Faces difficult artistic decisions

With its benchmark Hang Seng Index trading at a value some 40% less than a year ago, there is every sign that the global financial crisis has caught up with Hong Kong. But even as local financial institutions flail and fail, the Hong Kong production scene surprisingly continues to chug along relatively unscathed.

Part of the reason lies in the territory’s historical reliance on equity finance to fund film projects. Capital still flows easily for experienced producers, and the bigger media conglomerates — like real estate developer Peter Lam’s Media Asia as well as controversial entrepreneur Albert Yeung’s Emperor Entertainment Group — have plenty of cash reserves for their slates.

Banks, on the other hand, haven’t had the time to get a foothold in the film financing door. Standard Chartered, for example, only started its entertainment banking unit in Hong Kong in 2005.

“Looking for money is not the big issue at the moment. There are many financiers, especially in mainland China, who are really keen on financing movies,” says Amy Chin, producer at local shingle Icon Pictures. “If you are not talking about a lot of money, below $2 million, that’s not too hard. The most difficult problem for local producers is, rather, what movie should they make?”

And therein lies the headache for local producers. Hong Kong’s cinema has always been export-driven, but audience numbers have stagnated in the traditional markets of Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia. On the other hand, with an ever-increasing share of box office revenue being generated on the mainland, filmmakers are finding the stories they tell being decided by what gets through mainland China’s censors at the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

In a practical sense, that means fewer of those edgy cop-and-gangster urban thrillers that the territory is known for, and more of the easy-to-sell blockbuster period costumers like John Woo’s “Red Cliff.” Out, too, are local Cantonese dialect comedies and romances, which don’t translate well to Mandarin-language-speaking audiences on the mainland.

Little wonder, then, that some of the biggest films due out in 2009 and 2010 are inoffensive epics like Yuen Woo-ping’s “True Legend” or the ultra-patriotic “Ip Man 2,” the sequel to last year’s $3.3 million-grossing biopic of the acclaimed martial arts master.

Still, a few mega-budget epic films do little to shore up what has become a lackluster local film production scene. Officials from the special administrative region are keen to staunch the bloodletting and to see local production numbers rise again from the current 50-odd films a year to something remotely resembling the 300-plus films produced during the heady 1990s.

To that end, the territory’s Film Development Council unveiled a campaign last November called “Hong Kong Cinema: New Action.” The council, which approved $2.37 million in funding for local productions in 2008, has already sent a 60-strong delegation to the neighboring province of Guangdong to tubthump co-production opportunities with Hong Kong shingles.

The move makes sense, seeing as how the province shares much of the same Cantonese dialect and culture, having been weaned on Hong Kong radio and television. More importantly, the region is home to some 83 million people, which would more than make up for shrinking audiences elsewhere, were it not for the fact that Beijing gives no special dispensations to Hong Kong films released only in Guangdong.

“We should be making the whole region a Special Cultural Region,” says Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi (“Seven Swords,” the upcoming “Detective Dee”). “If we have a different kind of freedom (and) fewer restrictions, which would reflect how close we are, then that would be great. It hasn’t happened yet, but we are hopeful.”

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