Western independent filmmakers look East

By Matthew Scott  /  AFP, HONG KONG

Sun, Apr 07, 2013 - Page 14

A growing band of European filmmakers are realizing 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 action flick 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,” said French producer Christophe Bruncher, who heads the annual “Ties that Bind” program at festivals in Busan, South Korea, and Udine, Italy, that bring together producers and filmmakers from Asia and Europe. “But Asia is seen first as an incredible reserve of good stories and unique pictures.”

The region’s box office hit an estimated US$10.4 billion in takings last year, up 15 percent from 2011, compared with roughly 6 percent growth in the North American market, which collected US$10.8 billion.

Oscar-nominated for his short film Cashback in 2006, British director Sean Ellis headed to Asia to produce a thriller he calls his “love letter to the City of Manila.”

Metro Manila explores big city life through the story of an armed guard and won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January. It opens in Britain in September.

“Most of my research was done in the Philippines before we started principal photography,” Ellis said.

“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,” he said.

Ellis said that while the opportunities for filmmakers are expanding along with an increasingly global market, the art of securing financing and distribution remains a very challenging process.

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 from international markets.

While Hollywood blockbusters still dominate the Asian box office, the past year has seen a string of domestically produced hits shine across the region.

In China, local films continue to break box-office records: Painted Skin: Resurrection took US$113.2 million, Lost in Thailand US$202.6 million and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons has so far collected US$195.2 million.

The takings of Journey to The West eclipsed those of many international hits, including Skyfall (US$60 million) and Cloud Atlas (US$26 million).

China’s box office has recently seen average yearly increases of more than 30 percent per year and last year, topped US$2.69 billion. Even Hong Kong rose 12 percent to pass the US$200 million mark.

With this in mind the territory’s annual film festival last month included the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF), 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 their 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,” ACE chief executive Ronan Girre said.

“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,” Girre said.

While it is unclear exactly how many Euro-Asian productions are currently under way, the ACE program in Hong Kong is working on 16: five from the EU, one from New Zealand and 10 from the Chinese-language market — including China, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Japan’s box office also had record takings of US$2.15 billion last year, up 7.7 percent from 2011, according to industry figures.

Critics have built a buzz around Japan-based Welshman John Williams’ production Sado Tempest since its limited release in Tokyo last month.

The film — a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which sees a rock band imprisoned on Japan’s Sado Island — is a joint 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 said.

“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,” he said.

Daniel Kim, who heads the Asian Film Market event that hosts the “Ties That Bind” program in Busan every 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,” he said.