Films from Asia are struggling to compete at this year’s major film festivals. That’s not necessarily a reflection on their artistic merits, but a symptom of a painful 2021 divide between the film industry’s East and West.
A full-sized Cannes festival was noticeably light on Asian selections, and the same goes for the Venice Film Festival. Toronto has cut its overall lineup by two thirds and its extensive Asian program has shrunk in proportion.
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Locarno’s selection leaned the other way and assembled a strong Southeast Asia selection, along with its Open Doors industry program, and saw its Golden Leopard top prize awarded to Thailand’s “A Useful Ghost.”
The heart of Asia’s festival troubles is a combination of COVID-related travel restrictions and a mistrust of hybrid and online festivals by rights holders and distributors. A change of direction by the Chinese industry adds another, smaller complication.
“There are plenty of Asian film companies that won’t let their films go to hybrid or online festivals because of the risk of piracy from a public [online] screening,” says Giovanna Fulvi, the Italy-based Asian programmer for the Toronto festival. “Their home theatrical markets are simply too important.”
Although Asia’s streaming industries have surged in recent years, other revenue streams are still smaller than those earned by films in the West. Commercial films from China, India and Korea would expect to earn more than 70% of their revenues from theatrical box office.
“Online festivals don’t really work in Asia. Chinese and Korean rights holders are very protective. It is not the culture either,” says Mike Goodridge, artistic director of the International Film Festival and Awards Macao, which went online in 2020. “Negotiating rights is especially hard. We lost tentpoles and all the Chinese films. Theatrical is simply too precious.”
“We are still talking to festivals [but] we are also very cautious about hybrid festivals,” said Suh Young-joo, head of Korea’s Finecut, which represents Cannes title “Introduction.” “Bowing a new film at an online festival while Korea is in lockdown seems a risky choice. Licensors and investors are all cautious.”
“I don’t think there is an anti-Asian mood in the industry. If there is a pattern, it is made up of individual case-by-case responses,” says Pearl Chan, CEO of Hong Kong-based arthouse sales agent Good Move Media.
“We’ve had some issues with festivals. Some have been reluctant to put on individual watermarking [on digital prints]. We continually battle with problems of Chinese censorship and piracy. It is like some of the festivals still don’t get it.”
Michael J. Werner, an industry consultant and former head of sales agent Fortissimo Films, chalks it down to difficulties getting people to travel this year. “That is a COVID-specific problem and one that hopefully will go away,” he notes.
As the delta virus has exposed porous defenses and poor levels of vaccination, Asia-Pacific territories, including Australia, India, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan, are enduring higher levels of coronavirus infection in 2021 than they did in the first year of the pandemic.
Also, throughout much of Asia, many governments (China, Hong Kong, Thailand) are still mandating prolonged quarantine periods regardless of vaccination status, or are operating return quotas (Australia, Thailand). That means filmmakers and executives could conceivably travel out to the fall festivals, but they would be trapped in hotel lockdown on return, and turn a one-week trip into nearly a month.
“These days the [Asian] buyers no longer travel to markets and festivals. Last year we hoped the world would get better, but now this is the new normal,” says Mai Meksawan, producer of Venice film “Anatomy of Time.”
Sales efforts, similarly, change to fit the circumstances. Suh says she does 10 Zoom calls per day from Seoul and does not expect to travel to an in-person market before Berlin 2022.
Pre-COVID, several festivals endured problems with Chinese films, due to last-minute censorship concerns. These days, China is at diplomatic loggerheads with countries including the U.S., Canada and Australia. And Cannes this year went ahead with a risky choice, selecting Hong Kong protest documentary “Revolution of Our Times.” But fall programmers do not report any sign of new political pressure on their selections.
Instead, the Chinese film industry is taking a more populist and propagandist direction that is less attractive to overseas festivals. “I don’t think Venice and Toronto have stopped looking at Hong Kong or Chinese films. Rather, China’s films are increasingly being made for domestic consumption. No major directors such as Chen Kaige are currently making festival films,” says Albert Lee, executive director of the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival.
In an amusing twist, the biggest Chinese film to play at Toronto and San Sebastian this month is the Zhang Yimou-directed “One Second.” Made in 2018, it was one of two Chinese films pulled from Berlin in 2019. “One Second” is now safe to release abroad having been re-edited, cleared censorship and enjoyed its Chinese theatrical release in November last year.
And while international travel has been a pain for the Asian industry, the region’s filmmakers have been hard at work, offering something positive to look forward to.
“We have continued to make films through the pandemic,” declares Good Move’s Chan, while Finecut’s Suh says that production is “currently very active” in Korea, albeit with a surge in TV drama in contrast to film.
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