Region eyes foreign buys

Asian economies have not proved to be as discrete from the U.S. and European economic crises as their governments suggested a few months back. And their media companies are trimming jobs as TV and print ad volumes slide sickeningly.

But so far the film sector across much of the region has escaped the drop — box office climbed in Japan and Hong Kong, and it positively boomed in China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia last year. And India and Korea, two big territories where B.O. slipped, must address problems in the local production sector rather than blame consumers for abandoning them.

Nevertheless, many Asian distributors are adjusting their businesses in anticipation of the storms ahead. Delegations to Berlin will likely be smaller and sellers’ parties less lavish. Many smaller distributors are giving the EFM a miss and will use Hong Kong Filmart and Cannes as platforms for business instead.

Asia has provided some strength at recent sales markets. A new crop of independent buyers has sought to plug the supply chain gap in Korea caused by slowing local production; India now has a handful of companies buying “world cinema” titles to feed growing middle-class tastes and new specialty TV nets; Chinese distributors, too, have been active dealmakers, but with limited theatrical access their buying power is low and they must still wrestle with import quotas and censorship.

Well-funded Hong Kong group Emperor Motion Picture (in alliance with Lark Films Distribution) is also increasing its acquisitions as production activity in Hong Kong and China has been hit by the other thrust of the global financial tsunami, namely tighter funding conditions.

Currency factors may well determine whether the Korean and Indian distributors are as active as before. The won and rupee have both suffered crunching devaluations in past months, which may neuter companies’ ability to buy. No such problems affect the Chinese yuan, which has held steady against the dollar, or the Hong Kong dollar, which has a strong peg against the greenback.

Japanese buyers could conceivably be out in force waving wads of the only major currency to have significantly appreciated against the dollar. But a mad rush to buy seems unlikely, given the cost and difficulties of releasing indie movies in Japan these days — the market is swamped with several hundred local films and economically dominated by vertically integrated groups who control cinemas.

For all the Korean industry’s well-publicized woes, 2009 could be an impressive year for its local films’ reputation. No less than three pics seem shoo-ins for competition in Cannes if they are ready: Park Chan Wook’s sexy vampire thriller “Thirst,” Bong Joon-ho’s drama “Mother” (both pics are repped by CJ Entertainment) and Lee Chang-dong’s end-of-life tearjerker “Poetry” (handled by Fine Cut). Thailand’s Sahamongkol is capitalizing on its topnotch martial arts and action stable, which has a different style to Chinese and Japanese actioners and has proven genre market appeal. In recent weeks it has greenlighted a third installment of the “Ong-Bak” franchise and a second frame for female actioner “Chocolate.” Both should be in presales in Berlin.

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