This edition of Streamlined marks exactly one year since I launched this newsletter to summarise and analyse events in the film & streaming content industries across Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. I haven’t managed to keep to a weekly schedule, especially since joining Deadline, and haven’t covered Africa and the Middle East as much as planned, but hope to increase frequency and scope in the near future. In the meantime, a huge thank you to Streamlined’s readers, and please remember that I welcome feedback and your thoughts on what you’d like to see covered.
Can Filmart Regain Its Position As Asia’s Biggest Market?
When I launched Streamlined last year, Filmart was entering its third year as an online event; Hong Kong was in the midst of its fifth and most serious Covid wave; and across the region, production pipelines were backed up and cinemas still experiencing periodic shutdowns and capacity restrictions.
Cut to a year later, Filmart (March 13-16) is back as an in-person event in the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre, along with the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF, March 13-15), while the Asian Film Awards are taking place at the Hong Kong Palace Museum on Sunday evening (March 12). Hong Kong has dropped all Covid restrictions, even its mask mandate, although it will take a while before Hong Kongers abandon the face coverings. The border between Hong Kong and mainland China finally reopened without any testing or quota requirements last month.
What all this means for buying and selling activity at the market remains to be seen. Chinese buyers can return to Hong Kong, just as that market is starting to re-open (more on this below), and there were encouraging signs of US/European buying activity at the recent European Film Market in Berlin. But few theatrical markets have fully recovered in the region, so buyers will be focusing on sure bets, and the global streamers are not the voracious buyers they were in the early days of the pandemic.
Not everyone has opted to return to Filmart this year. IFTA, European Film Promotion and most of the big Asian delegations are back, but Film Export UK, Singapore’s IMDA and the Film Development Council of the Philippines decided to skip it (the latter will have some reps on the ground but no booth). Reasons for this differ – some organisations are rethinking post-pandemic travel budgets; some had doubts about how much business could be done with China only recently reopened; and there were some qualms about Hong Kong’s changing political situation.
Changing Political Landscape In The Fragrant Harbour
Speaking of those qualms, there are two questions I’ve been asked repeatedly by friends, family and business acquaintances over the past few years, and I’m sure to hear again in Filmart: “Has life in Hong Kong changed?” and “Are you planning to leave Hong Kong?”
The second question makes me smile, as it’s not that easy to up sticks and move in the post-pandemic world, and anyway, I became even more attached to Hong Kong during the protests and the pandemic. As for the first question, on the surface my life in Hong Kong bashing away at a keyboard in a small Lantau village hasn’t changed at all. But of course, under the surface, everything is different.
On February 6, Hong Kong started its largest national security trial since the imposition of the National Security Law in mid-2020, involving 47 former lawmakers, ex-district councillors and other pro-democracy activists. They are accused of “conspiracy to commit subversion” after holding unofficial pre-election primaries in July 2020. Among the accused are former lawmaker Claudia Mo, activist Joshua Wong and legal academic Benny Tai.
Some defendants have already been in prison for nearly two years, and some, if found guilty under Beijing’s security legislation, could be imprisoned for life.
As for the film industry, under the Film Censorship Ordinance introduced in 2021, showing a movie deemed contrary to national security could result in three years of imprisonment and a $127,000 (HK$1m) fine. So far, this has mostly impacted documentaries, such as Taking Back The Legislature and Inside The Red Brick Wall, which encountered problems with the censors, while other docs, including Chan Tze-woon’s award-winning Blue Island, haven’t been submitted to the censors at all.
Films made with Hong Kong government funding are discouraged from taking part in Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Horse Awards, which has been boycotted by China ever since an award winner made a pro-democracy statement in her acceptance speech. Many Hong Kong filmmakers have opted to move overseas in recent years, while others have decided to stay here and try to work within the system.
I’ve never believed in boycotting nations or events. It doesn’t make much difference to the ruling regimes and continued engagement with local creative communities is important. But we’ll never know about the stories that are not being told in Hong Kong since the introduction of the National Security Law. Visitors may only see a few ripples on the surface, but deep down in the waters, everything has changed.
Hong Kong’s Recent Hits May Have A Lot To Do With Language
Despite the political turmoil and constant cinema closures of the past few years, Hong Kong’s local film industry has been toppling box office records since cinemas reopened last summer – first with ensemble comedy Table For Six and sci-fi epic Warriors Of Future last year, and more recently with legal drama A Guilty Conscience, which became Hong Kong’s highest-grossing film ever with a gross of more than $12.7m (HK$100m).
Various theories have been floated about why a mid-sized legal drama has resonated with local audiences, with some speculating that the genre is popular because the city’s legal systems are currently undergoing massive change. But A Guilty Conscience is not even remotely a “yellow” (i.e., pro-democracy) film, as otherwise it would never have been released in China where it’s currently a hit grossing more than $20m.
Having seen several recent Hong Kong films with local audiences, I think it has more to do with Hong Kong people having a genuine desire to support Cantonese-language content. There’s something in the slang, humour and use of homonyms in Cantonese that Hong Kong people appreciate and can’t be replicated in another language. At present, this need is not being met by global streaming platforms, which are mostly focusing on English, Mandarin and Korean-language content, at least in Hong Kong.
I realised this most keenly when I went to see A Guilty Conscience with a Mandarin-speaking friend from Taiwan last weekend. While the subtitles picked up some of the humour, there were points where the audience was in stitches and me and my friend were totally at a loss.
China Market Reopening And Release Schedule
It may be difficult for outsiders to understand why the Hong Kong film industry is so excited about the reopening of the China market, but the fact remains that for most local producers, mainland China with its shared culture and language, will always remain a major export market for Hong Kong films.
And for the first time in a while, they have a reason to feel optimistic. Two Hong Kong films – A Guilty Conscience and Cyber Heist – are currently ranking in the top five at China’s box office. Meanwhile, the recent appointment of veteran film regulator Mao Yu as head of the China Film Bureau, appears to be speeding up clearances for release dates and Hong Kong-China co-productions. Mao replaces Wang Xiaohui who held the post since 2018 and also served as deputy head of the CCP’s Propaganda Department.
Mao’s appointment also appears to be good news for the rest of the world, with Marvel movies allowed back into China, and a string of other revenue-sharing and flat fee imports granted release dates over the past few weeks. See here for the most recent release schedule for imports and co-productions.
Where Will HBO Content Land Up In Asia And The Middle East?
Not Filmart or China-related, but a string of announcements from Warner Bros Discovery regarding licensing deals for its HBO content across Asia and the Middle East suggests that it’s either about to announce the launch of its own platform in the region (albeit with licensing deals in select territories) or has decided to stick solely with the licensing route. There were hints of “future flexibility” in the streaming world in its announcement over a licensing deal with Australia’s Foxtel. Further deals were announced with Japan’s U-Next and the Middle East’s OSN Group.
There’s also a big question over India, where Disney+ Hotstar finally confirmed that it hasn’t renewed rights to the HBO content, which will no longer stream on its platform from March 31. None of those involved are commenting on where shows such as Games Of Thrones, House Of The Dragon and Succession will end up in this market, which is a major battleground for global streamers, but where English-language content is still regarded as very niche. My industry sources suggest that Warner Bros Discovery is still shopping the HBO content in India but potential buyers are balking at the high asking prices that also deterred Disney from renewing.