Asians work out in the wait room

Some regional players head for EFM

HONG KONG — On paper, at least, Asian film companies are one of the biggest growth areas at the European Film Market in Berlin. According to EFM data, more than a dozen Asian sales companies will make their market bows this February.

The two most notable are Sahamongkolfilm from Thailand and Hong Kong’s Universe.

Sahamongkolfilm, which previously contracted out sales to third-party sales agents, made its unofficial launch last year in the German capital and had a stellar debut year as seller.

It returns to the EFM with a high-end action slate including “13,” “Chocolate” and “Ong-Bak 2” plus big-budget historical epics “Queens of Pattani” and “Legend of King Naresuan.” Universe has $8 million Benny Chan actioner “Invisible Target” now in post, two projects from the Pang brothers and Johnnie To crimer “The Sparrow.”

Holding out

But many other Asian rights holders and sales companies have yet to mentally commit themselves to building the Berlin market into a permanent part of their schedules in the way they do Cannes and the AFM.

Media Asia, Hong Kong’s leading studio group, only decided at the last minute. “Without a film in the festival selection, it was not obvious that we would make the trip,” marketing manger Fred Tsui says. However, with a new project to pitch, company will attend, albeit without a booth.

Fortune Star, News Corp.’s expanding rights and production finance arm, also reflected hard before committing to attend the EFM. “Our new Andrew Lau picture is not yet locked in contractually and on other titles we don’t have Europe,” head of distribution May Yip says. Company finally decided it would make Berlin participation part of a round trip that takes in regular client meetings in London beforehand and attendance at the massive 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona (Feb 12-15.)

From Japan, where local films are strongly resurging, only two companies — Shochiku and Toei — have their own booths, while others huddle under the UniJapan and Japan External Trade Organization umbrella stands. Both Fuji TV and Tokyo Broadcasting Systems, which have plowed coin and prestige into moviemaking over the last three years to great effect, will skip Berlin and make Hong Kong’s FilMart their next port of call.

“Seems European buyers use Berlin to pick up Japanese catalog titles on the cheap, rather than new product,” says one insider. “So only those companies with years of content go to Berlin.”

Nor have China’s emerging international sales operations — Meridian Pictures, Infotainment and China Film Promotion Intl. — booked exhibition space.

Huayi Pictures, the country’s nearest thing to a strong private-sector indie, had offices last year in the overspill building on Potsdamer Platz when it was opening sales on “The Banquet.” But its biggest 2007 production, $20 million war movie “The Assembly,” is not near enough to completion to warrant a return to Europe before Cannes.

Bad timing

Problem seems to be a combo of production cycle timing and the narrowness of the European marketplace.

Few buyers are ready to commit to Asian films until completion, which may mean the Berlin lineups consist largely of pics that are released in Asia in time for Christmas or Chinese New Year: Comedies or commercially focused entertainment, these pics play well in their home markets but find it hard to connect with distribs in Europe as they lack convenient genre labels.

Arthouse pictures helmed by top established auteurs are more realistic pre-sales propositions, but many may not be completed until Cannes. The savviest Euro buyers of Asian arthouse fare may well get to see more footage and make preemptive strikes at FilMart in March.

Difference is only a month, but by then sellers have more footage to show and have tailored their sales campaigns based on a clearer idea of films’ Croisette chances.

Equally, Berlin market is seen by Asian sellers as having a different crowd of buyers than Cannes, where participation is global, or the AFM, which is stronger in terms of U.S. and Latin American distribs. As its name implies, Berlin’s EFM is especially European and brings in the smaller German and Nordic distribs that don’t make the trip to AFM or to Asia.

Interesting to see will be the efforts made by Korean companies. They have seen their position in the world explode since the turn of the century, but they suffered a major setback last year when value of film exports slumped 60%.

“Berlin 2006 was a disappointment for us, and AFM (was) not much better,” says Kini Kim, VP of sales at CJ Entertainment. “We are going to be focusing on casting, price and quality and need to return to a win-win situation for distributor and licensor.”

Biggest problem was abrupt cooling of the overheated market in Japan, where, with single-territory license deals and certain star vehicles, they could recoup their entire budgets. That bubble is unlikely to be reinflated — and not in Berlin.

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