THE message from speakers at this week's Asia Society Corporate Conference in Hong Kong came over loud and clear: reform is coming to the mainland. Vice-minister and chief negotiator to the World Trade Organisation Long Yongtu told his audience that everything from state-owned enterprises to utilities would be covered in the shake-up. Such reform is certainly affecting the film industry. The hottest topic of debate among mainland film-makers these days has little to do with the aesthetics. Rather, it is the nitty-gritty of sponsorship and finance. In the age of economic reform, just where film crews get their cash to keep the cameras running is as pertinent as the film's subject matter. In 1993, the Film Affairs Administration under the State Council withdrew unconditional funding for film production. The move forced film studios into making TV programmes to make ends meet and even leasing out film equipment to stay afloat. Films which toed the party line - described either as 'theme' or 'focus' productions - kept their subsidies from the central authorities, usually about one million yuan (HK$930,000) per film. Other subject matter received nothing at all. Huang Yong, general manager at Pearl River Film and the company's party committee secretary, said the appeal of propaganda films had waned so much that his studio had to find its own way to finance projects. 'Capital resources are increasingly hard to come by these days. And there is no guarantee we can break even if the film attracts a few ticket sales,' Mr Huang said. Making joint-venture films - in conjunction with foreign (including Hong Kong) firms - is a solution. The Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest Entertainment Holdings this year set up a China Film Fund to invest in joint-venture films and buy overseas copyrights of acclaimed mainland films. 'We foresee a huge market for joint-venture films ever since the beginning of economic reform,' said Esmond Ren Yi-ran, mainland market controller at Golden Harvest. 'Even if we split our ticket sales with them it is still profitable.' Director Ng See-yuen, a veteran at making films with mainland movie studios, said unless reforms were made the future looked bleak. He pinpointed obstacles stopping foreign investors from making films in the mainland for mainlanders. 'You make a film in China and the propaganda department cuts out everything the public is interested in,' Ng said. 'How are we to profit from this?' The requirement that films with foreign involvement must be processed on the mainland also scares away investors, although this rule has been loosened of late, Ng said. 'Hong Kong is in a unique position of being a financial pool for China's studios, despite its own industry being in the doldrums,' he said. Film content and plot, the crux in attracting audiences and ultimately covering the investment, rest ultimately on the shoulders of the central authorities. At present, vetting of scripts is carried out solely by the Film Affairs Administration, and leads to huge discrepancies in the number of planned national productions and the number of actual screenings. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, was earlier quoted as saying the mainland retained a firm grip on the entry of foreign films. Major American studios - such as the Walt Disney Co, Warner Bros, Fox or Paramount Pictures - can distribute only 10 films a year. Distribution reveals another problem. Independently made, market-oriented films and those from abroad are allotted half the showing time of the authorised films. To succeed, directors reckon they will have to appeal more to the market. 'We must be more market-oriented, both in the direction of film topics and techniques,' Mr Huang said. 'We simply can't reach into other people's pockets to pay for the film tickets. 'But just as we have to cater to public taste, we also want to educate them about films and lead the trend.' He admits it is an ambitious prospect, because, as he says: 'At the end of the day, money talks.'