Western indie filmmakers look East

by Mathew Scott, AFP

Posted at Apr 03 2013 02:35 AM | Updated as of Apr 03 2013 10:35 AM

HONG KONG - A growing band of European filmmakers are realising 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 $15 million in global takings last year on a budget of around $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" programme at festivals in South Korea's Busan and Udine in 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 $10.4 billion in takings in 2012, up 15 percent on-year, compared to roughly 6.0 percent growth in the North American market, which collected $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 influential 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 principle 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."

Ellis says 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.

Breaking records

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.

The domestically-produced "In China Painted Skin: Resurrection" took $113.2 million, "Lost in Thailand" $202.6 million and "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons" has so far collected $195.2 million.

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

China's box office has recently seen average yearly increases of more than 30 percent per year and in 2012 topped US$2.69 billion. Even Hong Kong rose 12 per cent to pass the US$200 million mark.

With this in mind the city'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 Cinéma Européen (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," explains Ronan Girre, ACE's chief executive.

"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."

While it is unclear exactly how many Euro-Asian productions are currently underway, the ACE programme in Hong Kong is working on 16, comprising five from the EU, one from New Zealand, and 10 from the Chinese language market -- incorporating China, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

Big in Japan

Japan's box office also had a record 2012 with takings of US$2.15 billion, a rise of 7.7 per cent year-on-year 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 co-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."

Daniel Kim, who heads the Asian Film Market event that hosts the "Ties That Bind" programme in Busan each 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."