Apart from appearing at well-known festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Udine, where else do Hong Kong films get promoted and in what forms? The more both classic and contemporary Hong Kong films become accessible abroad, the more conversation will be generated outside of the Region hence more imagination for new opportunities.
The Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (ETO) overseas have been actively supporting screening events of Hong Kong films in different cities internationally. For those who work in the film distribution sector with an interest of Hong Kong cinema, the ETO has become such a crucial support to gain in order to make these activities feasible and sustainable. To give some recent examples, ETO partnered with San Francisco Film Festival in the US, London East Asian Film Festival in the UK, Zurich Film Festival in Switzerland and many more last year with series of different curated programmes.
Over the years, ETO have established themselves as a leading role overseas in supporting film related activities to promote Hong Kong cinema. While more and more independent film festivals and organisers would like to include films from Hong Kong in their festival programme, knowing that there is a funding possibility certainly helps Hong Kong films to become more competitive comparing to other international films. In the end, most independent festivals (apart from the major ones mentioned above) are rarely profitable. Subsidies will guarantee a region’s films to be chosen with priority because of the reduce of financial risk involved.
However, international independent promoters for Hong Kong cinema still face many challenges. First of all, while there is funding available at the ETO to be applied for, the Office may only consider one or two major events per year in addition to their other commitment in promoting Hong Kong’s trade. Relying on one single funding body may restrict the impact of the circulation Hong Kong films and their promotion overseas. Apart from sponsorship from the private sector, is there another funding route that international organisers can consider? The Hong Kong Film Development Council could potentially be another option. However, the Council currently only consider world-class film festivals while independent events have no chance to be considered in any way according to its regulation. Furthermore, as I mentioned in a recent article, current film related funding offered by the Council is only open to Hong Kong permanent residents or Hong Kong registered companies. Organisations from abroad, even though they are enthusiastic and experienced, have no way to access the Council’s funding.
Secondly, many of the older Hong Kong titles are not available in digital format, in particular those before the 2000s. Apart from some of the most well-known Kung Fu classics, many more films particularly those from the 1980s and 1990s have never been shown outside of the region before. How can these films be restored digitally not only for archival purposes, but also for more international audience to view? While film companies mainly consider restoring their most profitable titles, other less well-known films do have get a chance to have this treatment. Unless the company itself sees the value in digitisation, restoration is a big investment which may never gain a return. While the Hong Kong Film Archive do carry out work in preservation, it seems that perhaps a larger collective campaign is needed in order to cover some more modern titles.
Thirdly, support is not only needed for the part of digitalisation but also in licencing. Currently, some of the sales companies or right holders are asking for an average of $1500 minimum payment for an overseas screening licence. This budget, to many festival organisers is extremely high which is also a discouragement for acquisition. Understandably, the right holding companies need to make a profit from each sale as commercial entities. But if there is a support mechanism to be put in place, where the digitisation for older films as well as the licence fee are both subsidised, will this encourage film companies to be more responsive when they receive an enquiry from overseas for a very obscure title from the 1990s, for example? Rather than treating this as a normal sales transaction, perhaps the right holding companies can also commit a sense of responsibility by seeing promoting Hong Kong’s films abroad as a cultural and diplomatic gesture.
Certainly, appearing at a world-class film festival such as Cannes is a prestige. But regular film screening is also a form of film diplomacy. In addition to international media’s ongoing active coverage of Hong Kong, making more films available to an international audience is also an effective way to contribute to a better and more informed public debate about the region.