Shanghai cinema-goers are trail-blazers when it comes to supporting indie cinema in China, and are helping the Shanghai International Film Festival (June 11-19) to increase its global significance. Sen-lun Yu reports

Like the rivalry between New York and Los Angeles, Seoul and Busan, and Madrid and Barcelona, Shanghai and Beijing have long competed to host international events, especially film festivals.

More than 70% of the Chinese film industry is based in Beijing and the first Beijing International Film Festival was held this April. In response, the 14-year-old Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) seems to have finally found a distinct identity as a place to discover new films and talent.

“For me, SIFF seems to be more relevant to film-makers,” says one Beijing-based producer who did not want to be named. “It is a place to showcase filmmakers and producers. I can easily meet people I want to see in the three short days of the market. This is why I don’t mind coming to Shanghai each year.”

‘In the next five years, we hope to strengthen our relevance to the industry’

Tang Lijun, SIFF

In the past five years, SIFF has become hugely relevant to both the Asian and international industries through its two competition sections which serve as audience incubators for both international and Chinese independent films. The market events are also proving effective gateways to the Chinese market.

“We attend the festival each year, mainly to find new film-makers and writers in China, also to find potential distributors,” said Ivy Ho, general manager of Hong Kong-based Irresistible Films. “China is one of the fastest-growing film markets in the world and attending SIFF is probably a quick way to get to know people in the industry.”

Distributors including Japan’s Kadokawa and France’s Rezo Films, as well as international festival programmers regularly attend SIFF. According to the festival’s managing director Tang Lijun, the number of international buyers coming to Shanghai will increase by 30% this year, to take the total number to around 2,000.

Shanghai’s Golden Goblet Competition really made its mark in 2006 with the world premiere of Chris Kraus’ German drama Four Minutes, which won the best film Golden Goblet and went on to take more than 20 international awards. EuropaCorp acquired world sales rights but has yet to sell it to China. It also put lead Hannah Herzsprung on the international map. Since the success of Four Minutes, more international films, especially those looking for a foothold in China, are keen to participate in SIFF.

“Before, you might have thought it was easy to get a film into one of the SIFF competitions. But now, competition is becoming fierce,” says producer Freeman Xiang, who regularly submits his films to the Asian New Talent competition. “Year by year, we’ve seen the standards of the SIFF competitions being raised higher. And it’s a good sign to see more heavyweight film-makers as jury members.” This year’s Golden Goblet jury is headed by Barry Levinson with the Asian New Talent jury led by Japanese director Shunji Iwai.

Appetite for arthouse

Shanghai’s cinema-goers keenly support the wealth of independent films showcased during the festival period. “Over the years, we are happy to see there is a group of movie fans who only go to arthouse movies during SIFF,” says SIFF’s Tang Lijun.

In 2010, tickets for The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec sold out in days, while in 2008 No Country For Old Men enjoyed similar sensational support.

More international films, especially those looking for a foothold in China, are keen to participate in SIFF

This year the world premiere of Roland Joffe’s There Be Dragons, about a journalist during the Spanish Civil War, and Japanese film-maker Sabu’s Bunny Drop, a drama about the relationship between a middle-aged man and a young girl which screened at Cannes, have both generated much interest.

“In the next five years, in addition to developing new talents, we hope to strengthen our relevance to the industry,” says Tang.

New initiatives this year include a mobile-phone short film competition — called Mobile SIFF — and a Star Hunter programme, mooted as an Asian version of European Film Promotion’s Shooting Star programme at the Berlinale.


Though previous Golden Goblet winners such as German films Four Minutes (2006) and According To The Plan (2007) have impressed Chinese festival audiences, only two international films platformed at SIFF have translated into a Chinese distribution deal.

The first was Korea’s Scandal Makers which was nominated for the Asian New Talent Award in 2009 and was released by China Film Group, grossing $2.1m (rmb13.6m) at the box office later the same year.

In 2010, Gabriele Muccino’s Kiss Me Again won a clutch of Golden Goblets and became the first Shanghai winner to have a nationwide release in China. Muccino was not known to the Chinese audience until his victory in Shanghai.

Shanghai Huayu Films Co, based in the city, acquired the title on a flat-fee basis (the company’s other international pick-ups include South African sci-fi District 9, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and French action film Female Agents).

Released on March 4, 2011, Kiss Me Again took just $616,000 (rmb4m) after three weeks. In general, a European film released on a flat-fee basis is expected to take around $1.5m (rmb10m).

“There is much room for improvement on the marketing of European or non-Hollywood blockbusters in China,” says SIFF’s Tang Lijun. She believes SIFF has developed and nurtured an audience for independent international films during the festival period. The next challenge is for distributors to translate the festival platform into effective marketing strategies that attract a wider audience across the country.