Hong Kong Production Funding Emerging from Unlikely Places


The pipeline is bursting with them – the potential blockbuster co-productions with their eyes on the Chinese box office that is nowadays counted in hundreds of millions of yuan.

Emperor Motion Picture's 200 million yuan-costing December 2010 release Shaolin, starring Andy Lau and Jackie Chan, Media Asia's biopic Bruce Lee My Brother, due for end of this month, Peter Chan's US$20 million directorial outing Wu Xia, featuring Donnie Yen and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the leads (for late 2011), or the 400-million-yuan 3D fantasy The Monkey King and the remake of A Chinese Odyssey, Filmko and Stephen Chow's different takes on the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West, These are among some of the eyeball-drawing upcoming titles that serves as examples of what is now called "Greater China films."

However, in Hong Kong, new investors are surfacing and trying to capitalize on the atmosphere of diversity in the local marketplace, bringing with them new opportunities from unlikely places. For instance, the local charitable organization, the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals, has pooled its resources to create Merry-go-round, a drama co-directed by indie helmer Mak Yan-yan (Butterfly) and Clement Cheng, in celebration of the organization's 140th anniversary. All the more surprising is the venture into the film industry by the Hong Kong restaurant chain, Tsui Wah Group, which in collaboration with the production company T-Films, is producing two stereoscopic 3D animation features and a live action film.

T-Films has secured a distribution deal with The Weinstein Company for the North American release of the company's debut US$8 million 3D animated feature Little Gobi, slated for release in December in Hong Kong, and China through China Film Group. The second 3D animated feature, Flying Hero, a US$11 million tale about a firefighting airplane inspired by the Mongkok building fire tragedy in August 2008, which took the lives of two firefighters and four civilians, is set for late 2011 release. Tsui Wah holds the rights thus the merchandising potential inherent in its animated output, with dolls and other merchandise distributed through its chain of restaurants. The company is also co-financing, alongside producers Charlie Wong and Peggy Lee, with HK$2.8 million government investment from the FDF, the US$1.5 million beach volleyball action comedy Beach Spike.

To venture into animation with a backer outside of the film industry, producer Charlie Wong and T-Films founder Tony Tang took their lesson from the collapse of Hong Kong animation studio, Imagi. Established by animator Tony Tang, one of the co-founders of Imagi and director of Little Gobi, Flying Hero and Beach Spike, T-Films intends to tap into the market possibilities of truly economically-produced Hong Kong animation. That's what Imagi promised but failed to deliver after its US$60 million flop last year, Astro Boy, led to its demise. 

"Animation doesn't have to be so expensive," says Charlie Wong, who produces the upcoming T-Films slate. "If we can control the budget, the quality of the products can fare as well as those made elsewhere." Animation also travels well, Wong says. "There's little age and race limit with animation, so it can be sold across the globe. The market for it would be bigger than the mid-range dramas and romantic comedies that local filmmakers are focusing on." That said, the producer-director team is also behind Beach Spike, described by Wong as "Charlie's Angels with beach volleyball", that was made "to explore the middle ground for survival in today's local and international market."