Having a chairman who's one of Hong Kong's most well-connected entrepreneurs surely has its advantages for the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF). Under the aegis of Wilfred Wong Ying-wai - whose low public profile belies his political ambition - the HKIFF has shown aspirations to grandeur rarely seen in its 32-year history. And Wong, a National People's Congress deputy and chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist University, is keen to continue the trend.
As recently as five years ago, the festival was still largely viewed as a cinephile's event, focusing on films which rarely get a showing in mainstream cinemas. This year, the three-week festival will kick off with the Asian Film Awards and the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), which are geared towards the business side of the industry.
The pageantry of the launch of the Asian Film Awards two weeks ago mirrors their growing status.
The award ceremony will be held on March 17 at the Grand Hall of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Budgeted at nearly HK$12 million, the event is intended to be the jewel in the HKIFF's crown.
Wong says the festival is better prepared for hosting the Asian Film Awards because they have had 12 months to plan for it, unlike last year's inaugural event when the HKIFF board hastily decided to host the new pan-Asian awards just three months before the ceremony.
'This time we agreed in Cannes [last May] that we are going to do it again this year,' he says.
Industry commentators view hosting the awards and inheriting control of the industry-orientated HAF from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council as a watershed for the development of the HKIFF.
It's a costly move, too: the HKIFF budget for this year is estimated at HK$40 million, with HK$4 million earmarked for the HAF - all-time highs for the festival.
Wong insists that the artistic value of the festival has not been diluted and the commercial element has been played up only because of the prevalence of sponsorship. A higher profile does the event, and Hong Kong, no harm, he says.
Filmmaker Edmond Pang Ho-cheung says it is understandable that the festival has resorted to injecting a bit of show business glamour as a marketing strategy, given its status now as an independent, non-government entity. 'Not a lot of people cared about the festival before it was commercialised,' he says.
'Maybe the diehards feel that the festival is now more star-driven and sponsorship orientated, but at least now more people are taking notice of what's happening.'
Pang also praises the HAF, from which he has secured funding for his projects in the past few years. However, he has reservations about local filmmakers reaping tangible rewards from the glossy events that have defined the festival for the past few years. 'The red-carpet events are not going to help the local film industry - it's the film market that has an impact on what we do,' he says, adding that the festival should schedule more screenings of local films so that visiting industry figures learn more about what Hong Kong directors have to offer.
Wong hopes that bigger will equate to better: 'The Hong Kong International Film Festival is the oldest one in Asia, but its splendour was overtaken by Pusan - and I think there's no reason to be like that,' he says.
The increasing visibility of brand names at the festival does not mean that organisers are driven solely by the bottom line. 'The government hopes we can get more commercial sponsorship to improve community participation ... it's not just about money,' Wong says.
For example, the festival's marketing department plans to offer businesses membership schemes with incentives ranging from complimentary tickets to the opportunity to host corporate entertaining at festival screenings.
The festival has also signed a deal with a cinema chain giving it year-long scheduling rights to one house in a multiplex. Wong says the aim is to create an institution 'like Cine-art' in that the screen will be dedicated to a programme of art house fare and local independent productions which the festival will curate.
That the HKIFF now receives a significant percentage of its funding from the Film Development Fund - which is under the jurisdiction of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau as opposed to cultural policy officials at the Home Affairs Bureau - highlights how the 'government views cinema as an industry', says Wong.
Another goal that Wong says is attainable is to make the HKIFF the Asian equivalent of the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, both of which tread the line between commercial success and serious film fest.
To effect this change, he has reshaped his team in keeping with the festival's move towards commercialisation, which includes the creation of a new marketing director role, but he says the position of executive director, left vacant following the resignation of Peter Tsi Ka-kei last September, won't be filled until after festival ends in April.
Appointing an executive director from outside the film industry would represent a seismic shift for the festival. Tsi previously served as chief executive of the Motion Picture Industry Association and has worked as a screenwriter.
But with a shrewd entrepreneur like Wong at the helm, the evolution of the event into a business regime can't be too far away.
For more details go to hkiff.org.hk