Hong Kong Cinema is Not Dead. How? A New Independent Model

Hong Kong’s film industry seems to be in a constant state of flux. Macroeconomic events like the financial crises of 1997 and 2008, and policy shifts like the the 1997 handover and 2020’s National Security Law, are more intensely felt in the small industry, which produced roughly 50 films in 2023 compared to 2,000 in India. And as global distribution patterns continue to evolve and movies demonstrate lower profitability — American media giant Warner Bros. Discovery made headlines for ruthlessly cutting its budget and removing its own content from streaming platforms and theatres last year — competition for funding and production resources is growing. Hong Kong is no exception.

As has happened many times in the past, so-called popular wisdom states that local production is on life support yet again. But as has also happened previously, Hong Kong’s emerging filmmakers have found new ways to keep the industry alive without scores of companies throwing millions of dollars at hundreds of films every year, as was the case in the peak years of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But there’s more to Hong Kong’s production woes than simply a lack of cash. “We have a generation gap, meaning that we have a lot of gaps in between generations of actors, actresses and all kinds of talent,” says One Cool Pictures production director Jacqueline Liu (Warriors of Future). “When the mainland market started to grow [in 2000] quite a number of experienced professionals moved to produce films in mainland China,” she explains. “So we have a gap of talent development in Hong Kong – on the screen and behind the scenes. Even though there’s a number of filmmakers’ programmes in Hong Kong, government or private, we still need people at different levels, from idea to production to distribution.”

That drain continues to this day. According to the HKTDC, which administers the annual Filmart trade show, 60 of 77 co-productions approved by China’s National Radio and Television Administration in 2023 involved Hong Kong filmmakers. That’s close to the total number of Hong Kong films produced every year. Essentially, with so much of Hong Kong’s film talent focusing on Chinese co-productions, there are simply fewer people left making local films. 

That’s where the recent spate of development programmes steps in. Production company mm2 launched its Movie Makers Awards in 2017 (One Second Champion, Drifting), CreateHK launched the First Feature Film Initiative in 2018 (FFFI), as did the Hong Kong–Asia Film Financing Forum’s HAF Film Lab (The Sunny Side of the Street), and the Renaissance Foundation, which describes itself as a cross-disciplinary incubator for music, film, writing and multi-disciplinary arts, kicked off Eye Catcher Global (ECG) in 2020. The second edition is set for June 19 to 23.

While the HAF Film Lab focuses on Chinese-language projects, ECG is thinking globally. Creative director Eric Tsang Hing-weng and director general Samuel Chai Ziwen — who founded Renaissance — came up with ECG during Covid, when the industry was wracked with uncertainty and filmmakers were feeling more hopeless than usual. 

“It started very small, as just a gathering of experts and mentors to help to encourage young filmmakers to carry on. We focused on a project incubation programme,” says Chai. The goal was also to help creatives connect with each other, learn from each other, and “establish a professional platform to facilitate entry into international markets.”

Tsang says the idea for ECG originated from his trip to Sundance a few years ago when he was screening one of his short films. “[Sundance] showed me a very diverse, very exciting environment for filmmakers to gather, and that was something I didn’t think I could find in Hong Kong,” he says. He ended up making his first feature, Hong Kong Family, with assistance from FFFI. 

Tsang isn’t a film school kid, but he wanted to make a movie, and until the recent programmes cropped up, there were few outlets for untrained filmmakers or creators from other media from which to learn the business. “It’s about the gap,” he says. “[Other] independent creators might need some kind of training outside the education system. We have a lot of programmes or institutions but they’re quite business-oriented, and there isn’t much in the way of incubation.” He echoes Liu: “There’s a gap between idea and execution,” he says.

