Kitty Koo, long black hair and black wardrobe, sits in the modest New York Film Academy booth on the corner of two aisles at Hong Kong's Filmart (March 18-21) looking like a benign black widow spider waiting for catch. Southeast Asia provides some 30 percent of the school's intake and apart from the Brisbane campus, her Hong Kong bureau is the institution's furthest outpost.
But appearances can be deceptive. "This isn't about recruitment," she says, "it's about our profile in the region."
And it isn't the only film school with a presence at this film, TV and digital expo; the New York University's Tish Asia contingent of 10 students includes the exotic-looking black dude with big hair and the unexpectedly British but movie-relevant hyphenated name of Stephen Small-Warner. "Producers have to be nimble these days," he says at the end of the conference session on piracy, having questioned the panel on copyright issues. He majors in international media production.
At the same session, Australian producer Lynda Woods is interrogating the panel on what she should know for her Australian/Chinese co-production (action adventure, for the youth market) in the odd situation that China has criminally enforceable piracy laws and Australia doesn't. And she isn't even talking about the finished film (because she can't, it hasn't been formally announced), but of the transfer of what used to be called rushes over the Internet.
Last month, a group of Australian investors quietly swept into Taiwan looking for opportunities in various sectors, including screen content production. Dr. Charles Lee, the charismatic founder of Taiwan based TWR Global, is already in talks with two Australian ventures with coproduction ambitions out of 10 projects.
TWR – whose logo is the white rabbit of Alice in Wonderland fame, to represent a fantasy world created through art and technology – is a complex of digital research and development, production and post production operation. "We are happy to be involved in co-productions or co-finance deals in the $1-10 million range."
He says the Hollywood VFX model is not working, several digital houses have closed down and producers are looking for cheaper alternatives. But Lee is adamant that what TWR offers is high innovation and it pays high salaries. "We are like [Peter Jackson's] Weta..."
Lee's latest claim to fame is the first cloud-based feature-length 3D movie without using a single hard drive; Chinese Zodiac stars Jackie Chan (pictured). If you visit their Taiwan offices you'll enter through a large rabbit hole...
Australia's Gary Hamilton has a slate of co-productions in development worth $200 million, of which at least two will be Australian projects. His booth is so busy I can't even sit down to wait. Eventually, he has a minute and says, "This is as big a market now as Berlin... Not quite Cannes, but very business oriented and very well supported."
Another Aussie producer, James Reynolds, says Filmart Hong Kong is "even more supported by the trade than the market at Pusan”. He is selling rights to his Oscar fancied feature doco, First Do No Harm, about the serious yet disregarded dangers of blood transfusions.
But it's Fred Wang, the wise old head of Salon Media, who strikes the most challenging chord. He reminds us that aviation, the telephone and the movies were all born about the same time, just over 100 years ago. "Look where aviation is today, look where telecommunications is today ... And look where cinema is today," making it clear he is not impressed with the progress of the latter.
Wang – who employs about 100 and thinks that is enough – puts his philosophy on show at Filmart with the first display in the region of the immersive dome cinema projection technology. To Wang, technology and youth are the key drivers of the future of screen content. "The film industry is run by a bunch of idiots," he declares sitting on a stool in the Salon Media booth. He leans in and touches my arm: "You know, Australia is very good technically and well placed to drive the revolution..."
New territory specific pavilions at the market include Canada and Italy, with significant booths from France, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Korea , the US, Mexico, and a European pavilion providing umbrella presence for the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Slovakia and others.
Official Australia isn't there, but Ausfilm CEO Denbra Richards says that's only because funds don't stretch that far. Ausfilm (the body of public and private organisations promoting Australia as a filming destination) has sent delegations to the region, including Shanghai and Beijing and Singapore, wherever DFAT has covered the bulk of the costs. It is again sending troops to Los Angeles and Shanghai in June and to London in October. Those mainland Chinese centres are also the targets for Screen Australia's marketing support efforts.
As to why there aren't any Australian sales agents at Filmart (other than Hamilton's Arclight), the answer is simple: there aren't any left.
A key element of this year's Filmart is the proliferation of digital production and post production companies – like TWR. The irrepressible boss of Hong Kong based Digital Magic, Percy Fung, foreshadows 4D, DBox, holograms and 'smell' dimension as part of the technological future of the cinema experience.
Absolutely bulging with activity (over 6000 delegates), Filmart also showcases new films, much like the market at Cannes, if not as many. I sampled a few... from Iran, Slovakia, Hong Kong, Poland, Korea, Bosnia and Italy, missing out on films from mainland China, Japan and elsewhere.
One of the best attended panel sessions explored the nature and extent of book-to-screen adaptations around the world, noting the rise of Indian literature as a source and the observation that Hollywood is now really afraid of original screenplays, preferring material with a 'background' such as books or comics.
As Hamilton and others stress, China is the new movie frontier, and most industry practitioners agree.
China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television says mainland box office takings rose 30 percent last year to $2.74 billion, making it the second-largest market in the world after the US where box office in 2012 was $10.92 billion.
Figures from the Motion Picture Association of America underline why Asia is such a key priority for the film industry. Worldwide, box office revenue grew about 7 percent in 2011 to US$32.6 billion, up from 2010's US$31.6 billion. Revenue in the Asia-Pacific region grew 6 percent, from US$8.5 billion to US$9 billion, largely because of growth in the Chinese market.
Domestic productions accounted for less than half of the total as more foreign films were allowed on to Chinese screens. Fourteen more movies a year can be imported as long as they are in the 3D or IMAX formats, exempting them from the previous quota of 20 foreign films a year.
And the biggest wallet for all this business is Hong Kong.