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Industry Report: Focus: Asia & Oceania

A drama that could have an unhappy ending


- Chinese filmmakers need to learn and grow if they want to avoid being drowned

With the rise of the middle class in China, the country's box-office revenue has skyrocketed in recent years, and foreign companies are stepping up the production of works made jointly with Chinese filmmakers.

One reason for this is that it is an effective way to bypass the country's stringent quotas on foreign films. This can be done in two ways.

The first is through revenue-sharing, usually in relation to Hollywood blockbusters. Every year the China Film Group Co imports a certain number of Hollywood films and splits box-office revenue with film companies and cinemas.

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The other way involves Chinese film distributors buying distribution rights of foreign films at film festivals, and pocketing all the box-office revenue in China.

Under each of these systems the number of films is limited to about 30 a year, which is sparse considering the thousands of films produced worldwide each year.

In working with Chinese filmmakers, foreign films attract the regulatory treatment that Chinese films enjoy, giving foreign filmmakers much sought-after entry into the Chinese market. That, in addition to the fact that Chinese companies need foreign partners, can mean just one thing: many more co-productions are on the horizon.

The Chinese film industry is a lot younger than its Western counterpart, and its filmmakers still have a lot to learn, among other things, about marketing. Working with Western filmmakers provides not only a good training ground, but also the chance to distribute overseas.

The millions of pairs of eyes that make up China's movie market are just one of the attractions for foreign filmmakers and distributors. The cheap cost of labor, the range of subject matter, and the wide choice of shooting locations available make the proposition of working with Chinese filmmakers all the more attractive.

Co-produced films have gone through different incarnations. Before 2000 foreigners took the leading role, and the Chinese were essentially bit-part participants. Over the next three years Chinese companies slowly got to have more say, before they finally saw co-productions as a springboard to seek opportunities overseas.

Of course, many problems still need to be ironed out. In some films bearing the imprint "co-production" the Chinese elements are few and far between, and they are in essence Western films depicting that particular world view, examples being the science fiction movie Looper and the action movie The Expendables 2, which came out last year. The Chinese actor Jet Lee appeared in the latter, but got barely 10 minutes of screen time, and his character did not quite fit into the storyline. In short, it was simply a ploy to attract kung fu fans. Yet because of the film's Chinese element it was able to bypass the quota system.

Under the Chinese regulations, 25 percent of box-office takings from revenue-sharing films falls into filmmakers' pockets, and with co-production the figure can be as much as 43 percent. That provides plenty of motivation to dish up even a bare chimera of Chinese content, and co-production partnerships are one-sided, the Chinese elements consisting essentially of background but none of the film's cultural nitty-gritty. As for Chinese characters, these are used either to add a "Chinese feel", or simply to comply with the co-production rules. But the regulations stipulate that a film must have a certain number of Chinese characters to be regarded as a co-production.

Nevertheless, Chinese filmmakers are making progress, even if they have yet to enter Western mainstream markets. They are trying to emulate Western ways, but themes and storytelling techniques are not quite in sync with Western audiences' tastes. As a result of cultural differences, The Flowers of War, for instance, used Hollywood stars and adopted the theme of redemption, but it failed to hit the mark with Western audiences. The director had been aiming for both markets.

With limited box-office returns, the film, the shooting and marketing of which was mostly Chinese, brought in a disappointing 700 million yuan ($112 and 83 euros) and it failed to recoup its outlays.

Jointly produced films still cannot manage to come up with a theme that both Chinese and Western audiences will warm to. Many Hollywood films make much of ideas such as freedom, equality, hero worship and redemption, which go down well with most audiences. Co-productions on the other are still regarded as too "Chinese" for Western audiences to understand.

That leaves Chinese directors with the choice of catering to Hollywood values or promoting their own.

Whatever they might decide, it is clear that if Chinese filmmakers want to get into the global market they need to learn from their partners. This obviously includes the film-making process, an area in which Chinese directors hold center stage. That means films rely heavily on one or two people, whereas in the West it is producers who have the key role.

Another problem is that an industry chain is essentially non-existent. For instance, the system of remuneration is undeveloped at best, the market research is absent, cinemas are not evenly distributed, and tickets cost too much.

For China's film industry the moral of the tale is this: cooperate with foreign filmmakers by all means, but if saturation of the market by foreign films is to be avoided, the making and marketing of Chinese-made films must take top priority.

The author is a director at Bona Film Group, one of the major film distributors in China. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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