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Hong Kong Seeks Industry Revamp Through European Coproduction Fund

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The Hong Kong-Europe-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme being launched this week in Berlin is intended as a major component of an exercise in rehabilitating and internationalizing the Hong Kong film industry.

In unprecedented fashion, the territory’s Film Development Council is getting ready to start giving cash grants to movie projects that don’t necessarily have to shoot in the city or even use one of its three official languages.

Whereas in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Hong Kong produced over 300 movies a year, for local, regional and international consumption, creating stars including Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, the 21st century has witnessed a downsizing and recalibration of the Hong Kong production system.

For much of the past two decades the city operated as a highly-skilled but smaller system that sat alongside and fed into the mainland Chinese industry during a period when the Chinese economy was expanding rapidly and film consumption was mushrooming.

Dr. Wilfred Wong, chairman of the FDC, explains that the Europe fund is emblematic of a new strategic direction for Hong Kong.

“In the old days when Hong Kong was producing a huge number of movies, it was a case of ‘made in Hong Kong,’” says Wong. “What we’re seeing now is that we have so many talents, many of them operating from different locations – for example, many well-known Hong Kong producers and directors now reside in mainland China, and who are doing a lot of [Hong Kong-PRC] co-productions – that we’re moving now to a concept of ‘made by Hong Kong’ instead.”

The new Hong Kong-Europe fund is pitched as both a pilot and the second step in a government funding expansion, overseen by the venerable Film Development Council, a unit within the civil service.

Conceived to provide grants to commercially-viable Hong Kong co-production films, the first part of the fund was announced in January last year with a regional, Asia focus. Its first call for applications has now closed and up to four successful Hong Kong-Asian projects are to be announced within the next month.

The Europe fund (the Hong Kong-Europe-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme) will operate along similar lines.

Grants of up to HK$9 million (approx. $1.1 million) will be awarded to projects involving an award-winning director or screenwriter or main producer from Hong Kong and which will be co-produced with a European territory.

Six out of 10 heads of department must be Hong Kong citizens or permanent residents. There is no requirement to shoot in Hong Kong, though 30% of the below the line cost must be spent in Hong Kong. Similarly, funding can go to productions that are majority-foreign owned or made in a European or Asian language other than English, Mandarin or Cantonese.

Significantly, too, projects are not subject to a cultural test. And the commercial considerations that are in place do not require a distributor or sales agent to be on board at the time of application. Successful applicants, will however, be expected to achieve theatrical releases in both Hong Kong and the partner country.

The decision to provide the stimulus as grant-in-aid, rather than as a loan, co-investment or rebate scheme was also strategic.

“We see that for people to get funding these days, especially for small or medium sized productions, is not easy because of the limitations and changes in the marketplace. We’d like to encourage people to be bold and dare to dream. So, we said, okay, if we are going to be truly supportive of the movie industry, and truly supportive of cultural exchanges, let’s give a grant, so that people who engineer all these element get to benefit,” says Wong.

While production rebates and tax incentive schemes have become popular approaches in many competitor territories, the grant system that Hong Kong has adopted is intended to keep matters simple.

“We have [chosen not to] complicate the Hong Kong taxation system. We have always taken pride in Hong Kong’s tax system, which is a very simple one. So, we’d rather give grants than start giving refunds or tax rebates,” says Wong. The FDC, while not a film commission, can also help with practical matters such as location scouting and permits and clearances.

While Hong Kong cinema has recently enjoyed a measure of success through hyper-local titles such as “Anita,” “Men on the Dragon,” “Table for Six,” “Mama’s Affair” and all-time record-breaker “A Guilty Conscience,” market share and production volumes touched multi-decade lows during the latter years.

These may reflect political, training and development, and market scale issues – as well as the upheavals caused by COVID. The FDC has responded by hatching an array of new support structures and schemes. The new measures include: a First Feature Film Initiative, now in its eighth edition; a co-investment program, Film Financing Scheme for Mainland Market; the Content Development Scheme for Streaming Platforms; and a script incubation program. Yet another encourages senior members of the industry to mentor projects by young directors – and unlock another grant of HK$9 million.

These all sit alongside the centerpiece Film Production Financing Scheme, first introduced in 2007, and which sees the FDC invest up to 40% of a film’s production budget. Its operating conditions were softened during COVID, allowing the private-sector partners to recoup 50% of their tranche before the FDC starts to recover any of its investment.

Acknowledging the Hong Kong industry’s shrinkage and its inward turn of late, Wong says the objective is to expand scale and horizons again. He wants to achieve more production and more diversity.

“What we’re trying to do is to encourage people to start producing. That’s why we have so many schemes,” says Wong. “We want Hong Kong’s movies to be more diversified. We want to see China co-productions, but we also want others with Asia and with Europe.”

“We don’t want our directors or our producers to just focus on Hong Kong’s local stories, because that way you run out of good stories like very easily. Rather, we’re trying to find ways of introducing Hong Kong movies to the world.”

Nor is Wong worried by cultural-political considerations or the government’s urging of media and entertainment outlets to tell good news Hong Kong stories.

“No, we feel that good movies [of all varieties], if done well, and receiving awards or international acclaim, all make for a positive Hong Kong story,” says Wong.

How the new Hong Kong-Europe-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme works:

Each eligible film project will receive a grant up to HK$9 million (US$1.1 million).

OVERVIEW

This is the second phase of the co-production funding scheme launched after Hong Kong-Asian Film Collaboration Funding Scheme. The objective of the scheme is to subsidize film projects co-produced by filmmakers between Hong Kong and European/Asian countries with a view to enhancing exposures of such collaboration in European/Asian and international markets as well as achieving in-depth exchanges and mutual learning.

The co-production funding scheme is divided into two phases. A maximum of eight films will be subsidized in two phases. Each approved film project will receive a grant up to HK$9 million*. This scheme only accepts applications for feature-length narrative films and feature-length animation.

ELIGIBILITY


a)   Among the three main creative positions of producer, director and screenwriter in the production team, there must be at least one Hong Kong and one European/Asian qualified film practitioner.

b) a qualified film practitioner must satisfy both of the following criteria: (i) being the citizens or permanent residents of Hong Kong/respective countries; and (ii) when taking up the position of producer, director or screenwriter, he/she must have been awarded or nominated for best film, best director, best screenwriter, respectively in internationally recognized film festivals or a Hong Kong awards ceremony;

c)   Six of the following 10 categories must have at least one Hong Kong permanent resident: leading actor/voice actor, supporting actor/voice actor, department head of cinematography, department head of action choreography, department head of art direction, department head of costume and make up design, department head of film editing, department head of original film score and original film song, department head of sound design and department head of visual effects; and
d) At least 30% of below-the-line expenditure is spent in Hong Kong.

APPLICATION

Further details of the application procedures and eligibility criteria will be announced later on the Hong Kong Film Development Fund’s website

* Each eligible film project will receive a grant equaling to the production cost if the production cost is no more than HK$9 million, or HK$9 million if the production cost is more than HK$9 million. In the latter circumstance, the applicant is responsible for soliciting other investment to top up the excessive production costs.

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