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Moving towards smart Chinese co-productions

If anyone was under the impression that the Chinese backing for a film like Toronto opener Looper would become the new norm, the local industry has a response to that: China isn’t an ATM machine for Hollywood.

During a panel I moderated at Toronto’s inaugural Asian Film Summit this week, Village Roadshow Asia’s CEO Ellen Eliasoph said that Chinese film body SARFT (which controls film clearances and permits) had recently come out emphatically to state that so-called ‘stick on’ co-productions (where Chinese elements are tacked on creatively to a Hollywood franchise or non-Chinese story) aren’t the future for China’s co-production growth.

Bona Film Group COO Jeffrey Chan added that for local Chinese companies, making films that appeal to local Chinese audiences is key. And those aren’t likely to necessarily going to be films that are about foreigners coming to China (a common theme pitched for co-productions). “It’s a very, very narrow market in terms of box office, its even narrower than Hong Kong in terms of audience tastes and preferences,” he said.

New York-based producer Lemore Syvan just wrapped production last month on Keanu Reeves’ China-set directorial debut Man of Tai Chi, a film that is something of a perfect Chinese co-production in terms of content and local and international appeal. She said she loved the experience of shooting in China, but did note that there were learning curves. For instance the production had 20 grips, 30 electrics and 25 PAs – “It’s just how they do it,” she said. Wages were obviously much lower for most crew compared to Western shoots. “It was extremely efficient and cost effective,” Syvan said. She looked at one set that had been constructed and thought, “this would be a $3 million set in the US,” even though the most expensive set build on Man of Tai Chi was $300,000. So it was a good cultural and financial fit for Syvan and her partners on the $25m film (including China Film Group, Village Roadshow Asia, Wanda and Universal).

Our talk was an important reminder that China does present huge opportunities for the world of international film, but only with the right projects. That lucrative ATM machine should only be dispensing backing for films that make cultural and commercial sense for China’s local industry as well.

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