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Hong Kong’s FilMart Stays Strong as China Enacts Biz Changes

When FilMart was launched 22 years ago, Hong Kong boasted of its historic role as the preeminent gateway between China and the rest of the world. That message has had to be tempered in recent years as multiple other cities have emerged with claims to be hubs, and there is now huge direct trade between suppliers and end users. But Hong Kong’s traditional strengths — a free port, the rule of law, stable currency, low tax and excellent infrastructure — have helped it survive as it weathers commercial change.

Hong Kong’s FilMart has also navigated tumultuous changes on its way to becoming the premier film and TV rights market in Asia.

The emergence of mainland Chinese companies as major buyers, sellers and co-production partners in global film and TV fueled the market’s growth and a measure of stability for many years.

During the 21st century, Chinese theatrical box office has mushroomed from a few hundred million dollars to over $8.3 billion last year. The country now counts over 3,000 TV channels, a billion social media users and more than 200 million paying subscribers to streaming video platforms.

So when Chinese entertainment sneezes, others in Asia catch a cold.

Many biz observers have predicted a tough transition year for China’s production sector following regulatory changes in 2018, and the crackdown by the government on taxes, with the mid-year meltdown following revelations about the business and tax affairs of superstar Fan Bingbing spooking talent and investors.

China’s government also imposed caps on the salaries of individual performers and how much of a web or TV series production budget could be spent on talent. While this latter move may ultimately benefit producers and broadcasters, the additional uncertainty added to the production slowdown.

Another government move was the shifting of regulatory oversight for the industry from the State Council to the Communist Party’s propaganda department. While many are still attempting to understand what this means for content standards and censorship — for example, men with earrings have been pixelated on some channels — for a few months the transition brought a tangible slowdown of the approvals process.

But the slowing of the mainland China film and TV production engine does not mean that FilMart has lost all momentum. Organizers are forecasting some 9,000 delegates and 850 companies as exhibitors, hailing from 35 countries.

New pavilions this year include Korea’s KOMACON agency and the Gyeongsangbukdo Creative Contents Agency; the National Film Development Corporation of India and the Film Federation of India; Japan’s Kyushu Economic Federation; Malaysia’s CFAM; and the Italian Trade Commission. And, despite the production slowdown, there are four new booths from Chinese provinces.

What visitors should find this year is an expanded emphasis on documentaries, greater participation by OTT players, an upgraded conference schedule (speakers include iQIYI boss Gong Yu, HBO Asia chief Jonathan Spink, Liongate’s TV boss Jim Packer and Tencent Penguin’s Lex Zhu and Tencent Music’s Andy Ng) and a more integrated screening series.

The Doc World strand returns with 220 companies set as exhibitors in its sophomore year. Its documentary conference has one of the week’s strongest panel line-up, with speakers including Esther Van Messel of First Hand Films, BBC Studios’ David Weiland, Tencent’s Zhu and Ruby Chen, CEO of Taiwan’s CNEX Foundation.

The dynamic and disruptive influence of streaming video is demonstrated throughout FilMart’s four-day program — OTT executives are speaking on film finance, documentaries and animation — while iQIYI’s Gong delivers a keynote. But the talk is not only about the global players and the Chinese giants. New OTT platforms are making headway in India and South East Asia. One seminar session will focus on how Asia’s homegrown OTT players can export content, and perhaps their business models, to the rest of the world.

FilMart’s strength is its timing, especially for meeting Asian clients. It runs after Berlin, which many Asian companies skip because of the Chinese New Year and the expense, and before Cannes. “We can prepare our clients for our upcoming line-up, or look for movies to pick up for ourselves,” says veteran French sales agent Nicolas Brigaud-Robert of Playtime.

Buyer screenings remain a key plank of FilMart, numbering some 100 films and 300 sessions. Hong Kong’s “Still Human,” Japan’s “We Are Little Zombies” and Bhutan’s “The Red Phallus” are among the diverse highlights from Asia. They sit along commercial fare from Europe (“Asterix and the Secret of the Magic Potion”), acclaimed documentaries (“Varda by Agnes”) and movies from the recent Berlin festival (“So Long, My Son,” “System Crashers” and “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya”).

Movie buyers will find their task made easier by two innovations. This year, FilMart enjoys greater overlap with the Asian Film Awards on March 17, and the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival. That kicks off on March 18 with Renny Harlin’s “Bodies at Rest,” a Chinese-language actioner featuring Hong Kong’s Nick Cheung and Taiwan’s Richie Jen.

The festival, which runs through April 1, will also celebrate 100 years of Korean filmmaking with a special lineup of films from such directors as Lee Chang-dong (“Peppermint Candy” and recent sensation “Burning”), Hong Sang-soo, (“The Day the Pic Fell Into the Well” and “Hotel by the River”) and Bong Joon-ho (“Memories of Murder”). And busy buyers can take advantage of FilMart’s online catch-up facilities, introduced for the first time this year.

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