Asian Forums Look Inward

Filmmakers Discuss Regional Challenges

A frank discussion of the challenges Hong Kong and Filipino filmmakers face making and selling their wares in Asia’s increasingly competitive movie marketplace kicked off three days of industry forums Monday on the sidelines of the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Organized by the UNIJAPAN Entertainment Forum, the Presentation of East Asian Contents daylong forum featured talks from Roger Garcia, the new executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and Nestor Jardin, the festival director of Cinemalaya, a leading independent film festival in Manila each July.

While Garcia said Hong Kong’s film industry is on the upswing from a recent downturn — fueled by co-productions with China — Jardin said Filipino cinema suffers from stiff Hollywood competition but has hope of a revival of its own through cheap digital filmmaking technology and greater regional partnerships.

While many Hong Kong directors such as Pang Ho-cheung (Dream Home) have moved to Beijing, some domestic films are managing to cross the border into China on their own. Wong Jing’s recent comedy On His Majesty’s Secret Service earned $1.12 million domestically, but grossed $14.94 million in China, mostly in Guangdong province, a natural Cantonese-speaking market for Hong Kong films.

“With a population of 80 million, nearly 10 times the size of Hong Kong, Guangdong is a wonderful potential market for our films,” Garcia said, noting that “small” Hong Kong industry players such as Intercontinental, had built cinemas in Guangzhou, the provincial capital. “I think we can look forward to greater success in China in years to come.”

Jardin, meanwhile, bemoaned a drop from Filipino cinema’s 1980 apex of 280 films made for 1,500 screens nationwide. This year’s tally of 24 studio films playing on half as many screens is only offset by the fact that digital productions made for pennies are up to 56 from just five in 2005, Jardin said.

At the Filipino box office, Hollywood imports earned 75% of 2009’s $91.3 million gross with the top grossing local film, You Changed My Life, taking in $4.7 million. The film’s performance was a “good showing,” Jardin said, considering that tickets typically sell for $2-$4 each.

Trying to help indie Filipino filmmakers survive against Hollywood’s onslaught as well as mainstream local studio comedy fare — much of it driven by television talent crossing over — Jardin said the government now offers a break on its high entertainment tax to filmmakers who submit their films for an official rating and get it.

“There is no censorship in the Philippines. You can make films that are critical of the government and still get distributed. It is embedded in our constitution,” Jardin said, noting his disagreement with 2009 Cannes best director winner Brillante Mendoza (Kinatay).

“Dante is a friend of mine and I always castigate him for not submitting his films for ratings,” Jardin said, adding that Mendoza jokes that his films are, in fact, distributed widely at home – in the pirated DVD markets, a rampant problem that, he said, is the government’s responsibility to sort out.

Garcia’s and Hong Kong’s recent ties to the Philippines – through their sponsorship of Mendoza’s “Kinatay” via the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum – illustrates the importance of intra-Asian cooperation, Jardin said.

“Regional cooperation is a must for survival in today’s global marketplace if we Asian’s are to become more competitive with the rest of the world. This can happen in government-to-government links, in the private sector and person-to-person talks,” he said.

Afternoon UNIJAPAN forum sessions were set to feature presentations by film promotion officials from Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and China, but organizers said Yang Liping, the director general of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Radio Film and Television in China had pulled out “due to other duties.”

Yang was one of several Chinese officials who failed to put in appearances at TIFF, apparently under pressure from media minders in Beijing to boycott the event after festival organizers could not agree on how to introduce guests from Taiwan, a self-governing island China regards as a renegade province.