SAN FRANCISCO — On the opening day of the film conference, Park Ki-yong began to realize what it might take to get U.S. financing for his South Korean movie projects. He sat through a two-hour panel discussion at which audience members made minutelong story pitches to production executives. (One such pitch opened with “It's Friday the 13th meets Grease.”) Afterward, the director of Motel Cactus, a film that screened at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, finished a cigarette on an outdoor balcony while reflecting on what he had just witnessed.
“We never heard of that, never thought of that, never did that,” Park, 37, said, apropos of pitching. “It's quite interesting, because it's very different in other parts of the world. In Korea, we would never imagine doing this sort of thing — we're very shy and conservative.” Yet when Park and three other prominent Asian directors were invited to last month's sixth annual International Film Financing Conference, it was under pressure to sell their ideas to potential investors.
The group included Fruit Chan from Hong Kong, Eric Khoo from Singapore and Masato Harada from Japan — some of the most promising talents from across the Pacific. In recent years, their works have pioneered the concept of independent filmmaking in their respective countries, and their movies have appeared at such venues as Sundance and the Cannes Film Festival.
However, their presence at the conference, whose goal is to bring together industry executives with projects in development, points to the ailing health of Asia's film industries. With the Asian financial crisis hitting studios, production houses and investors, several of the directors said they came to the conference looking for co-production money. Tight pocketbooks have made the traditionally conservative Asian film industries even less receptive to adventurous cinematic efforts.
“The crisis, of course, has an impact on everything,” said Wouter Barendrecht, an executive with Fortissimo Film Sales, a Dutch company that often deals in the Asian marketplace. “Anything more risky, more arty, is suffering even more now because of the crisis.”
Barendrecht was just one of several pessimistic voices on a panel on Asian film financing. The panel — which included Park and Harada — tossed around potential coping strategies, including the possibility of co-productions with primarily European companies. (U.S. companies often shy away from non-English-speaking films.) But one theme emerged over and over: the unpredictability of doing business in the region.
Park Ki-yong's home country, for example, has seen dramatic changes in its film industry over the past year. South Korea, along with Japan, is among the world's 10 largest film markets. But last year saw only 45 feature films produced, down from 65 in 1996 and 100 in 1993, said Paul Yi, an organizer of the Pusan Promotion Plan, a film-development market similar to the San Francisco conference.
Financing took a severe blow when the country's largest multinationals, including Samsung and Daewoo, announced the shutdown of their filmmaking divisions. Since the late 1980s, the multinationals have been responsible for a large share of financing, even forcing many old production houses out of business. But now, in the wake of the crisis, filmmakers are turning to smaller private investors.
Those films that do get produced find themselves competing at the theaters with Hollywood juggernauts. (As in most of the civilized world, Titanic topped the box-office charts last year in South Korea.) Park estimates that Hollywood movies reap about 75 percent of his country's market share. The number would be even larger if it weren't for a government-mandated quota system whereby theaters have to show locally produced movies for approximately one-third of the year. Last year, U.S. officials urged the South Korean government to drop the policy, but local filmmakers successfully lobbied to keep it.
One trade barrier that was scrapped was the ban on Japanese films. Last year, movies from that country were screened for the first time since the end of Japanese colonialism in 1945. The move has raised hopes rather than worries among Korean directors — they expect that the open door will encourage co-production between the two countries. Harada, who laments Hollywood's domination of the Japanese box office, said a boom in such co-productions could consolidate a film marketplace for South Korea and Japan, with China, Hong Kong and Taiwan perhaps joining later.
Despite the draw of U.S. films in South Korea, last year saw a surge in successful local productions. Park said that about 10 local productions, including the blockbuster Christmas in August, were deemed financial successes. And Yi estimated that overall audience attendance has remained the same despite the economic doldrums. In countries with thriving cinema cultures, film attendance tends to remain strong during times of recession.
Unfortunately, that generalization has proved false for the Asian territory with arguably the most vital cinema culture: Since the mid-'90s, attendance has plummeted at Hong Kong theaters. The industry that spawned Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo has found itself vying with pirated video CDs, Hollywood behemoths and the increasingly poor quality of its own movies. The number of productions fell from 150 in 1997 to 60 last year.
Some critics have pointed to Fruit Chan, 39, as the kind of filmmaker that could revitalize the ailing industry. His 1997 feature debut, Made in Hong Kong, drew much-deserved attention for its raw depiction of disaffected youth and its independent production values: Made for the equivalent of about $65,000, the film was financed by Chan's friends and family. His second feature, which just wrapped production, is partly backed by Cantopop star Andy Lau's production company.
Chan has joined the handful of Hong Kong filmmakers — Stanley Kwan, Ann Hui and Wong Kar-Wai among them — who have been widely labeled artists. But the fear in Hong Kong is that the most successful directors will inevitably flock to Hollywood. After all, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and Stanley Tong have tried their hands (with varying success) in the U.S. movie industry. In fact, Chan was considering cutting short his San Francisco weekend to visit his expatriate friends in Los Angeles.
“If there is opportunity there, why not?” Chan said. “But it depends, because I have to improve my English first. The script is very important.”
Interestingly enough, it is one of Asia's smallest film industries that has shown the brightest glimmer of hope amid the economic chaos. Boosted by a popular local film festival, Singaporean filmmaking has moved into the international spotlight in recent years. In the 1960s, the industry produced mostly Malaysian films, then faded out over the next two decades. But the start of the Singapore Film Festival in 1988 opened a venue for local filmmakers.
Last April, the government created the Singapore Film Commission to jump-start the industry. It plans to provide loans for four feature films and grants for 40 short films. It will also provide scholarships, internships and travel grants for Singaporean filmmakers invited to foreign festivals.
Last year, two local films, Money No Enough and Forever Fever, became surprise box-office hits. The latter, a frenetic takeoff on Bruce Lee movies and Saturday Night Fever, has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Miramax and screened at Sundance last month. The success of these films has led some private investors to pull money from the unpredictable stock market and put it into the more glamorous movie industry.
“Rather than just keep money in the piggy bank, they're looking for other places,” said director Eric Khoo. At 33, Khoo is among Singapore's most prominent young directors. His second feature, 12 Storeys, screened at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival in the “Un Certain Regard” category. With its depiction of repressed sexuality and skewed family ties, the film challenges the well-mannered veneer of Singapore society. Khoo's 1994 short Pain, centered on a masochistic teenager, was banned by the government for its graphic violence.
Like the other Asian directors at the conference, Khoo was looking for co-production money. By the end of the weekend, he had sat through several meetings with potential investors. “I've been to a lot of film festivals, but this is different,” he said with a smile. “Here, I have to be more like a salesman.” But with the down-at-heel state of Asia's movie industries, Khoo isn't the first — and won't be the last — filmmaker obliged to play that role.