Gary Mak could easily be mistaken for a movie snob. Dressed in black and perched on a stool in the upper floor lobby of Yau Ma Tei’s Broadway Cinematheque, you couldn’t blame him if he did have a certain sense of superiority. The tireless and strangely youthful managing director of the city’s lone remaining arthouse movie theatre is one of just a handful of people preventing Hong Kong’s cinema landscape from descending fully into mainstream mire. But Mak is no snob, as it turns out, and he bears his burden with glee.
The Hong Kong native traces his love of all things off-the-beaten-path to secondary school, when he stumbled upon Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing at one of the city’s “golden triangle” of art house theatres: Columbia Classics (which closed in 1997), Cine Art House (converted into a restaurant in 2006) and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. “I found art house movies very interesting even though I didn’t understand the history,” he recalls. The film had an odd title in Chinese referencing forbidden love and murder, which piqued Mak’s curiosity. “I knew nothing about him or the story at the time and was fascinated by the film. I didn’t really understand it and I had a lot of questions when it was over but I loved the alternative way of making films in a way that was almost instinctual.”
If there’s a single filmmaker that kick-started Mak’s lifelong love of movies and career-long stewardship of the Cinematheque, it is indeed Kieślowski. “For me, I have a special attachment to Kieślowski,” he says. “His films are very accessible but at the same time very beautiful and philosophical. I particularly like his early documentaries. It was his films that basically started my career,” Mak says.
Mak went on to become a comparative literature major at the University of Hong Kong, which had a substantial cinema section. “I learnt about cinema, and learnt about it in a systematic way,” he says. When it came time to graduate [in 1994] I thought, ‘I should find a job related to cinema.’” Trouble was, as a lit major, he knew about films – but he didn’t know anything about filmmaking. “I had no idea how to do anything on the production side — produce, write scripts, whatever,” he admits with an exasperated wave of the hands. Fortunately, the literature part of his degree came in handy and he got his first job writing for the defunct fortnightly magazine City Entertainment. He followed that with a master’s degree in cinema from the University of London. Then he heard about a vacancy at the the Broadway Cinematheque. He jumped at the chance to work at the fledgling arthouse. “This was my dream job,” he says.
Mak has been at the Cinematheque’s helm since October 1999, and he has managed to steer it through good times and bad. When it opened in 1996, the mandate was to promote anything outside mainstream Hollywood fare that was flooding every other cineplex, but as the demise of other arthouse cinemas like Cine Art and Columbia Classics proved, Hong Kong wasn’t ready for three such theatres, despite the presence of the robust Hong Kong International Film Festival. “It was niche in the market, but the first year or two were difficult,” says Mak. “Twenty years ago in Hong Kong the market for arthouse films wasn’t that big, and distributors didn’t have any content. So there wasn’t much supply and the audience wasn’t ready.” In order to survive, the theatre ran the dreaded mainstream fare on two of its four screens, much to the chagrin of its tiny core clientele. “We got complaints but we had no choice,” Mak recalls.
Today, Hong Kong has around 250 movie screens, a far cry from its glory days in the late 1980s. It actually has fewer screens per capita than most other major cities – 29 screens per million residents, compared to 50 in Seoul, 106 in Los Angeles and 230 in Paris.
Mak is undaunted. He continues to plug away, and slowly but surely, he has cultivated an audience for films from the fringe. In the early 2000s, the Cinematheque started running special programmes, beginning with national cinemas sponsored by the likes of the French Consulate, the Goethe Institute and the British Council, along with curated retrospectives of filmmakers like Alain Delon and Pedro Almodóvar, and the BC Sundays series of repertory films. On top of that, Mak and his staff channel their marketing and promotional energy into the special programmes, not the major releases. It worked. Audiences grew, and towards the end of the 2000s viewers were ready for more non-mainstream content.
So what changed? Mak believes the people did. “I think one of the key factors is the change in our core audience,” he says. “These are the kids born after the 80s, they’ve just graduated, they’re university-educated and have just started careers — and they’re media-educated. They’re arthouse-friendly and not afraid of documentaries or films from Iran or India, and they’re open to surprises. They want to be inspired. This change in mentality helped us develop an audience.”
