Written by James Peak on Oct 28, 2010. Posted in On Location

Hong Kong producers discuss filming the city

Hong Kong has always punched above its weight as a film-producing city. Nearly 15 years since coming under the administration of China, how do local and international producers feel they have fared under the change?

Phillip Lee, an Executive Producer and owner of Hong Kong and Beijing-based Javelin Pictures, has spent the last 20 years working on international films in Hong Kong such as Hero and The Dark Knight. Right now he has a pretty full slate:

“I am currently Executive Producing two films; one is from David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas, which will be shot mainly in Europe. Another one is Renny Harlin's epic film, Genghis Khan, which will be shot completely in China. Cloud Atlas is a film initiated from overseas which received good interest from investors in Asia. Genghis Khan was initiated in China and snapped up by overseas investors.”

According to Phillip Hong Kong is about access to the East, with a greater degree of political freedom:

“The rich culture of Hong Kong with both Eastern and Western influences is what excites filmmakers. Everyone can picture Hong Kong - an exotic and exciting place that stands for the Far East. But we enjoy freedom of speech and expression, and there is no ‘script approval’ process to get through before filming can begin.”

Phillip explains that although the Hong Kong Government offers no formal incentives for international co-productions to shoot, it has recently been supportive to films in production:

“It’s very easy to arrange shooting in Hong Kong, but for some ‘big asks’ like blocking entire streets, you have to be well-connected with various Government departments through the Film Service Office. For instance, with their help we could block the city’s airspace for our shooting! Our plane and helicopters were able to fly above Hong Kong for the whole of these shoots.”

The Film Services Office promotes and supports film productions. The Government allocated HKD300 million to the Film Development Fund to provide financial support for the production of small-to-medium budget films. From March 2010 the Government raised the upper limit of the production budget to HKD15 million and increased its contribution in each film project from a maximum of 30% to 35% of the production budget (HKD5.25 million). The Government will now consider increasing its contribution up to 40% of the production budget.

The Hong Kong and Chinese Governments have also made a good fist of promoting Hong Kong-mainland co-productions under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangements. These measures include allowing privately-owned operations on the mainland, lifting Chinese restrictions on where stories are set and allowing the translation of co-productions into the various dialects needed for Chinese mainland distribution. The expectation is that the number of Hong Kong-mainland productions will continue to grow from 53 in 2008 to over 80 by the end of 2010.

Michael McDermott from Gung-Ho Films, who has 20 years experience in mainland China and Hong Kong, has just wrapped on Skyline, a sci-fi blockbuster from Universal that filmed Hong Kong’s cityscape:

We just finished shooting aerial footage in Hong Kong for Skyline. Unlike in mainland China, it was very easy to arrange filming the stunning skyline of Hong Kong from a helicopter.

Michael is clear about why Hong Kong’s business has kept booming westwards as well as eastwards:

“It offers quintessential Chinese images, like densely-packed streets, vertical neon signs, ancient junk boats, Chinese signage everywhere, and then very modern images like the new IFC building. Then, we have incredibly professional bilingual crews in Hong Kong and everything is available from the latest HD camera to Panavision and Arri 35mm cameras. For stages, we have frequently used the amazing Shaw Brothers Studios.”

Michael thinks Hong Kong has dealt with the change of administration very well, although it has meant adapting:

“Hong Kong filmmakers suddenly had access to this huge market in mainland China and so inevitably film production is more linked to the mainland. As a result not as much film production takes place in Hong Kong as before. China has huge back lots and film sets, which don't exist in Hong Kong because land is so tight. Increasingly we are seeing Hong Kong filmmakers becoming more active in co-productions with China, like John Woo's Red Cliff.”

By embracing China the Hong Kong film industry has kept active and exchange rates have become particularly relevant, as Michael notes:

“One reason why we are filming more in Hong Kong is because with the increase in the Chinese Yuan shooting in here (which used to be more expensive than mainland China) is now about the same. This has been attractive for our clients.

“We are shooting more commercials in Hong Kong. At the moment the proportion is about 1/3 in Beijing, 1/3 in Shanghai, and 1/3 in Hong Kong, but the Hong Kong element is rising. We've worked recently with big global brands like BNP Paribus, Coca-Cola, Red Bull and Skittles.”

Carson Ng, a Producer at ASAP Production Services, is also pretty busy:

“Production servicing in Hong Kong is always in demand here as the city is so cinematic. We have just finished a UK Guinness commercial and an MTV Exit Foundation spot. Mainland China was very popular to shoot in during 2007 and 2008, perhaps because of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, I feel that this heat has cooled and a lot of people have shot there and moved on.”

As a Producer on the ground, Carson can see exactly why clients who go to Hong Kong tend to return:

“I did a job last year for Blink UK and we needed to build an elaborate bar at a building rooftop. We went to recce with the DOP two days before the shoot and our carpenter only then started to build the huge set. We went back that afternoon and the Producer simply could not believe how much was done. He said that it would take five days to do the same amount of work in UK.”

Hong Kong has strengthened in the last few years, helped by a solid infrastructure personified by efficient and talented producers and crew. Doubtless, the can-do attitude of Government and the uniqueness of the location - East and West, ancient and modern – will keep Hong Kong in the spotlight.

All images courtesy Michael McDermott, Gung-Ho Films.


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