The theatrical market in the Asian-Pacific region is now the largest single component of global box office, worth $11.1 billion in 2013, the year when it overtook both North America ($10.9 billion) and Europe-Middle East-Africa (also $10.9 billion). And unlike the European and North American markets, which have stagnated, Asia has been on a steady upward trend, driven on by growth in China, India and Malaysia as well as emerging movie markets Indonesia and Vietnam.
But if the overall trend is upward, the individual market conditions faced by distributors within the region vary enormously:
- In booming South Korea, the major exhibitors are under anti-monopoly investigation, yet the number of film imports and releases is one of the highest in the world.
- In China, these days the world’s fastest growing major market, government policy favors local films and local companies. While import quotas grab the headlines for their effect on Hollywood studio titles, censorship and other restrictions crimp the development of a notable indie scene at the theatrical level.
- The death knell has been rung for Hong Kong cinema many times, whether the blame goes to shrinking cinema circuits or the powerful influence of mainland China’s movie industry, yet the territory is adapting and enjoying something of a revival.
- In India, possibly the most influential new indie distributor is not an indie but rather the country’s biggest multiplex chain seeking to adapt to changing demographics and fast-evolving audience tastes.
The only rule in Asia is that one size rarely fits all.
Some of the newest companies making waves in the Asian scene are carving a pioneering path in the changing landscape of content distribution.
Head buyer: Ricky Tse
Recent acquisition: “Obsessed” (pictured above)
Launching only in February and adopting the motto “Ars Nunquam Vilis Est” (Art Is Never Cheap), Bravos is the new boy on the Hong Kong block. Founded by former Media Asia head of sales Ricky Tse the company comes with both international sales and local distribution mandates. Bravos had a busy start at March’s Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival, where it represented the opening night pic “Aberdeen,” and the saucy “3D Naked Ambition.” “We see that there are many good films that are not being picked up for Hong Kong and we want to address that,” Tse says. “We are going to have to fight and will start by emphasizing the more commercial titles.”
Head buyer: Lim Teck
Recent acquisitions: “Coming Home,” “The Great Hypnotist,” (pictured below) “Haemoo,” “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2”
The outlook for independent distributors in Singapore is horrible. The local tastes strongly favor Hollywood (20 of the top 25 films this year are studio titles), and the exhibition sector is controlled by three conglomerates. Add to that piracy and a traditional video sector that was recently weakened by the closure of major retailer TS Video. “It is do or die theatrical business these days, with more dead bodies than ever,” says Lim Teck, who founded Clover with a mandate to produce locally and distribute in Singapore and Malaysia. Shingle believes that Asian commercial titles like “Chinese Zodiac,” “Police Story 2013” and “Firestorm” can deliver. Clover’s “Ah Boys to Men” and its sequel broke local B.O. records last year.
Head buyer: Jeffrey Chen
Recent acquisitions: “The Search,” “Two Days One Night,” “Thermae Romae II” (pictured below)
Founded in 2008 with the backing of telecoms industry and entertainment executives, Filmware Intl. has had a simple mandate of seeking out strong arthouse and independent films for release across all media in Taiwan. Locally it trades as IFilm, hoping to build up a brand name recognized by the territory’s culturally aware public. Other acquisitions from last year include “Tom at the Farm,” “Ilo Ilo,” “Snowpiercer” and “Nymphomaniac.”
Head buyer: Boy Watson
Recent acquisitions: “Don Jon,” “Charlie Countryman,” “The Monkey King 3D” (pictured below)
Launched in October 2013, Handmade sees itself representing global indies as well as local independents. Many Thai auteurs are familiar sights on the festival circuits, but suffer from minimal or zero distribution at home. Boy Watson, who has years of experience at M Pictures and Sony Music, says, “We are independent, not low budget. We need stars,” though the company avoids straight action and comedy. The outfit scored a No. 1 hit with Hong Kong fantasy “Monkey King 3D.” “We are not going to be a studio, we are the alternative, but we are ready to be involved in everything from script to financing,” says Watson. It will next be handling “The Last Executioner,” a biopic of Thailand’s guitar-playing state executioner.
