Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 05-11-12 07:30
Asia’s big screen ambition
By Jennifer Lo
May 11, 2012 - 12:36pm http://www.chinadailyapac.com
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Asia, it seems, is never too far away from Hollywood.
A gravity shift from west to east is perhaps nothing new for big studios. Many blockbusters have been shot in Asia or feature Asian themes: From the jungle scenes in Apocalypse Now, the boat chase across Phuket’s Phang Nga Bay in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, to the animated Kung Fu Panda.
With a rapidly expanding cinema audience, Asia has proved to be very tempting for cash-strapped western filmmakers who have been hard hit by plummeting box-offices revenues and DVD sales at home in recent years.
Box-office receipts in North America rose only 6.3 percent to $10.2 billion from 2007 to 2011 while those in the Asia-Pacific region surged 38 percent to $9 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
It’s even projected that Asia Pacific would contribute up to 60 percent of Hollywood’s international box-office revenue by 2015.
“It’s a hugely interesting time now,” Hollywood producer Tracey Trench, whose works include Ever After and Just Married, told a forum at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival. “The United States is still the biggest market. But in the next 10 years, we’re not going to be the biggest. Everything is going to change.”
Over the years, language barriers and differing regulations, business practices and sociopolitical instability have made the voyage to the East a tricky one.
Nonetheless, nobody feels they can ignore the Asia-Pacific region today, especially since mainland China’s film industry shows rosy prospects.
“I am not saying China is the dumping ground,” says Emilie Yeh, a professor at Academy of Film of Baptist University in Hong Kong. “But [the China market] presents an unprecedented opportunity for projects that are otherwise inconceivable in the West.”
Once known for its propaganda films and tedious epics, China’s film industry has grown by leaps and bounds. It has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest film market after the US, with box-office receipts in 2011 reaching $2 billion.
Its enormous market, largely untapped, is another big draw for investors. In China, people go to the cinema 0.3 times, on average, per year, compared with more than five times annually in Iceland, the world’s top movie-going country.
In terms of access to cinema technology, “the best part is China can start from nothing,” says Fred Wang, chairman of Hong Kong-based Salon Films. Salon Films is one of Asia’s oldest film technology companies and the first to develop digital film equipment in China.
With offices in major Asian cities, including Beijing, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, Salon Films was behind hit productions such as Rush Hour, Indiana Jones and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, offering filming equipment and technical services.
Of 10,000 theatres in China, up to 60 percent have gone digital or electronic since the first digital cinema server was introduced five years ago, says Wang. As such, digital cinemas in China now outnumber those in the US.
The country’s move to ease the import of foreign films gives another boost to the industry. For the last decade, China allowed only 20 foreign films a year — mostly big-budget Hollywood fare — to get national distribution. This changed slightly after Vice-President Xi Jinping’s US visit in February and now, a further 14 IMAX or 3D films are allowed to be shown.
Besides China’s huge film market, the rest of Asia, far from lagging behind, is also in the race to grab a piece of Hollywood’s action, money and technology.
Big-budget blockbusters may provide hours of entertainment but they are expensive to produce. Many Hollywood studios, burdened with ballooning expenses, are looking eastward, toward Asia, where costs are lower.
Soon after China took steps to open up its film sector, other Asian governments followed suit, handing out a myriad incentives to attract foreign expertise and investment.
UniJapan, the government-backed body for promoting Japanese films overseas, finances both local and overseas partners. It offers funding up to 20 percent of production cost or a maximum of $600,000. In Australia, there is the Producer Offset, a refundable tax offset, which finances 40 percent of a local production. It is available to producers of Australian feature films, television and other projects.
All these have prompted foreign film companies to go subsidy shopping. They shoot where they are subsidized the most. An example is X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Originally slated to be shot in Japan, it will now move its set to Australia after 20th Century Fox received a generous subsidy from the government.
Then there’s neighboring Malaysia. The fast-developing country is offering a tax rebate of up to 30 percent of production cost for films with a budget that exceeds $1.63 million.
This has resulted in the development of Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, a joint venture between a state-owned fund and the United Kingdom’s Pinewood Studios that is known for making the James Bond movies.
The 125,000 square feet facility in the southern Malaysian state of Johor will comprise stages and production suites. When completed in 2013, it will be the largest of its kind in Asia.
Another expected outcome of Hollywood coming to Asia is an increasing presence of Asian elements in Hollywood co-productions, from backdrops to castings.
Talks are currently underway to do a Hollywood remake of Indian actor Aamir Khan’s Bollywood hit comedy 3 Idiots.
California-based animation studio DreamWorks SKG Inc, producer of Kung Fu Panda and Shrek, is building a Shanghai base — Oriental DreamWorks — with some of China’s largest media companies to make Chinese animated and live action content.
Capping all the exciting news, Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron is also playing the China card, saying he is now considering co-productions.
However, the Asian film industry is no exception in a flattening world. Under the shroud of their Hollywood counterparts, Asian films have to vie for audiences already accustomed to blockbusters.
“The challenge is especially acute for places with less protective measures like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan,” Baptist University’s Yeh says.
Hollywood movies still account for 90 percent of box-office takings in Taiwan and about 65 percent in Japan, one of Hollywood’s most lucrative outlets. On mainland China, the challenge is less severe as the authorities regulate market share between domestic and foreign pictures, Yeh explains.
The only exception in Asia is perhaps Bollywood. The Mecca for filmmakers of the subcontinent is known for its ability to generate its own box-office hits.
Foreign film studios have never found it easy to break Bollywood’s stranglehold. Churning out more than 1,200 films every year, twice the output of Hollywood, Bollywood movies still account for 90 percent of domestic box-office receipts today.
For the rest of Asia, experts say film makers have to be globally competitive and produce movies that have cross-cultural appeal in order to reach the broadest possible audience.
“Broadening the box office to include Asian films would be a leading indicator that the Asian film industry is successfully addressing these challenges,” says Rance Pow, president of a China-based cinema consultancy Artisan Gateway
So will the film industry in Asia ever rival Hollywood?
“It’s possible in the long run, although I’m happier to see the two markets coexist,” says Jeannette Hereniko, president of Asia Pacific Films.com, an online film archive of indie films, of which a whopping 90 percent are never seen outside their own countries.
Asia’s film industry has a bright future, says Salon Film’s Wang. “As a result, instead of seeing a single market like Hollywood cultivate a single norm, the film industry in Asia will embrace greater diversity and Asian films will flourish.”