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What Film Can Learn From Asia’s Rising Art Fair Circuit

The rise of art fairs and galleries in Asia could contribute to an evolution in the traditional sale and distribution of films around the region. Film and video-based works are increasingly being shown in fine art settings.

Spearheading the change in Asia is the giant Art Basel, which introduced a film sector to its Hong Kong edition in 2014, showing 49 works by 47 artists. This year’s fair in March showed 67 short films and five feature-length films, including “The Chinese Lives of Uli Sigg,” a documentary by Michael Schindhelm about the Swiss collector of Chinese contemporary art. (The picture plays again at next month’s Locarno Film Festival.)

Only films represented by galleries were eligible for selection in the fair’s film program. Short film “Tomorrow,” by Hong Kong-based cinematographer Christopher Doyle (“In The Mood for Love”,) was also screened.

In January, Singapore Contemporary, an offshoot of Hong Kong’s Asia Contemporary Art Show, will introduce Photo17, a diversification from its traditional formats into new media.

While artists in the West such as Julian Schnabel and Steve McQueen regularly cross over between the art and the film world, more in Asia are following suit. An immersive eight-screen film installation by Thai filmmaker Apitchatpong Weerathasakul, winner of Palme d’Or in 2010 (“Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”), is currently on show at the U.K.’s new Tate Modern, which opened its new extension last month. Weerasethakul’s art is also the focus of the debut show at the spectacular new Museum of Contemporary Art Chiang Mai (MAIIAM) in northern Thailand.

Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen’s “The Nameless” was shown at Forum Expanded at the Berlinale in 2015 before it was exhibited at Art Basel in Switzerland in June.

Rolls-Royce Motor Cars recently announced that it will feature mainland Chinese artist and filmmaker Yang Fudong (“Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest”) in its art program. Yang will produce a video work to be unveiled at the Shanghai Center of Photography later this year.

Li Zhenhua, multimedia artist and curator of the film sector of Art Basel in Hong Kong, says the way films are presented at art fairs or galleries does not interfere with traditional film trading. “It’s just a showcase, an interesting way for sharing [the artwork],” he said.

“The positive side is that it offers freedom to artists to step into film, and to filmmakers to make more artistic works,” said Li, who also produced documentary “Poet on a Business Trip,” which won the NETPAC Award at the Rotterdam film festival in 2015.

The trading of film or video-based artworks “remains the same as for other editioned works such as etching and photography (where prints are limited and numbered copies can be collected or traded),” says Henrietta Tsui of Galerie Ora-Ora in Hong Kong. “It is targeting at collectors.”

“Contracts include terms such as how the work should be exhibited, and restrictions on the distribution of the work. For example, the owner of the work is not allowed to make copies for further distribution. But the owner can sell the edition of the work he or she owns,” Tsui told Variety.

Gallerists say that in most cases the artist / director owns the IP of the film or video work, and at the production stage agreements are likely to be drawn up between the artist and crew members. Typically, galleries only handle sales of the work, but sometimes they may also pick up the production costs and raise money through pre-sales deals with collectors, according to one gallerist who requested anonymity.

Roger Garcia, executive director of the Hong Kong International Film Festival, said he does not see the growth of film works in the art world as having a negative effect on the film industry. Instead, how the art world functions could be beneficial to art filmmakers.

“Art filmmakers find greater financial reward in the art world than in the film world. In the art world you can sell a video work or installation to a gallery or collector for a large sum and the transaction is more direct […] probably more than you would make from a conventional film with the vagaries of distribution and exhibition,” Garcia told Variety.

Garcia said the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded was a prime example of including video works and installations in a film festival program. HKIFF is considering staging such shows, Garcia says, but the lack of a suitable venue in the city made it difficult to stage such program during the festival, which this year coincided with the opening of Art Basel.

Global art sales went up by 78% from 2005 to 2015, according to the TEFAF Art Market report released this year. China’s market share went from 8% in 2006 to 19% in 2015 – the third largest after the U.S. and the U.K. However, there’s no breakdown on the sales of film or video works.

Producer and director, Peter Tsi said the China market is currently saturated with mainstream entertainment. “What the art fairs are doing could really offer some new opportunities to new filmmakers in this region, especially when the media and forms of entertainment have gone through much evolution,” said Tsi.

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