'Full-on' in Hong Kong

Growth spurt transforms Filmart

The 11th annual Hong Kong Filmart set out to prove that bigger is better this year and appears to have done just that as more than 450 exhibitors and 12,000 guests gathered for Tuesday's kickoff of the 23-day Hong Kong Entertainment Expo.

"The market is full-on," said Michael Werner, co-chairman of Hong Kong-based Fortissimo Films, which doubled its booth size and brought in an extra staffer from Europe to help this year.

"More people are willing to invest the time and money to come here and spend more than just a few days," added Werner, who said his calendar was packed from morning until the wee hours all week.

The head count increased from everywhere in the region, with Vietnam's contingent up from last year's 45 to 86 people and the number of Malaysian companies growing from 20 in 2006 to 27, with five signing deals.

The market was physically bigger as well as the concurrent Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum and Filmart seminars on new-media distribution and talent management moved upstairs, leaving more room for buying and selling on the main floor of the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Center.

Trying to shrug off its reputation as a market that suffers from being squeezed between the Berlin and Cannes film festivals in February and May, respectively, Hong Kong is trying to turn that timing to its advantage to become a must-attend event.

"Hong Kong is now firmly established as the preparation market for the deals that will be concluded at Cannes," said Thomas Leong, CEO of Hong Kong-based Lotus Entertainment.

For critics and festival programmers from around the world, Hong Kong is increasingly important for featuring a wider variety of films both big and small, commercial and art house.

"Everybody with new projects I need to see is here, so that's very good," said Shelly Kraicer, programmer of the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Hong Kong's government recently established a film development fund of HK$300 million ($38.5 million) for innovative medium- and small-budget projects, but honoring films of all sizes from the region was the inspiration behind this year's inaugural Asian Film Awards (HR 3/20).

At the black-tie awards ceremony, Hong Kong Secretary of Commerce Joseph Wong noted his pleasure with the burgeoning Hong Kong-Hollywood connection, boasting that Martin Scorsese won his first Oscar for "The Departed," which was based on the 2002 Hong Kong feature "Infernal Affairs" by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.

Wilfred Wong, chairman of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society, said that while the awards cost about HK$10 million ($1.25 million) to mount, the full budget had yet to be determined because "money is still going out." Half of the funding came courtesy of the Hong Kong government and half from the HKIFF society, which gathered sponsorship from the likes of Deutsche Bank, whose Hong Kong officer Peter Lo is a friend, Wong said.

Although Deutsche Bank is not yet in the business of film financing, Lo "understands the need to support creativity and Hong Kong at the same time," Wong said.

On Day 1 of the market, Wong said he already was thinking about ways to improve the event next year, including shortening the period over which the events are stretched — from three weeks to two — and increasing the participation of the local commercial cinemas.

One advantage of the Hong Kong screenings for reviewers and programmers is the presence of films from mainland China that seldom make it abroad after tangling with state censors or falling short of funds in China's nascent film market.

"We have always been proud that, as a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong can maintain its independence and focus on the art and leave the politics aside," Wong said.