In early March, Walt Disney CEO Bob Chapek told a Morgan Stanley conference that he was “not sure there’s going back” to traditional film releasing any time soon. “I think the consumer is probably more impatient than they’ve ever been before. Particularly since now they’ve had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them. But we certainly don’t want to do anything like cut the legs off a theatrical exhibition run.” That came just months after Warner Media ruffled feathers by announcing its entire slate of 17 films to be released in 2021 would go to the newly launched streaming platform HBO Max.
That may have little meaning for non-industry types, but even removed from Hollywood boardrooms, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on film – how we make them and how we watch them. By August of last year, it was clear that the 2021 edition of the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) was going to be unlike any of its past iterations. The continuing shadow cast over cultural events around the globe by Covid-19 is showing no signs of lifting, and so Chapek may be right about things not returning to normal: we’re now in the new normal.
“After we cancelled last year’s festival, we started thinking, ‘What’s going to happen next year?’” says Albert Lee, executive director of HKIFF Society, seated comfortably in Heritage 1881’s old reporting room-turned lounge. Chairman Wilfred Wong was opposed to cancelling a second year in a row, and so with infections under reasonable control and Covid safety protocols in place, HKIFF pivoted to a hybrid model, which was quickly becoming standard for events that traditionally relied on public engagement. The Hong Kong International Literary Festival went hybrid in November and the Hong Kong Arts Festival is doing so this month.
HKIFF is walking a tricky line this year, as one of the first to benefit from a year’s worth of hindsight, as well as a keen eye to the future. Chapek’s comments were directed at stockholders and addressed shrinking windows—the time gap between theatrical release, DVD, streaming and television—that drive business. But festivals are very much part of that window chain.
“If I’m a film producer I’ll probably still prefer to have festivals to go to,” says Lee, who worked as a producer at Emperor Motion Pictures for many years. “They’re a very important part of the whole distribution process. It helps expose a film to different markets and it’s still very significant. Online platforms do not allow filmmakers any way to gauge how audiences react to their work.”
But could the festival model be on shaky ground? Warner opted to bypass cinemas, and at the most recent Berlin film festival market, there was chatter of a new “buy back” clause for films with existing market-by-market distribution contracts. The idea was prompted by Apple’s US$25 million purchase of Sundance favourite CODA for global streaming rights with the intention to buy back the smaller distributors’ rights that essentially funded the film through pre-sales – a common practice for indie filmmakers and a way for distributors to secure rights to films with premium potential. Netflix forged a similar agreement for The Trial of the Chicago 7, and other deep-pocketed streaming giants are increasingly hitting major markets in search of exclusive content. That model could effectively kill the indie business.
Despite online platforms churning out new films every week, the problem is that filmmakers are “not allowed to touch their film after they deliver it to the streamer,” explains HKIFF’s director of programming, Geoffrey Wong. Filmmakers are left with no indication of how their films are performing. That contrasts with festivals, where filmmakers are actively involved in drumming up interest for their pictures. “Festivals are the place to build hype and engage in the industry,” says Wong.
An online component is necessary for this year’s HKIFF—it may be another of the technological leaps that Covid has been a catalyst in adopting—but there’s no denying the importance of a festival’s physical experience. “Most film buffs want to go to the cinema,” says Wong. “They just reopened and you can see the crowds. They want to experience films together, in that space. But we need to be more advanced in our thinking. Younger viewers are used to digital channels, and we need to address that, understand their [digital] preferences, and hopefully attract new audiences.”
As a tip of the hat to the increasing digitisation of cinema, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to shift the programming process for 2021 to one that was more digital-friendly. Did Wong source films that lent themselves to mobile phones and streaming? The short answer is no. He says HKIFF has always taken a broad view. “We programme all kinds of films—mainstream, arthouse, animation, shorts—so I don’t think it broadened our choices. And I don’t think there are films that are strictly for television or computer screens. Every film should be seen in a cinema.”
In late February, when many of the finer points were still being hammered out, Lee described a process for finding the right service provider to realise the online segment, ensure a pleasing and efficient viewer experience, and do so while honouring contract rights and staying within HKIFF’s budget; he doesn’t have the luxury of a Busan or Cannes-sized chequebook. HKIFF opted for a New Zealand-based operator and is likely to cleave closely to the standard set by most festivals in 2020: geo-blocked access to a portion of the programme, made available for a fixed number of days, and a fixed number of hours after viewers push play.
