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How Netflix can save Hong Kong cinema



Last month, Netflix announced that it was finally expanding worldwide, ending months of speculation about when the company’s expansion to Asia will happen.

Unfortunately, the excitement lasted for only about five minutes.

I briefly ranted on East Screen West Screen about people (including journalists for local media) who immediately complained about what’s not on Hong Kong Netflix (including this article with one of the dumbest headlines I’ve ever seen from said paper) because only a few old shows exist within their narrow eyesight. I asked for audiences to give existing Netflix shows like Master of None, Making a Murderer, Bloodline and Narcos a chance and to not give up on them just because they don’t see Sherlock.

But never mind that for a second.

In addition to the #NetflixAnywhere announcement at CES, Netflix also said that they are working with local storytellers to develop local content. The company has already created two original shows in Japan in association with partner Fuji Television: a new season of reality show Terrace House and series Underwear (or Atelier, as it’s known elsewhere). Asian countries included in the announcement were Korea and Cambodia.

So what about Hong Kong?

The Hong Kong entertainment industry may have been self-sufficient in its golden days, but it became the influential industry that it was because it reached out to audiences beyond Hong Kong. Even when it was successful in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, Hong Kong creators and companies made their content according to their rules and pandered to audiences their own ways. Unfortunately, the money from those two regions eventually dried up, local box office revenue dropped significantly, and the number of productions dropped from under 200 to just roughly 50 a year.

And then came the China Money.

Hong Kong-China co-productions were able to bypass import quotas, which means Hong Kong filmmakers can bring their crew into China and work with the budgets that they have always dreamed of. They were making glossy films with big budgets for potentially hundreds of millions of people and make back the money that they thought they’d lost. We can go on and on about doing it for the art and the fans, but Hong Kong cinema has always been first and foremost an industry driven by profits. In an industry, its labor force can’t work with tight wallets for their entire lives.

What’s the price of the China Money? Pandering to a new group of audiences that not all filmmakers know how to pander to. Working in a system that has rules that can be bent for them or against them at any time. Of course, directors in a commercial filmmaking industry will never have 100% creative freedom. Peter Chan even insinuated in interviews that studio interference in Hollywood is just as bad as Chinese censorship.

But that doesn’t mean that every Hong Kong filmmaker should succumb to the China market, and it doesn’t mean that co-productions automatically spell success. Raymond Wong’s attempts at reviving his comedy brands for China didn’t spell big box office in China, and Mabel Cheung’s A TALE OF THREE CITIES became one of the biggest bombs in recent memory. For every China-made film that does well in Hong Kong, there are three more that flop because Hong Kong audiences ignore a film when they get a whiff of the China Money. LOST IN HONG KONG, MOJIN THE LOST LEGEND, DRAGON BLADE, WOLF TOTEM were all buried at the Hong Kong box office.

Last month, Chief Executive CY Leung announced that building more cinemas would help save the Hong Kong film industry. Perhaps CY meant saving the part of the film industry that serves the real estate market, because this measure only makes sense if Hong Kong instills a protectionist quota that forces these new cinemas to show local films. Until that happens, it’s all Hollywood, all the time.

And now we come back to Netflix.

Netflix is footing a US$50 million bill for a Bong Joon-ho film. It paid US$12 million to distribute Beasts of No Nation. It offered US$20 million to buy Birth of a Nation (It didn’t get it, but it was at least willing to pay that much). Spending only half that money on a film would be considered a major production in Hong Kong. Less than half the money produced Infernal Affairs!

(To be fair, half that money would not produce Infernal Affairs today because the China Money has inflated all the stars’ salaries.)

Netflix may have expanded globally, but it can’t shake the reputation that it’s a distribution platform for American shows. If Netflix truly wants to be a global network, then it has to carry more diverse content that it offers now.

I’ve defended the reason for Netflix’s less-than-perfect selection is because that the company has yet to convince enough content owners to provide global rights. That was the network’s entire reasoning for producing its own content in the first place. And this is where Hong Kong’s established entertainment industry can help.

Not every Hong Kong filmmaker or storyteller wants the China Money. They want the money, sure, but they may not want to pay the price for it. Netflix offers an alternative for those creators, and it doesn’t even have to pay a lot for it. It can get a decent local production for a fraction of what they’re pay for films in the US thanks to a proper local infrastructure for film productions, and creators get a chance to transmit Hong Kong stories to the world without the anxiety of censors breathing down their neck.

In other words, Netflix can save the Hong Kong film industry. Or the Taiwan film industry. Or the Singapore film industry. For the interest of this blog, let’s just say Hong Kong for now.

What does Netflix have to do? Provide the budget in return for global rights, give creators freedom (surely it can’t be 100%, but as much as it can afford) to tell the stories they want to tell, and promote the films at a reasonable scale when the time comes. Netflix wants subscribers, and promoting diverse content - especially original content made by well-known creators in the region - will help Netflix’s reputation as a content provider, not as some website with American TV.

What do Hong Kong creators have to do? Drop the notion that a film is only valuable when it’s been shown in the cinema. Get it shown in Hong Kong cinemas or at film festivals around the world before letting it go to VOD, but don’t let them be the reason to NOT consider the Netflix model. Remember that #NetflixEverywhere means an untapped global audience that wouldn’t otherwise see your film (if Netflix holds up its end of the bargain with a decent promotional effort). Drop all old notions of how cinema should be distributed and embrace the video-on-demand revolution.

As for television? Content owners - and that includes HKTV - need to drop their fantasy of having everyone go to their platform purely for their content. No, I don’t want to download Clickplay just to watch one company’s films and download an HKTV app to watch HKTV’s programming. Ad money is important, but getting distribution is equally important to sustain a television station. Of course, before that even happens, TV stations  has to first raise its game to the level of its counterparts in the west. Hell, I’ll even take counterparts in Asia.

So can we finally stop worrying our VPNs and start worrying about what Netflix can really do for us?


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