China's booming boxoffice buoys HK biz


BEIJING -- Hong Kong's film industry had a good year in 2009, despite competing with big blue Avatars and world-ending Mayan calendars. The Special Administrative Region's filmmakers can thank their northern neighbors for that.

Hong Kong entertainment of all kinds, particularly film and music, has been popular in the rest of China since the late 1980s. However, it wasn't until more recently that more than just the biggest names -- think Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and Jackie Chan -- could cash in more readily. They just have to speak Mandarin rather than their native Cantonese.

While the Hong Kong film industry hit the doldrums as it entered the 21st century, it is Hong Kong's 1997 political reunion with China that has helped show it the way out.

Two main factors have helped the industry: a trade agreement between Hong Kong and the rest of the People's Republic of China, and China's rapidly expanding boxoffice.

Hollywood studios still chafe against a quota that restricts the number of revenue-sharing films imported into China to just 20 a year. However, Hong Kong co-productions face no such hurdle.

Thanks to the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement, co-productions that meet certain requirements, such as meeting minimum standards for investment from a China-based producer and the use of Chinese film crews, the resulting film can be released throughout China as a local production.

Although an economic boon, the CEPA, signed in June 2003, is a double-edged sword for filmmakers. It means bigger potential boxoffice, but to gain access to the lucrative China market, films must also pass censorship. This has eliminated several favorite Hong Kong themes, including the supernatural and stylized violence, from potential script choices. Even the industry's top names have run afoul of the censors: producers of Jackie Chan's "The Shinjuku Incident" didn't even bother applying for distribution approval, fearing the required cuts on the violent film would be too extensive.

However, it is bigger boxoffice that has attracted a new corps of producers and directors. China's total boxoffice could reach almost $1.5 billion this year, following a record 2009 that grew 44% compared with the previous year, with "Avatar" becoming the nation's all-time No. 1 film earlier this year. China still has about one-tenth the number of screens as the U.S., despite regular cinema construction during the past several years.

Growing boxoffice numbers have led to new ventures targeting this rising market. The new crop of investments already is bearing fruit: "Bodyguards and Assassins," directed by Teddy Chen and produced by Cinema Popular, a joint venture between Hong Kong's Peter Chan Ho-sun and China's Huang Jianxin, took in almost $44 million on a budget of $23 million. It is just one of 15 films the company plans to produce in its first three years.

-- Steven Schwankert