Hong Kong heroes

Over the years, Media Asia has backed the best

The roots of Media Asia, a Chinese powerhouse in the Asian market, are in many ways to be found in the classic Akira Kurosawa pic “The Seven Samurai,” as well as the company’s greatest hit to date, “Infernal Affairs,” which has gone on to redefine the way movies are made in the continent, and also opened Hollywood’s eyes to the true value of the Hong Kong movie.

The largest movie production and distribution shingle in Hong Kong, Media Asia is celebrating its 15th birthday this year and it has proven to be a very precocious teenager indeed.

“Media Asia started up with seven directors, the so-called ‘Seven Samurai’ and they have different strengths in different aspects,” says John Chong, chief executive and co-founder of Media Asia.

The “Seven Samurai” set out to regain the ground lost by local movies in a Hong Kong where moviegoers were voting with their feet and heading to sharper Hollywood fare instead of watching what was increasingly poor-quality local product.

Asked what the most significant event in the development of Media Asia in the past 15 years has been, Chong mentions the group’s first movie, “I Have a Date With Spring.”

Clifton Ko directed this adaptation of Raymond To’s stage play in 1994, which centers around a flashback to the Flower Palace nightclub in Hong Kong in 1967, just before the Leftist Riots of that year that made the territory into a flashpoint.

“‘I Have a Date With Spring’ was very successful. The production cost was HK$3 million ($387,000 ) and the box office result was HK$22 million ($2.84 million). Then the next peak was ‘Infernal Affairs,’ which was later remade as ‘The Departed,’ ” Chong says.

This Andrew Lau and Alan Mak-helmed trilogy was a shot in the arm for the cinema in Hong Kong, which was becoming a bit jaded by the time these complex, well-plotted and strongly played pics made their way to the screens.

Featuring the big names of the Hong Kong biz, including Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang, Kelly Chen and Sammi Cheng, Martin Scorsese paid the ultimate accolade when he remade it in Hollywood in 2006.

So what has been the chief reason for Media Asia’s success in the region? Is it the choice of co-production partners, financing or the types of film? Chong reckons the key is to focus on decent productions no matter how big or small the budget, and that following this policy has allowed Media Asia to build up the brand over the past 15 years.

A big factor in the future of Media Asia will be the growth of the Chinese Mainland market, and Media Asia has been swift to realize the potential across the border from Hong Kong.

Chong believes the film business is heading to China because the Mainland market is the most rapidly growing in the region. China’s box office continues to defy the global economic downturn with an almost cheeky regularity.

For the past five years, the Chinese film industry has grown by 20% a year. Its 300 film producers made 402 features last year, 22% up on the previous year.

Filmmakers have been drawn to the region by lower production costs, great infrastructure and locations and access to the fastest-growing major movie market in the world.

There were more than 80 films screened in Mainland cinemas in the first half of this year, bringing in $336 million in the first six months of the year.

The first half usually accounts for 40% of China’s total annual box office haul, which means the full-year figure is on track to reach $834 million, an increase of some 40% on last year’s $629 million.

The second half has seen the biz notch a huge success with that rarest of beasts, a propaganda epic that people actually have wanted to see, “The Founding of a Republic.” The pic has become China’s most successful domestic film of all time, earning $60 million at the box office by late last month.

Companies from Hong Kong, which was returned to China from British rule in 1997, have a definite head start on shingles from other territories because of favorable cross-border trade deals and a shared cultural background.

“Hong Kong is our home town, and we of course pay a lot of attention to this fact. We have lots of experienced film crews from Hong Kong, and this can help the development of the film business in China,” Chong says.

“Things have changed a lot. Due to the growth in the market, filmmakers are making more movies catered for or tailor-made for China, therefore nowadays some movies are losing their Hong Kong flavor even when they are made by Hong Kong filmmakers,” Chong adds.

Looking ahead, digital media is going to play a major role in the future of the biz.

“Media Asia has noted the importance of digital media, but there is still a long way to go,” Chong says.

As far as the outlook for the rest of the biz is concerned, Chong believes it remains flat in the current straitened economic circumstances. “But Malaysia and Thailand have picked up in recent years,” he adds.

The company is confident in looking ahead to the next 15 years, but Chong is too much the pragmatist to make any firm forecasts.

“It’s hard to predict at this moment,” he says.

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