Clicks of the trade

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 December, 2009, 12:00am

Former banker Jennifer Thym had always wanted to make films, but the 35-year-old second-generation Chinese-American was too impatient to spend years bringing a project to fruition.

So when she quit her job two years ago to pursue her lifelong dream, it took her less than a year to finish a film and bring it to an audience. First, Thym withdrew US$50,000 from her own account, most of which was spent on a high-definition, film-ready RED One camera, and then spent a few months polishing her script and assembling her cast and production crew. Friends and family chipped in with small loans and shooting was completed in just 12 days.

It was a turbo-charged process compared to many debut productions, but the tricky part was finding an audience for her film.

'Everyone told me the way to break into filmmaking was to make a short film, submit it to a festival, and then hope that there's enough excitement to develop it into a feature film,' she says. 'But that could've taken years!'

Instead, Thym released the 65-minute Lumina for free on YouTube in nine weekly segments. 'When people take short films to a festival, they don't expect to get any money from that. Same with a Web series. Either path would have exposed me to great risk,' she says.

Most first-time films tour the festival circuit for years without getting attention and aren't available to view afterwards. Online distribution offers many advantages: it is easily accessible to viewers, cost-effective and the internet is a great way to build a fan base, Thym says. 'Plus everyone who worked on it has a chance to see their contribution right away.'

Lumina is an English-language, cross-genre romance set in Hong Kong, combining fantasy and suspense elements. It tells the story of a lonely career woman called Lumina (played by Asian-American model Juju Chan Yuk-wan), who falls in love with a charming stranger named Ryder Lee (Michael Chan).

The problem is Ryder only appears in mirrors. As Lumina gets to know the stranger through their daily conversations, she finds herself entangled in a war between fantasy worlds that eventually involves her colleagues and close friends.

Series created for the Web are common abroad, particularly fantasies such as Sanctuary and The Guild. However, Lumina breaks new ground in Asia because it is relatively expensive for a Web production, and for its use of a sophisticated camera.

Thym believes the internet offers a solution to indie filmmakers in Hong Kong, where annual production has dropped to about 50 films compared to some 200 in the industry's heyday.

'People are not used to the concept of showing their stuff online. They still see it as the unattractive ugly sister option,' she says. 'But financing is drying up and people are more careful in what they choose to invest in. This forces studios to look into franchises such as the Twilight series, Harry Potter and Transformers.'

The studios' stance makes commercial sense, the filmmaker says, but leaves little funding for emerging filmmakers or those producing less mainstream material - and makes internet platforms all the more important.

Thym also finds working online allows her to establish a more intimate relationship with her audience in the way MySpace has for musicians. 'You can get feedback from people around the world literally right away. For a filmmaker it's great because half the time you make something, you don't know what people think about it.'

Acting on comments from viewers, Thym plans to produce longer episodes for a second season of Lumina - although that's still on hold until she can raise the funding.

Keeping an internet audience in mind has transformed her production process. For one, she wasn't afraid to use a cast of unknowns, mostly beginning or amateur actors who were selected through an open audition.

'Online, people are willing to watch non-famous faces. On YouTube you're so used to watching random people, you don't have such high expectations of celebrity names. So ... it's a little easier.'

Hong Kong's urban landscape was a boon for Thym's production. 'Compared to other cities, Hong Kong has an immense amount of texture and neon lighting,' she says. 'People think we spent a lot on set-dressing, but more time was spent finding the locations.'

Chan says the film's global reach has also given her acting career a boost. For instance, during an audition in the US this summer she was surprised to hear the director had already heard of Lumina.

'This is [one of] the first internet films to come out of Asia, so it's gotten a lot of overseas attention,' Chan says. 'Especially for an indie film production that doesn't have the budget to show it everywhere.'

Lumina has drawn mixed reviews on overseas blogs and entertainment websites. CNNGo.com calls it 'strangely addictive', while Channel Press praises the cinematography as rivalling that of a Steven Soderbergh movie but pans it for 'silly dialogue and awkward line delivery'.

Still, it was chosen by Koldcast TV, a Web station in the US, to launch its new international channel, spurring Thym to add subtitles in Chinese, Spanish, Norwegian, Japanese and French.

Having splurged more than US$50,000 on her debut production, Thym acknowledges that it isn't feasible to make Web-based shows on such budgets (most cost US$20,000 to US$30,000 in the US).

She's unlikely to recover production costs from advertising and merchandising but believes it's an important first step to draw investors' attention to Web movies.

'The idea is to make high-quality movies on a small scale and with small budgets, so it's easier to earn a profit. Even if it seems like a small amount, it looks good to investors.'

Craig Leeson, the CEO of Ocean Vista Films and founder of the I Shot Hong Kong short-film festival, praises Thym for giving Lumina a film-like look without racking up huge bills. 'While there are some aspects of the project that could be enhanced, I think they've broken some interesting ground in Hong Kong and certainly in Asia,' he says.

Thym's venture may be the harbinger of things to come, says Brian Chung Wai-hung, chief executive of the Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories Motion Picture Industry Association.

'In the past, many distributors put films straight to video because the competition of putting movies in cinemas was too high. But now that the video market is going down, I can see more people putting movies on the internet.'

Local production companies have already begun selling movies to legitimate movie websites on the mainland. One such site, voole.com, rents out thousands of remastered HD movies for online viewing.

'Nowadays, we make all our content with digital platforms either in mind or as a first option,' Leeson says.

'The advantages are that the costs of distribution are negligible in comparison with the traditional market channels and it's cheaper to maintain in terms of rights, licensing and distribution charges. Marketing is cheaper and now, it seems, we are reaching a bigger audience.'