HK floats plan to prop up local films

Industry turns to goverment for help

HONG KONG — The film industry here is waiting for the government’s next move.

In mid-October, chief executive Donald Tsang outlined in his policy address a plan to help support the film sector, which included putting all aspects of the industry under one umbrella — the Secretary for Commerce, Industry & Technology (SCIT) — and setting up a Film Development Council.

The impetus was a struggling film sector that was producing fewer films every year.

“We are very concerned about the drop in production volume — it has come down really quite fast,” says Lorna Wong, commissioner of Hong Kong’s Television & Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA), which is under the SCIT and has a film services office and handles censorship issues.

There were 51 local productions released in 2006 compared with 55 in 2005. In 2004, there were 64 releases.

This number and the low numbers in preceding years have “set off a chain of negative situations,” Wong says. Among the most worrisome is the lack of new, young talent in the industry. While companies are making fewer films, they tend to skew toward bigger budgets, which require established stars to help reduce the risk.

Getting a jump

It’s hoped this new setup jumpstarts the biz. Previously, various aspects of the industry were scattered under different policy organizations; the SCIT, for example, included support for film, while the Secretary for Home Affairs oversaw culture, which also included film.

“There was almost no coordination,” Wong says. “Nobody had a bird’s-eye view” of the industry.

Now, everything concerning film falls under the SCIT, which gives one body a strategic view of the Hong Kong industry as a whole, Wong says.

A Film Development Council will be charged with advising the policy secretary on things related to film. The secretary is in charge of coordinating relevant policy, training and promotion of local fare in mainland China and oversees markets.

The industry also is trying to help itself.

The Hong Kong Scriptwriters Guild is teaching a course at Open University, for example. Three classes have been completed and the fourth is being taught at the moment, says John Chong, deputy chairman and chief exec of Media Asia.

Some other ideas that could help inject the industry with new talent could be film funds, training courses, a film school or a tax plan (there is currently no entertainment tax), Chong says.

While the industry can do some things on its own, it does need government resources to implement some of those ideas — although the government does have some initiatives in place.

The Film Guarantee Fund was started in 2004 with HK$30 million ($3.8 million) made available. The fund gives projects a “kickstart,” says TELA’s Wong, adding that it serves a matchmaking role between the industry and banks, which have recently delved into film financing in the region — and it helps give banks confidence in a project.

The fund gives approved pics 35% of a production budget, or about $340,000, whichever is less.

Long-term goals

There’s also the Film Development Fund, set up in 1999 with long-term goals. Seven projects, including the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards presentation ceremony, recently were approved for coin totaling $368,000.

Tsang said in October that the council would include members of the film industry and promised to look at a study that was submitted by the Film Development Committee. The report proposes the government help resolve some of the issues the industry is up against, particularly for startup or small to medium-size filmmakers. The report was officially submitted in early January.

A council has been a long time coming — the industry has been asking for one for more than 10 years. And the timing couldn’t be better as it struggles to churn out 50 films a year.

The government is expected to name council members by summer.

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