Film financing: profit versus art
Film professionals challenge government proposals to seek returns on its funding of cinema-related projects
March is the most exciting month in Hong Kong's cinematic calendar. Avid film buffs look forward to discovering rare reels at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, directors and investors seize the chance to explore new projects at industry jamborees, and prominent regional stars gather to collect accolades at various awards ceremonies.
For all the glamour, the picture isn't entirely rosy for the Hong Kong film industry. "In fact, it is at a critical point," says Tenky Tin Kai-man, vice-chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers.
His worries aren't without foundation. The number of locally financed and directed productions vying for prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards, set for April 13, has declined significantly over the past five years, says Tin, who is also a director of the Hong Kong Film Awards Association.
Although the number of films qualified to compete for the awards has held steady, association records show there are fewer "pure" local productions - shrinking from 31 out of 54 features in 2008 to 23 out of 52 movies last year (the remainder being co-productions with mainland companies).
"With such low production figures, people have no choice but to work on the mainland. You can't retain talent here, and no one will enter the industry," Tin says. "Mainland filmmakers now have acquired our experience and know-how, and they don't need us any more."
The government injected HK$300 million into the Film Development Fund (FDF) in 2007 to address the decline following the industry's heyday from the 1970s to the '90s. So when an Audit Commission report in November recommended a rethink of public financial support for the movie business, there were howls of protest from directors and film administrators.
That financial support is directed through three programmes administered by CreateHK's film services office: the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society (which runs the festival), the FDF and the Film Guarantee Fund. The audit report called for an overall review to see how public funds could be used strategically, but focused most attention on the FDF. (Applications to the guarantee fund virtually ceased after 2007 because the FDF offered filmmakers more favourable terms.)
While the FDF was set up primarily to finance small to medium "commercially viable" films, the audit report noted that about 72 per cent of its spending (HK$148.2 million) between 2005 and 2012 went towards movie-related projects, such as award events, rather than actual film production.
Of the HK$26.28 million that the FDF awarded to 10 films released before 2012, the report noted it recovered HK$11.58 million, or 44.2 per cent of the money, with some films registering very low returns.
The commission also questioned the cost-effectiveness of the FDF's bankrolling of four annual events: the Asian Film Awards (AFA), the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), the Entertainment Expo Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Film Awards.
After the HK$300 million injection, the events cost taxpayers HK$88.8 million, accounting for nearly half of the HK$180.4 million the FDF spent on film-related projects between January 2008 and June 2012. This reduced funds available for other activities, the report said, suggesting that organisers could seek other sources of revenue rather than rely on the FDF.
"Only one Hong Kong film received investment in 2009 as a result of participating in the forum," it said, and advised officials "to assess whether ... to continue funding the forum."
Critics argued that government bean counters were trying to gauge the merit of cultural activities mainly in terms of return on investment.
"[Officials] can conduct qualitative analyses," says filmmaker Peter Tsi Ka-kei, who started the film financing forum and the AFA. "The evaluation [of film projects] should not be confined to return in monetary terms. The noise a film generates locally and overseas, as well as international audiences' impression of Hong Kong, should be taken into account."
Project markets such as HAF play a crucial role in facilitating contact, says emerging director Kit Hung, who won the HK$50,000 Wouter Barendrecht Award at the HAF in 2010 with his project Mama Eva.
Although he did not secure backing at the forum, the event eventually led him to his investors. "Because of HAF, I met contacts from Taiwan, and then through them, I met my Hong Kong investors," Hung says. "This kind of networking effect continues long after the three-day forum is over."
Moreover, seven FDF-funded films have won awards at home and abroad, notably Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting's Echoes of the Rainbow, which won the Crystal Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2010.
Some concede the FDF is due for a review anyway. Based on its spending of about HK$38 million a year, the HK$300 million allocation will be used up by mid-2015.
But culture and sports constituency lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok reckons government support for the film industry is simply not "to the point".
A former film producer, Ma compares the Hong Kong response to Taichung city's enthusiastic backing for Ang Lee when the Taiwanese-born director was filming his 3-D fable Life of Pi. The municipal government raised NT$50 million (HK$13 million) to build a set for the film that won Lee a second Oscar for best director.
"We need to learn from [the Taiwanese]. We are simply not as proactive," Ma says. "The Film Development Fund should be playing such a role, but why is it not reflected in the industry's performance?"
There was just one Hong Kong film among the 10 movies that topped the city's box offices last year - Cold War, a thriller that raked in HK$42.8 million to become the sixth-highest grosser - while the number of local productions released last year fell from 56 in 2011 to 50.
Tin reckons the film sector could do more for itself. "The industry does not articulate its needs properly. We have to be precise about what we really want, and then reflect what can be done in order to achieve our goals," he says.
The Film Development Council, which administers the FDF, expects to present a review of its operations to legislators in the fourth quarter. But council secretary general Wellington Fung Wing rejects suggestions that production has lagged. Last year, the council received 18 applications to fund film projects, the most ever, of which 10 were approved, he says.
As Fung sees it, the critical issue for Hong Kong's film industry isn't lack of funding, but a lack of new blood.
Producers have focused on making epic costume dramas over the past decade to access the lucrative mainland market.
Yet a "fresh breeze" has swept the industry, and original stories that tap into the Hong Kong psyche have proved surprise hits, Fung says, citing Pang Ho-cheung's Vulgaria and Ann Hui On-wah's touching drama A Simple Life.
"This is a positive trend, and money is not a major problem now," he says. "However, fresh talent is a problem."
Pang and Hui are veteran directors, and movies mainly feature stars who came to fame decades ago, such as Cold War's Aaron Kwok Fu-shing.
Hence, the First Feature Film Initiative, an open contest designed to support new directors, was launched last week. A total of HK$9 million will be awarded to three film projects, with HK$5 million going to a team nominated by professional bodies such as the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers. The remainder will be split between two teams backed by tertiary institutions such as the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
It will enable young directors to get projects made without having to worry about the box office, Tin says.
Fung hopes the initiative will replicate success stories such as Cold War, which marked the directorial debuts of Sunny Luk Kim-ching and Longman Leung Lok-man. The council has identified the grooming of new talent as its direction, he says.
Film Festival Society executive director Roger Garcia says that the benefits of support for the industry extend beyond the bottom line, and that film culture plays a vital role in cultivating future audiences, especially for the future West Kowloon Cultural District. "Cultural values are intangible, and Hong Kong needs to build the audience now."
Fung says award shows still have a place despite the criticisms. "Doing big shows can sustain Hong Kong's status as a production centre," he says. "Overall, these events make Hong Kong film culture a very important brand."