HK film forum fights off irrelevance

Despite angst, participants call for gov't support

HONG KONG — A one-day brainstorming session by the film industry today (Sept. 18) turned into a rare display of pride and humility, as more than 35 panelists and speakers appealed for government assistance in a bid to save the industry from irrelevance.

“We need the government to give a hand to the industry, but not for the long-term,” said an emotional Ng See-yuen, chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Film Workers, which organized the event. “We need them most right now.”

The “Revitalizing Hong Kong Film Industry Forum” at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center was held amid a depressing box office environment. This year, the industry expects to see $38.5 million in total box office receipts; last year, 126 movies grossed $58.5 million. A weak economy, piracy and fewer releases led to a poor summer box office performance, slumping 55 percent since last year to $10.1 million. The real heartbreaker comes when comparisons are drawn to Hong Kong in its film-making frenzy, churning out 300 films a year back in the 1980s and early 1990s; the first half of 2002 saw roughly 30 local films. “We used to be the Hollywood of the East,” said John Sham, standing adviser to the Federation. “But what are we now?”

A key issue at the forum was getting access to the mainland market. Calls for the government to lobby Chinese officials to exempt Hong Kong from the mainland’s annual film import quota, which forces local films to compete with Hollywood products, were greeted as unfeasible by some. A solution Chinese officials might be more amenable to was offered: press them to first open up affluent southern Guangdong province to Hong Kong films in what would be a special “cultural zone.”

“Guangdong has 70 million people,” said Teerachai Triwongwaranat, director of film distribution for Golden Harvest Entertainment, on the sidelines of the forum. “They speak Cantonese, listen to Hong Kong radio and watch Hong Kong television. It would only make sense.”

The government has provided support to the industry for more than three years, mainly via a $12.1 million Film Development Fund–of which $8.6 million remains–that promotes films overseas and provides training, and a Film Services Office that helps obtain permits or permission for location shooting.

Asking for government assistance clearly caused angst for industry members, who have prided themselves on their sector’s former state of self-reliance. “Some problems are our own, that we have to deal with ourselves,” admitted Cheung Tung Joe, chairman of the Hong Kong Film Awards Association. “But some problems we can’t do anything about, and the government can. I’m not talking money, but problems like piracy.”

Other key suggestions included the establishment of a film development council or commission, where all film-related functions would be centralized, and for the government–using remaining money in the Film Development Fund–to act as a guarantor so local banks would be willing to loan money for film projects.

Local legislators attending the forum expressed support for the industry, while one government official was cautious with his words. “We are active in promoting the industry and we are willing to listen,” Henry Tang, Secretary for Commerce, Industry and Technology told the audience. Suggestions from forum will be turned into a consultation paper covering film financing, distribution and government policy and submitted to the government at the end of October.

It was to no one’s surprise that independent director Fruit Chan voiced a less popular opinion. “We have enough government support already,” he said. “We have to look within ourselves for the answers, and refashion ourselves. As moviemakers, we have to respect ourselves instead of being concerned with making quick money.”

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