Careful tracking of box office receipts and a fully fleshed out brand identity — aided in part by the adjoining bookstore and coffee shop Kubrick — helped Mak create a winning formula for the Cinematheque’s programming, which now also includes support for the scores of local festivals, including the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, giving small events a stable home.
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Mak describes it as an ongoing experiment. He recalls a programme of 1920s French impressionist films he once organised. “Lots of black and white surrealist films, silent many of them, films by René Clair, Luis Bunuel, Jean Cocteau, Man Ray and even Germaine Dulac. Weird movies,” he says. “It was a tiny programme but it flopped.” He chalks up that failure to imposing what he thought audiences should see on them, a criticism he’s sensitive to and on that plagues the arthouse circuit in general. “You need to grow with the audience — don’t get too far ahead too fast. But you can’t be too far behind either. If I programme [material] the market knows they won’t respect us. It’s a delicate balance,” he says. He pauses for a moment, then puts another dent in his already chipped film snob veneer. “I can’t be arrogant. I’m happy to sit with the audience and grow with them,” he says.
Mak is quick to point out that he and the Cinematheque are indebted to parent company Edko Films, the local production house, sales agent, distributor and exhibitor headed up by film buff Bill Kong. Edko’s level of synergy would have regulators in other countries busting it up as an anti-trust concern, but Mak is grateful he has Edko’s resources to rely on. A 2010 renovation of the Cinematheque’s infrastructure wouldn’t have been possible without Edko’s help, and Mak is convinced the cinema would eventually have lost paying customers without it. He also considers himself fortunate that Edko is happy to let him break even fiscally. “We’re lucky to have Bill Kong,” he says. “If it were funded by someone else I don’t think [the Cinematheque] would survive. He’s really into cinema, he knows cinema and he understands the ecology for art house cinema. He used to run Columbia Classics. He knows it takes time, so there’s no pressure.”
As an exhibitor with a fair amount of influence, the Cinematheque is also a key element in Hong Kong’s independent cinema scene, which now only has it and the Arts Centre as exhibition options. Festival events are traditional outlets, but festivals can also make technical and content demands that indepedent filmmakers cannot meet. “We do have a close connection with the industry,” says Mak. “We don’t show a lot of local movies but we do provide a platform for young directors.” He points out that the Cinematheque was the only place to screen Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong when it came out. “It’s important for local documentaries and very small independent films,” he says. “And it’s not just a place to meet audiences and show the film, but we discuss with them how to market and promote their film based on our experience. Young filmmakers don’t have that kind of knowledge so we use our resources to support them. That’s important for the industry and its invaluable for young artists.”
The Cinematheque has come a long way from the days when it was a one-man show and Mak spent his spare time handing out flyers and putting up posters in to drum up business. He still works long hours, but he doesn’t care. “It’s not a job. It’s my personal passion, so I don’t mind working Sundays,” he says.
The 2017 calendar isn’t quite complete, but one director Mak would love to sink his teeth into is Eraserhead legend David Lynch. Lynch’s typically intriguing narrative and flirtations with the illogical are something Mak believes would be ideal for Cinematheque audiences. “It’s possible [his films would be] challenging to younger audiences and they strike a nice balance between commercial and art house,” he says. A full Lynch programme is long overdue in Hong Kong, and could open the door to even more compelling material.
Just before ending our conversation, Mak asks about my own cinematic epiphany. The answer gets a hearty laugh. “I’ve never seen a Star Wars movie. I’m not a sci-fi person. I tried to watch one of the new ones but to me it’s just so silly. Idiotic,” he says with grin. That’s not to say he has a problem with films for the sake of entertainment. He’s not a snob after all. “Maybe if I’d seen it as a kid I might have gotten hooked, and I do believe the latest ones are quite different,” he finishes, adding with a hearty laugh. “I’m sure I’ve offended a lot of Star Wars fans.” Someone has to.