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Vietnamese Films Seek Exposure

November 09, 2005|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Last year, Ngo Thi Bich Hanh visited Los Angeles to meet with CBS executives to arrange the launch of a Vietnamese version of the game show "The Price Is Right."

This week, Ngo was back in Southern California to explore whether the price was right for nearly a dozen Vietnamese feature films she was offering buyers at Santa Monica's annual American Film Market.

As a sales gimmick, Ngo handed out pocket-sized tissue holders made of silk in her suite at Le Merigot hotel to promote "The White Silk Dress." The film chronicles a poor family's struggles to preserve its culture and way of life in the 1960s.

"We struggled through so many wars and difficulties, so we have a lot of stories that can be made into good movies," said Ngo, 33, vice president of sales and acquisitions for Hanoi-based Vietnam Media Corp. "We want to get more exposure for our films."

Ngo is one of 8,000 attendees who converged on the eight-day bazaar that ends today, part of a growing number of movie executives from countries that just a few years ago had virtually no commercially viable films to offer. But the global film market is growing rapidly, as more nations seek to develop a homegrown movie business.

"The combination of production incentives and a growing cadre of skilled film professionals around the world aided by cultural subsidies is really expanding motion picture production globally," said Jonathan Wolf, executive vice president of the Independent Film & Television Alliance. "We're now seeing films coming from countries that struggled to put together crews just a few years ago."

Movie buyers worldwide flock to the American Film Market each year seeking theatrical, video and TV rights to movies, moving among the suites at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel and Le Merigot. Among the 410 exhibitors were scores of first-time participants. Five nations -- Vietnam, Russia, Taiwan, Egypt and Greece -- sent representatives for the first time.

Part of the growth, Wolf said, is the result of producers and film crews who trained in television over the last two decades and are now eager to "matriculate" into making movies -- and selling them worldwide.

So it goes for Vietnam Media Corp. and its sister company, BHD Co. Founded in 1996, BHD became the first privately owned company authorized by Vietnam's Communist government to make programs for a national TV channel. The company also is the exclusive media representative for MTV in Vietnam.

Since opening its doors to capitalism in the late 1980s, and more than three decades after the fall of Saigon to the Communists, Vietnam has emerged as a rapidly growing economy in Southeast Asia, fostering a rising middle class eager to purchase entertainment.

Vietnam Media has become a leading distributor of foreign films in Vietnam, crafting deals with Warner Bros., United International Pictures and Columbia TriStar to distribute such Hollywood fare as "The Island," "Batman Begins" and "Miss Congeniality."

But with only 18 movie screens throughout the country, and strict government censorship that puts many Hollywood films off-limits for audiences, the market is still limited.

"It's a bit difficult to get into the Vietnamese market," acknowledges Nguyen Thi Bao Mai, manager of sales and acquisitions for Vietnam Media. "There are a lot of films that are nice but we can't show."

To broaden its business, Vietnam Media has been working since 2003 to find foreign markets and buyers for the country's homegrown movies.

The company distributes movies budgeted from $500,000 to $5 million, about what a Hollywood blockbuster can spend on just a few special effects. The films include the government-produced "Saigon Liberation" and lighter fare from private studios such as "Jackfruit Thorn Kiss," billed as an "enchanting romantic comedy" about young lovers in modern-day Vietnam.

"We want to try to open up foreign markets for our films so that investments in films can be bigger," Ngo said.

Having sold foreign rights to five titles in Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei, she said her week at the American Film Market was a success.

"One of the good things about coming here is that at least people know about Vietnam," Ngo said. "I don't have to explain where the country is."

Ngo failed this time to line up any U.S. buyers, but she isn't giving up.

"Maybe I'll meet them in Cannes," she said, referring to France's famed international film festival.

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