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Asians flex mart muscles

Territory becomes big business for film biz

This year’s Cannes Market demonstrates the growing strength and sophistication of the Asian film biz, even if Asian films are few in number among the festival selections.

As Asian filmmaking becomes more commercially oriented, the Cannes Market is where the action will be for the region’s projects.

There’s an upsurge in intraregional rights trading and more co-productions within the Asian territories. But while films are traveling within the region, the film biz in various Asian countries is becoming more self-sufficient. There is also a widening north-south gap. The northern territories are wealthy and increasingly organized, while the south shows creative promise but is still short of production funding.

Local films have increased their B.O. share in Japan, Korea and China, and each is enjoying the benefit of capital inflows from various investment funds, from wealthy individuals or more acceptability in the capital markets.

Korean film, in particular, has a wide range of funding options. Private sector funds, now seemingly here to stay, have been joined by a growing willingness of stock market investors to embrace the booming biz. The last six months has witnessed a spate of IPOs, and more are expected later this year. Last year, Korean telcos sought to secure supplies of star-driven content for their new broadband and wireless services by buying into production shingles and talent management firms.

Japanese funds, which emerged a couple of years ago following deregulation, also are achieving greater sophistication.

Funds pool coin from production shingles, banks and ad agencies in a fashion that replicates the ad hoc partnerships formed for production or movie acquisitions between players from the different media sectors.

In their early manifestations, Japanese funds tended to be formed to improve investment in a single studio’s slate, but it is now more common to see them backing projects from several stables. For example, Japan Digital Contents Trust unveiled Cinema Trust, a fund involving five producers, in March.

China does not yet have that degree of investment sophistication, but it is not short of wealthy individuals keen to bankroll moviemaking.

Textile magnate David Ding recently joined the club, unveiling Meridian Films with ambitions to put half a dozen top-name directors under contract.

Many Chinese films whose production coin has come from “angels” have not always enjoyed the same degree of support at distribution stage and have subsequently sunk without a trace. Ziyi Zhang starrer “Jasmine Women” is now set for release this month, having been held up for three years by arguments between investors.

With pics and funding increasingly crossing borders within Asia, the number of co-productions also seems to be on the rise.

Strength of the Korean domestic market and the growing appeal of guaranteed access to the smaller but fast-moving China market (which comes with qualifying as Chinese), increasingly put players from these two countries in the driver’s seat.

The Hong Kong industry continues to bemoan its own prospects as a production center, and indeed the number of completed Hong Kong-originated features is forecast to halve to about 30 this year. But that seems to ignore the growing number of pics that see Hong Kong producers teamed with Chinese shingles either as co-financier, co-producer or international distributor.

Hong Kong remains the legal services and accounting hub for many movie ops, and with the local branch of Standard Chartered Bank now leading a lending charge across Asia, the territory has a good chance of maintaining its financial status.

With producers like Emperor Group’s Albert Lee saying his outfit will never again make a movie without China in the financial mix, Hong Kong should perhaps rebase its calculations to include the Chinese mainland, where production numbers are forecast to exceed 200 this year, up from 160 in 2005.

The territory is also the base for wealthy expatriate investors including Allan Zeman (After Dark Films) and Michael Glasser (Bigfoot Entertainment), even if their output is geographically footloose.

Meanwhile, Southern Asia is both less lucrative in B.O. terms and less involved in multinational finance. Local films are performing better in their home markets, and with the exception of the Tony Jaa-starring actioners from Thailand, Southeast Asian films have yet to score big commercial success across the region.

A handful of funds based in Taiwan and government funding have turned out to be considerably less exciting in practice than the bluster with which they launched.

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