Filmmakers from the West are heading east to Asia with its potentially huge, cinema-going market and other resources, writes Mathew Scott
A growing band of European filmmakers are realising their cinematic ambitions in the East, lured by a healthy box office, investment prospects and the potential for more eye-catching stories.
Leading the pack is Welsh director Gareth Evans, whose Indonesia-shot crime actioner The Raid picked up US$15 million in global takings last year on a budget of about US$1 million. Evans is now filming a sequel.
“The growing size of the Asian market is obviously a source of motivation,” says French producer Christophe Bruncher, who heads the annual “Ties That Bind” programme at film festivals in South Korea’s Busan and Udine in Italy that bring together producers and filmmakers from Asia and Europe.
The region’s box office takings hit about US$10.4 billion in 2012, up 15 per cent year on year, compared to about 6 per cent growth in the North American market, which collected US$10.8 billion. “But Asia is seen first as an incredible reserve of good stories and unique pictures,” Bruncher says.
For example, British director-writer Sean Ellis – Oscar-nominated for his short film Cashback in 2006 – headed to Asia to produce a thriller he calls his “love letter to … Manila”. Metro Manila explores big city life through the story of an armed guard and won the audience award at the influential Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.
“Most of my research was done in the Philippines before we started principal photography,” Ellis says. “I took every little gift of detail I was given. I wanted the film to be authentic. I didn’t want people saying ‘What does this white kid think he knows about the streets of Manila?’ I wanted to live it, process it and then tell a story about it.”
Ellis says that while opportunities for filmmakers are expanding along with an increasingly global market, securing financing and distribution remain challenging.
Last year, international box office receipts hit a record US$23.9 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, and only five of the year’s top 20 pictures grossed more in North America than they did in overseas markets. In addition, while Hollywood blockbusters still dominate the Asian box office, the past year has seen a string of domestically produced hits across the region.
On the mainland, local films continue to break box office records. Last year, Painted Skin: The Resurrection – with the mainland’s Wuershan at the helm rather than Hong Kong filmmaker Gordon Chan Ka-seung as was the case with Painted Skin (2008) – took US$113.2 million. Lost in Thailand (2012) – directed by the mainland’s Xu Zheng and a follow-up to Raymond Yip Wai-man’s Lost on Journey (2010), a joint production – netted US$202.6 million.
A Lunar New Year release, Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, produced and co-directed by Stephen Chow Sing-chi, has collected US$195.2 million so far. Takings for the film, which is still playing in some theatres, have eclipsed those of many international hits from last year including Skyfall (US$60 million).
The mainland’s box office earnings has recently seen average yearly increases of more than 30 per cent and in 2012 topped US$2.69 billion. Even Hong Kong rose 12 per cent to pass the US$200 million mark.
With this in mind, the city’s annual film festival last month included the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum, which has joined forces with the Paris-based Ateliers du Cinema Europeen (Ace) Co-production Labs group. The plan is to develop and promote projects that allow European and Asian filmmakers to share skills in an effort to get their films made and reach audiences in both markets.
“We are looking at talent, to develop great films for the European audience with a specific Chinese touch,” says Ronan Girre, Ace’s chief executive. “Nevertheless, we still work on the development of a specific audience in China, particularly fans of European culture and brands. Given the small level of our budgets, this ‘niche’ audience would already be very profitable.”
While it is unclear exactly how many Euro-Asian productions are under way, the Ace programme in Hong Kong is working on 16: five from the European Union, one from New Zealand, and 10 from the Chinese-language market, comprising the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Japan’s box office also had a record 2012 with takings of US$2.15 billion, a rise of 7.7 per cent year-on-year according to industry figures.
Critics have built a buzz around Japan-based Welshman John Williams’ Sado Tempest since its limited release in Tokyo last month.
A reworking of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest which sees a rock band imprisoned on an island, Sado Tempest is a co-production between filmmakers from Hong Kong, Britain, Japan and South Africa. “It looks complex but we did it in a simple and efficient way, with low legal costs. We went from inception to screen in just over three years,” Williams says.
“There are more and more foreign directors working in Japan now. The industry is opening up here and this is very positive. What we still lack in Japan and what would really make a difference is government or regional government support for development. This is what hampers many producers here,” Williams adds.
Daniel Kim, who heads the Asian Film Market event that hosts the “Ties That Bind” programme in Busan each October, believes that as the region’s market expands, more international filmmakers will look to take their chances. “The population of Asia is about five times larger than Europe. It’s time for Asia and Europe to learn more about each other’s culture, film industry and make a firm network.”