leading Korean entertainment firms CJ, Showbox, and Finecut welcomed guests including Toei of Japan, Golden Network and Edko Films of Hong Kong, and first-time exhibitors Lionsgate from Hollywood.

“We’re very proud of this market because of the quality of the titles coming in and, hopefully, the Asian titles selling out,” said Kini Kim, svp and head of international sales and distribution of CJ Entertainment. CJ brings to market Opus Pictures’ Korean Cinema Today selection “The Man From Nowhere” by director Lee Jeong-beom, a film that’s sold 6 million tickets in the local market since its Aug. 4 release.

As Asian economies, ex-Japan, recover from the global recession faster than most, exhibitors at the market swelled to 108, up 31% from last year, filling 51 sales offices at the Sea Cloud Hotel.

Also in CJ’s market lineup were the remake of John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow,” by Korean director Song Hae Sung, which has sold 600,000 tickets since its mid-September release, and the upcoming serial killer thriller “The Unjust,” due out Oct. 28 from director Ryoo Seung-wan.

For this year’s market, organizers hoping to speed buying and selling, spent 70,000,000 won ($62,400) to launch the first Asian Film Market Online Screenings, featuring 150 films, including 60 selections from this year's PIFF and the previous works of a great many directors from the market’s Pusan Promotion Plan, a section dedicated to introducing promising Asian filmmaking talent to potential financiers.

Leveraging the power of South Korea’s super-speedy Internet, producers and sellers with an ID and password can, from the comfort of home or hotel, watch, films such as, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy,” “Old Fish” from Gao Qunshu of China, and “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” by Romanian director Florin Serban.

“It makes so much sense,” said Lorna Tee of October Pictures, visiting from Hong Kong in her royal blue “I Am A Producer” t-shirt. Tee praised the market’s new online screenings service as a real time-saver. “PIFF bombarded us with e-mails to make sure we’re using it.  And I have. I watched several films weeks ago, leaving me more time to drink and eat barbecue when I got here.”

Tee comes to PIFF touting New Currents competition selection ”Lover’s Discourse,” a film from her former employer Irresistible Films, starring Hong Kong actress Kay Tse and directed by the debut duo of Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan. With producer Liu Weijan of Atom Cinema in Taipei, Tee also brings to PPP “Starry Starry Night,” by Tom Lin, based on an illustrated novel by Jimmy Liao from Taiwan.

Exhibitors from China, where box office receipts are up over 80% so far this year, could prove the envy of the market. Huayi Brothers, whose “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame” has grossed 180 million ($27 million) since its Sept. 29 release, is just one of potential Chinese hot properties visiting the market. Others include Beijing Polybona Film Distribution, which signed a co-production agreement with CJ in June; the state-run China Film Group; Dadi Entertainment; and, China’s leading online video site.

European Film Promotion arrived at Busan in greater number than in years past, but some skeptics said that Asian, and particularly Korean, buyers might not be too keen to look for new titles beyond Asia, where production quality is rising and intra-regional co-productions are meeting rising demand for new titles from China.

"I have low expectations,” said Nicolas Piccato, CEO of sales and distribution company PANDA Media, which is representing films from Europe and Latin America. “Globalism is not very big in Korea and foreign films, excluding Hollywood, have a hard time in the Korean market.”

One indication of the fall-off in Korean interest in imported content is recent demise of the decade-old Mega-European Film Festival that traditionally ran after PIFF at Megabox in Seoul. “Audience numbers were just too low to go on," said Piccato, one of the erstwhile event’s organizers.

Where inbound imports might prove slow this week, outbound Koreans sales, on the other hand, might pick up if flagging Western economies haven’t tied the hands of visiting buyers trying to slake a growing American and European interest in all things Asian.

"Usually, we don't have many European buyers come so it’s really hard to close a deal with European buyers,” said Kim Nahie of top Korean sales company M-Line Distribution. “This year we've noticed there are a few more buyers from Europe than last year, so we are optimistic about sales." 

Other hopefuls arriving in Busan from elsewhere in Asia included representatives of the Taipei Film Commission, Indonesian Cinema and Thailand’s Ministry of Culture. Shanty Harmayn, producer at Jakarta-based Salto Films, brings to market the 1960s love story and political drama “The Dancer” from 2006 Pusan AFA alum, director Ifa Isfansyah to PIFF. 

But Harmayn isn’t looking to sell outside the region. Her hopes are that her $1 million French-government-funded co-production with Les Petit Lumieres of Paris and Indika Pictures will find Asian regional buyers. “Pusan and Hong Kong are where I go to see where the Asian market is trending,” said Harmayn, producer last year of the family soccer film “Garuda in My Heart,” which she said grossed $3 million from 1.4 million admissions, a strong theatrical record in Asia’s third most-populous nation, where about 90 films are made each year.

Korean organizers this week also will host the following events and seminars during the Asian Film Market’s four-day run: on Oct. 10, Korean Producers in Focus 2010, a project-pitching event for five, pre-selected films from different genres; on Oct. 11, Korea New Story Project Pitching, a pitching session hosted by Korea Creative Contents Agency; On Oct. 12, Film Fund Talk: How to fund your films, is presented by EAVE – Ties That Bind, the Asian Cinema Fund, and the PPP to discuss funding options; also on Oct. 12, International Conference Transmedia: Maximizing Creation through Blending Contents, Media and Technologies, addresses making films that started life as other media.

Also presented by the Asian Cinema Fund, the Asian Network of Documentary (AND) is organizing events alongside the market. AND Class of 2010 on Oct. 10-11 gives participants the chance to interact with AND-funded projects and discuss future plans. AND Seminar – Documentary A to Z on Oct. 11 is a series of panels on documentary filmmaking. AND Project Meeting offers one-on-one meetings between documentary filmmakers and sales agents/distributors.

EAVE - Ties That Bind, for potential Asian and European co-productions, to fine-tune their pitching skills, along with their financial and legal awareness of co-production projects, during the length of the Asian Film Market program, October 10-13.

-- Nigel D’Sa and Steven Schwankert contributed to this report