Joy N Contents
Head buyer: Choi Kwang-rae
Recent acquisitions: “Insurgent,” “Outcast,” “Locke”
The Korean market is the world’s seventh largest, bigger than either Russia or Germany. The number of films getting release in South Korea is even higher, an astonishing 890 last year. Of these, 707 were imports. But with domestic films accounting for nearly 60% of box office and the vertically integrated distribution-exhibition conglomerates handling a mix of local blockbusters and Hollywood studio fare, the space for foreign indie films is small. The reality for many is that a theatrical release is essentially prelude to release on the country’s growing VOD and IPTV platforms. Joy N Contents says it is looking for “unique and intriguing” titles and has a good track record with recent titles including “The Grey,” “Man on a Ledge,” “Cabin in the Woods,” “Vehicle 19,” “Divergent” and “Transcendence.”
Head buyer: Paul Wiegard
Recent acquisitions: “Deux jours, une nuit,” “The Homesman,” “In the Name of My Daughter,” (pictured below) “The Salvation,” “When Animals Dream”
Madman is scarcely new, but it may be reinvigorated as the management is in the process of buying out the company from entertainment conglomerate Funtastic, where it has been housed for the past several years. The company has been a consistent buyer of European, U.S. and Asian indie titles, often with a genre twist, which appeals to the company’s mainstay home entertainment audience. Madman is also possibly Australia’s biggest importer of Japanese anime. It buys 15-20 titles a year, but the Australian indie sector is highly competitive, and co-founder Paul Wiegard says: “For Madman, Cannes is mostly about securing films from script to hopefully be considered for next year in Cannes, and maximizing the press and marketing opportunities for selected films already playing.”
PVR Directors Rare
Head buyers: Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, Shiladitya Bora
Recent acquisitions: “August: Osage County,” “Her,” “Moonrise Kingdom”
PVR Cinemas is now India’s biggest multiplex chain, with some 420 screens at 96 sites in 40 cities. The company launched PVR Directors Rare in October 2011 and has gone on to handle some 50 films since: an eclectic mix of Indian and international indies, cult classics, short film packages and avant-garde documentaries. Even though multiplex penetration is still modest, the exhib is a significant factor in changing Indian audience tastes. Sanjeev Kumar Bijli, joint m.d. of PVR, describes the change as a “gradual shift towards appreciating content-led movies,” as distinct from the star-driven and simple concepts of Bollywood and regional-language fare. India has an almost complete lack of specialist arthouse cinemas, which means that PVR is best-placed to not only source the films, but also make room for them.
Head buyer: Keizo Kabata
Recent acquisitions: “Haemoo,” “Iceman 3D,” “The Fatal Encounter”
Twin Co. has been around since 1988 when it was established as a marketing company. Since then it moved into distribution and has handled some 200 foreign movies. That market — including U.S. studios — has been shrinking and accounted for just 40% of total box office in 2013. That leaves little room for independent films. But Twin Co. reckons that there is a solid niche market, especially for star-driven action and epic period drama. Last year it acquired 21 Asian films and gave 21 of them theatrical releases.
Head buyer: Gerald Dibbayawan
Recent acquisitions: “Riddick,” “Closed Circuit,” (pictured below) “Rush”
TGV is the country’s second-largest cinema chain operating 20 wholly digital multiplexes across peninsular Malaysia. Recognizing its position in the market, it made the decision to move into distribution in mid-2013, mirroring the efforts made by its direct competitor GSC. It began with a slate of action titles acquired from Hollywood independents, though has plans to broaden its offering over time.
Head buyer: Celine Lin
Recent acquisitions: “Dream House,” “Seediq Bale” (pictured below)
Founded in 2010, Wanda Media is the integrated distribution arm of Wanda Multiplex Cinemas, China’s leading cinema chain. As such it has powerful leverage in the distribution sector. The company aims to produce, finance and distribute films in China and is looking for slate financing arrangements with major Hollywood studios. Hampered by Chinese regulations, its acquisitions have rarely featured titles from outside Hong Kong or Taiwan. It scored with the recent release of its own co-produced “The Great Hypnotist,” which earned $22 million in its opening week.