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China-US Summit talks China co-pro, export blues

China’s domestic box office may be booming – and Chinese finance flowing into Hollywood movies – but speakers at the China-US Motion Picture Summit (March 25) discussed how successful Chinese co-productions and film exports remain scarce.

China’s domestic box office may be booming – and Chinese finance flowing into Hollywood movies – but speakers at the China-US Motion Picture Summit (March 25) discussed how successful Chinese co-productions and film exports remain scarce.

Once touted as the most effective way for the US and China to work together, speakers on the summit’s “Cooperation Panel” pointed out that there’s only been around a dozen Sino-US co-productions approved and made in the past five years.

“Budgets have averaged around $20-35m – not modest by local standards, but commercial success has been very mixed,” said Artisan Gateway president Rance Pow. “They haven’t hit their stride yet and that’s a key issue.”

Pow speculated that difficulties may lie in finding stories that resonate with both US and Chinese audiences: “China has its own stories and Hollywood has its own stories to tell”.

But speakers throughout the day mentioned other issues such as China’s censorship rules, more strictly enforced co-production requirements, and the fact that some of the projects being pitched by US producers for co-production are just not very good.

Despite the hurdles, it appears that US studios and indies alike continue to look for co-production projects that work. Warner Bros’ Beijing-based executive vice president, international, Richard Fox, said he was exploring “co-productions that can pass the test, because if you don’t do it right, it fails in both markets.

“We’re looking at [co-productions] and see it as something that will get better and more refined over time,” Fox said.

Panellists throughout the day also discussed why Chinese films are still not travelling overseas in great numbers. On a panel about global production, Leeding Media CEO David Lee observed that the top ten foreign-language movies of all time at the North American box office have grossed $400m, while Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid has grossed more than $500m at the China box office.

“One thing we’ve got to think about is the fact that American audiences are not used to reading subtitles in the way that other marketplaces are,” Lee said.

Speaking on the cooperation panel, China Film Association secretary Zhang Hong said China needs to figure out how to tell its own stories with a globally acceptable language. “Only [Zhang Yimou’s] Hero has been successful globally, while other films have not been well understood because they haven’t used the right language to express their stories.”

Zhang also observed that Chinese moviegoers are very young, while some Western markets have older audiences, so there may be also be a generational gap.

IM Global chief Stuart Ford, who handles Chinese movies through his Anthem division, said that overseas Chinese speakers are starting to come back to Chinese movies, thanks to their huge domestic box office and noise they make online, but many distributors are not “motivated or financially inclined to market them.”

Ford also said that the future of Chinese films reaching a larger audience probably doesn’t lie with theatrical box office. “Their real home will be digital platforms overseas where they will reach many more eyeballs,” Ford said. “The range of films that will generate box office success will get narrower, but the potential for the rest to really reach eyeballs will be through SVOD and TVOD platforms.”

Chinese filmmakers speaking on ‘The Art of Storytelling’ panel agreed that the desire to make international movies is there. “Of course, this is a dream for us to tell a good story and win acclaim from a global audience,” said director Kang Honglei.

Producer Ann An, founder of Desen International Media, said this is why co-productions are still necessary. “If we cannot go overseas, we can invite European and Hollywood directors to help us better interpret Chinese stories and culture for global audiences.”

The summit, held at CITIC Guoan’s Grand Epoch City complex outside Beijing, was hosted by CITIC Guoan, Dick Cook Studios, Film Carnival and Beijing Film Academy (BFA). Attendees included local and overseas industry and BFA students.

Overseas speakers also included Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Haggis, animation veteran Don Hahn (The Lion King), AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and producers Hawk Koch, Bill Borden and Michael Nozik.

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