Whether viewers are online, on the phone or in cinemas, HKIFF is only ever as strong as its programme. This year, it consists of 194 films from 58 countries, including 10 world premieres. Homegrown director Stanley Kwan is the filmmaker in focus, and there is also a 4K restoration of early Wong Kar-wai films (including the underrated gem Fallen Angels), a retrospective of Japan’s influential Shochiku Cinema, a spotlight on Iran, and free community screenings and Zoom-based filmmaker seminars. Restored classics have always been one of HKIFF’s strong suits, and this year features the first ever Hong Kong screening of silent-era French filmmaker Louis Feuillade’s (Fantômas) adventure serial Tih Minh – all 12 hours of it. “I’m quite happy with the programme overall – and admittedly we were worried,” says Lee. “It [has a] good balance between new films and classic cinema. I’m pleased.”
Anyone looking for flashy Cannes titles and Golden Bear winners may be disappointed. The drastic drop in releasing due to theatre closures—many of 2019’s big festival hits are still in limbo—and lockdown-related production delays in 2020 meant there are fewer big ticket films for programmers to choose from; feeder events Cannes, Locarno, Tribeca and Karlovy Vary were among those cancelled in 2020. The independent scene, however, is another story. Not only were the screens normally clogged with Hollywood tentpoles available to Hong Kong’s indie filmmakers (local films The Grand Grandmaster, Beyond the Dream, All’s Well Ends Well 2020 and i’m livin’ it all cracked the box office top ten last year), indie directors found ways to create socially distanced films so production could carry on; Fruit Chan completed shooting his latest (untitled) film last summer. “There are lots of newcomers and new directors emerging, who produced their own films,” says Wong. “With the mainstream stepping aside, it’s a great platform for them. This year’s Firebird Young Cinema Competition is very strong.”
The Firebird section is screening 24 features and docs, and three programmes of short films, among them Tracey director Jun Li’s sophomore effort Drifting, about a homeless ex-con who confronts civic authorities in court when the city destroys his home. Also in the Firebird Competition is Greek director Christos Nikou’s Apples—a favourite of Lee’s—a timely story of a man living in a worldwide pandemic suddenly struck by amnesia, Tibetan filmmaker Lotan’s Lost, and Jonas Poher Rasmussen innovative animated doc Flee, about Afghan refugees in Denmark.
Aside from Li, Hong Kong is well represented this year, starting with opening night. The festival kicks off with Port of Call director Philip Yung’s period crime drama Where the Wind Blows, and Septet: The Story of Hong Kong, an omnibus of seven shorts produced by Johnnie To and directed by himself, Ann Hui, Sammo Hung, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo-ping, Tsui Hark and the late Ringo Lam. Ricky’s Ko’s debut, Time, a black comedy about retired, elderly assassins Patrick Tse and Petrina Fung helping fellow geriatrics into the next life, is also getting the gala treatment.
“[Where the Wind Blows] is a big production by a local director who likes looking back at Hong Kong history. This is epic,” Wong says. “It tells the story of two of the most famous, or infamous, Chinese detectives working on the force back when the city was prospering, and the ICAC was founded. Septet is a Johnny To production, with seven of our greatest directors making a short film about a specific era in Hong Kong. It’s how they look back, and together the films are very representative of the city and the industry.”
For the first time in a half century, HKIFF is wrestling with lower-than capacity attendance at screenings, its first-ever online element and drastically shifting market dynamics – all of which make the 45th edition one that will go down in history. How audiences respond to HKIFF’s hybrid model, ticket prices, access and the technology deployed won’t become clear until after the festival, but whatever the result it will chart the way forward, for both filmmakers and viewers. In one way this edition will recall HKIFF’s early years, when splashy red carpets and international guests were still years away. As Lee finishes: “We’re going back to the original mandate of the festival. We’re here to promote cinema.”
The festival runs from April 1 to 12, 2021. For tickets and details refer to hkiff.org.hk. Ticketing begins March 18.