Festival scrambles for government money

New Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival head Shaw Soo-wei has taken to providing her staff with oranges in order that their health doesn’t suffer despite the long hours they have put in ahead of the festival.

More than ever, this year’s event has been a scramble to put together financially. That was a reflection of the global recession, which as recently as September left the festival without private-sector backing from corporate sponsors and subject to behind-the-scenes bureaucratic maneuvers by the Hong Kong government.

It was recently announced that the fest’s state funding line will shift from a cultural body (Hong Kong Arts Development Council) to an industrial one (Commerce and Economic Development Bureau).

Still, the division between culture and industry functions is blurred. Shaw and her team preside over the HKIFF, film-project finance gathering HAF and the Asian Film Awards.

“The festival serves two purposes,” Shaw says, “first to the consumers, the other to the trade. More and more we are involved in the entire value chain of film and filmmaking, inspiring, discovering new talent (at the festival), financing through

the HAF and recognizing the achievements at the Asian Film Awards.”

Another government department, the Trade Development Council, maintains its responsibility for Filmart, the film rights market that is now in its 13th frame.

All four events are part of the nine-segment Entertainment Expo (March 23-April 19), an umbrella event that is billed as “Asia’s World Entertainment Market.” Other elements include the H.K. Music Fair, the H.K. Film Awards and the Digital Entertainment Leadership Forum, which “The Lord of the Rings” producer Barrie Osborne and Chinese filmmaker Jia Jiangke will address.

Recent sales events in other parts of the world, notably the American Film Market and the European Film Market, have shown that the recession has hit the movie industry, as witnessed by a slower volume of rights sales and a reduction in the supply of project finance. But Filmart and HAF are each able to put on a cautiously optimistic face.

“It feels almost like business as usual,” says Benjamin Chau, assistant executive director of the Trade Develpment Council. “We appear to be seeing a bit of a slowdown from Western Europe and the U.S. but are seeing more participants from emerging countries such as East Europe, the Philippines and Asia.”

Filmart organizers report that overall number of companies registered as exhibitors increased from 483 in 2008 to 503 for 2009, with U.S. exhibitors shading down marginally from 32 to 31. Chinese exhibitors are on course for a 50% increase. While buyer numbers will not be known until the mart opens, organizers anticipate that some companies from farther territories may send smaller delegations due to the budget concerns. However, participants from neighboring Asian countries are expected to grow, and overall visitor numbers are forecast for a slight increase.

Timing works in the mart’s favor, as a number of Filmart exhibitors are able to provide buyers with sneak previews of movies and projects they will unveil at Cannes. Also helping is an enduring interest in Asian film and Asian markets by companies from outside the region. Though the number of bizzers from North America may drop, numerous European execs will make the trip as buyers and sellers. Among the market screenings will be a China Night and a section of French premieres.

With a theme spotlighting Asia and emerging markets, Filmart includes larger exhibitor pavilions from the Chinese mainland and the Philippines as well as exhibitors from Iran and Israel. Newcomers include the Poland National Pavilion and Ukraine.

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