Liu, Tsang and Chai agree that these platforms — for securing funding, finding distributors or simply connecting to an editor — are crucial to the future of Hong Kong’s filmmaking community. Another inspiration was the innovative and diverse programming at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, an independent sidebar to the main film festival that highlights a diverse range of international films. Chai stresses that the other path forward for the industry is thinking bigger and bolder. “Filmmakers’ goals should be [festivals such as] Sundance and Cannes, the international stage,” he says. “They should be looking at commercial value at home, as well as artistic and global value.”

These kinds of project platforms are indeed a two-way street. They connect filmmakers to the world and can often alert global outlets to their work. “They enable me to discover new talent from the whole of the Asian continent, an extraordinary opportunity for a festival artistic director,” says Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Artistic Director Julien Rejl. Cannes typically receives 2,000 feature film entries every year, and pitching platforms where projects are selected by other festival and production professionals are an invaluable resource. “The more demanding and diversified the editorial line of these pitching platforms, the more they will attract programmers from the world’s major film festivals, and the more talented young filmmakers will have a chance of being spotted,” adds Rejl.

While a programme like Directors’ Fortnight may emphasise new talent, veteran filmmakers are also increasingly reliant on alternatives to funding and other production resources. Liu points out the changes in the film industry are having an impact across Asia and globally, and that the number of organisations willing to fund films is limited, especially in Hong Kong, increasing the importance of pitching platforms.

“Taking the HKIFF Industry Project Market as an example, [Film Lab’s] platform provides valuable opportunities for filmmakers and industry professionals to connect, seek potential funding in the early stage or post-production, explore film festival participation and foster future collaborations,” reiterates HAF Film Lab senior project manager, Matthew Poon. 

The Project Market facilitated completion of over 200 features since it started in 2000, and the development and incubation the Lab offers is designed to take filmmakers to the next steps: funding, production and distribution. Charlotte Wells’s acclaimed BAFTA and Oscar-nominated Aftersun was workshopped at Sundance’s lab, Ray Yeung’s All Shall Be Well was produced from the Busan International Film Festival’s Asian Project Market, and Tsang received support from Film Lab for Hong Kong Family as just a few. “Specialised funds and open pitching platforms can be regarded as a promising way forward for filmmakers, whether they are emerging talents or established professionals,” says Poon.

This year’s Film Lab submissions period ends June 17, with shortlisted projects going on to the HKIFF Project Market during Filmart in 2025. It is Tsang and Chai’s hope that ECG’s forthcoming International Pitching Forum award winners continue development – at HAF, at the Busan International Film Festival project market, at Rotterdam, Sundance or anywhere else. There may be competition for resources, but Tsang sees the various platforms as working in concert.

“We don’t separate ourselves from other platforms. We work together,” he says. “We’re not a company so there’s really no competition between us, and we work closely with each other at different levels. We invite all these players to be jury, mentors, and advisors because we all want to connect to new talent. They also want to meet the next generation of directors.” Among this years’s jurors for ECG are the kind of players any filmmaker needs to know: Liu, Rejl, Golden Scene Sales and Acquisitions Manager Felix Tsang, Bobby Romia, head of development for Screen Australia and Singapore International Film Festival general manager Jeremy Chua.

One Cool’s Liu agrees about platforms as being a great source of new blood. “Some [filmmakers] are natural born talents, sure. But I believe in hard work, in attitudes, in characters. Some may not have the natural talent but they have potential and they have heart. And that’s very important because you want to do things that matter.”

The 2024 edition of ECG also includes industry forums open to the public, and two screening showcases lifted from Directors’ Fortnight, which demonstrate the ideal end game for its industrial programmes. Mouloud Aït Liotna’s The House is on Fire, Might as Well Get Warm, about an Algerian man’s plans to move to Paris being thwarted by the death of a friend, will be followed by a post-screening discussion with Rejl and HKIFF programmer Kiki Fung. The second section features Clément Pérot’s documentary A Storm Inside, Julia Kowalski’s I Saw the Face of the Devil, and Francesco Sossai’s The Birthday Party

Full screening programme details and ticketing information are available here. For details on Eye Catcher Global industry events, click here. For details on HAF Film Lab, click here.

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