Hong Kong film professionals head north for work

Bigger box office means more commercial blockbusters made on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 December, 2015, 12:00pm

When Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting first went to the mainland in 1989 to make her film Eight Taels of Gold ishe found an industry very different from that in Hong Kong.

Some mainland production staff needed to take an afternoon nap and she had to call the police to maintain order among a crowd of people who gathered to watch a scene being shot.

“There were some vans who made money by taking the local public to watch the movie making as many of them had never seen film making in their lives.” she said. “They applauded any car chase or action, which gave us trouble when recording the sound.”

At the time movie making in Hong Kong, dubbed the Hollywood of the East, was enjoying a golden era that nurtured a steady stream of talent ranging from directors to cinematographer and actors. The mainland film industry had not yet developed and Hong Kong directors only went north to make movies with mainland storylines.

Cheung said she had to take a lot of Hong Kong production staff to the mainland because of the lack of local talent.

They applauded any car chase or action, which gave us trouble when recording the sound
Mabel Cheung

“We had hired some mainland staff but they were not that efficient and some had to take afternoon naps after their lunch break, which was the practice in mainland China at that time,” she said.

A quarter of a century later, Cheung still makes movies on the mainland from time to time but she can now call on the services of professional and efficient mainland staff.

Many Hong Kong film professionals are also working on the mainland, which is experiencing a movie making boom because investors there want to make films targeting a growing market.

There were only 51 films produced in Hong Kong last year, down from 300 a year in the mid-1990s, and the city had only 47 cinemas with 37,420 seats last year, down from 119 cinemas offering 121,885 seats in 1993.

Meanwhile, there are more than 600 big budget movies made on the mainland a year, and the box office there has been growing by more than 30 per cent a year and is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest movie market in 2017.

Oscar winning cinematographer Peter Pau, recognised in 2000 for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is now in Shanghai to shoot a movie for Alibaba Pictures directed by Wong Kar-wai.

Pau said mainland film investors liked to use Hong Kong production staff.

“Hong Kong film-making professionals have more experience in making commercial blockbusters, which are exactly what the mainland audience likes to watch nowadays,” he said. “Many mainland film professionals are trained to make art house movies and their commercial senses are not as good as those from Hong Kong.”

Pau said directors, screenwriters and cinematographers from Hong Kong could find a lot of opportunities on the mainland.

“Hong Kong film professionals may find it hard to make movies in Hong Kong but they can continue to use their experience and knowledge to make movies in mainland China,” he said.

“The mainland movie market is just like the Hong Kong film market in the 1970s and 1980s. There are a lot of investors and companies who are interested in investing in film making, while the box office has been growing substantially every year.”

There were also some opportunities in the West, he said, with mainland investors in Hollywood movies keen to hire Hong Kong film professionals to handle the projects.

“They like to use Hong Kong professionals for these Hollywood movies as Hongkongers understand both Chinese and the Western culture,” Pau said. “We can act as a bridge of the two sides.

Hong Kong film professionals must also remember to improve ourselves or we will lag behind
Peter Pau

“I believe the trend will continue, with more and more Hong Kong film-making professionals going to mainland China or making Western movies with investments by the mainland investors.”

But he warned that mainlanders were quick learners and Hong Kong film professionals could not afford to rest on their laurels.

“The mainland film professionals have started to catch up,” he said. “This is why Hong Kong film professionals must also remember to improve ourselves or we will lag behind. There are some very popular Chinese movies which are purely made by mainland film professionals.”

Cheung said she could make movies in both Hong Kong and on the mainland.

“There are still Hong Kong-made movies but they are usually low-budget, at only HK$10 million to HK$20 million, targeting a small box office in Hong Kong,” she said.

“On average,the box office needs to be three times the production costs for a movie to break even. As such, for investors to invest HK$50 million to HK$100 million in a movie, it would need to target the mainland market which is much bigger than Hong Kong.”