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Hong Kong feeds off China’s power

Co-productions keep climbing

HONG KONG — China makes good business sense. This is especially true if your film industry is struggling on home turf, as Hong Kong’s is.

“If there’s no China, we can’t survive anymore,” says John Chong, deputy chairman and chief exec of Media Asia, adding that the Hong Kong market has been shrinking for almost 10 years.

Hong Kong has huge stars who are recognized around the world, but the industry itself is struggling to churn out 50 films a year. It was a natural move to work with China on co-productions, not only for the financial support but also to tap into the vast market.

China made 330 films in 2006, but the top earners were co-productions with Hong Kong. Of the local Hong Kong productions, seven out of the top 10 films last year were co-productions with China, according to the Motion Picture Industry Assn. of Hong Kong.

And that number is expected to keep climbing. The market is simply and obviously much bigger in China — and Hong Kong isn’t the only one to want a piece.

An example of China’s box office power: There were two major Chinese films released at Christmas — “The Curse of the Golden Flower” and “Confession of Pain.”

“Curse” has brought in around RMB250 million ($32.2 million) from China, and $2.6 million from Hong Kong. “Confession” is at $8.6 million in China vs. $2.6 million in Hong Kong.

Using co-productions undeniably changes Hong Kong films on a basic level because they must get the OK from China censors, which means a film must avoid sensitive storylines and be appropriate for all age groups since China doesn’t yet have a rating system.

While co-productions seem like the hot ticket, there are still local films that don’t fit the co-production bill and are purely Hong Kong pics, such as Cheang Pou-soi’s “Dog Bite Dog,” a brutal crime thriller.

While Hong Kong had 51 local productions in 2006, a number that has been sliding every year, the situation isn’t that bad when you consider the opportunities with China, says Lorna Wong, commissioner of Hong Kong’s Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority (TELA).

Under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), Hong Kong companies are now able to function more independently without local partners. They can own and operate cinemas on the mainland, for example. They are also exempt from China’s film import quota.

“We are definitely leveraging our unique position with China,” Wong says.

Not only does Hong Kong serve as a gateway to China, but it also has an edge to offer.

When you see a co-production between Hong Kong and China, you still see a lot of Hong Kong film elements, says Woody Tsung, chief exec of the Motion Picture Industry Assn. of Hong Kong. He adds that there’s still a big difference between a Hong Kong film and a mainland film.

Hong Kong has know-how from more than 20 years of experience in the international marketplace; strong infrastructure in finance as well as the legal and accounting systems; branding; marketing; and understanding the business of film, says Nansun Shi, veteran producer and exec director of Film Workshop.

However, Media Asia’s Chong thinks that “in the long run, maybe 10 years, most of Hong Kong’s skills will be learned by the mainland Chinese … We will be a part of the China film industry.”

It may be that Hong Kong grows stronger in other directions, Shi adds, such as becoming the financial center for Chinese-language filmmaking.

In order to keep the edge, Shi says simply, “We must continue to take that lead.”

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