What are the biggest challenges faced by European producers when teaming up with Chinese partners to gain access to the territory’s $3bn box office? Melanie Goodfellow reports.

French director Philippe Muyl spent two hours a day learning Mandarin before shooting The Nightingale in Beijing and the southern Chinese region of Guangxi in 2012.

The film is a Mandarin-language re-working of Muyl’s 2002 film The Butterfly, about an old man who takes an eight-year-old girl on a butterfly hunt, which was a huge hit in China. The new film stars Chinese actor Baotian Li as a grandfather who bonds with his spoilt granddaughter as they journey from Beijing to their rural ancestral home.

Muyl’s ability to communicate with the Chinese cast and crew was just one of the challenges facing the production. “The way of working is very different. It seems very disorganised but within this disorganisation things get done,” says producer Steve René. Once on set, he adds: “The rhythm is a lot more intense than back home. You don’t get much sleep.”

René, who lives between China and his native France, produced The Nightingale with his Chinese wife Ning Ning, a former actress and TV producer, through their Beijing-based company Envision. The film’s other partners include Hong Kong and China foreign film distribution veteran Paul Delbecq under the France-based Pan Eurasia Film banner, and associate producers Kuang Da Ai of Guangxi Film Group, Qin Hong of Chinese production and distribution company Stella Mega Films, and Elsa Rodde of France’s Germaine Films.

The Nightingale, titled Le Promeneur d’Oiseau in French and Ye Ying in Mandarin, is only the second official France-China co-production to be completed since the two countries signed a film treaty in 2010. The first was Wang Xiaoshuai’s 11 Flowers, which portrayed the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a child.

The Nightingale, which was showcased at Screen Singapore in July 2013 before heading to Busan International Film Festival in January, will see its Chinese premiere at Beijing International Film Festival (BJIFF) in April. 

“A lot of co-productions have been announced but very few have happened as yet,” says René of the difficulties of putting together an official France-China collaboration. “It’s a complicated process. Just coming to China can be a culture shock for Europeans, let alone trying to make a film here.” 

René has launched a Paris-based company called Between Us Films, which he hopes will act as a bridge between France and China. He is already developing a second co-production with Guangxi Film Group. The as-yet-untitled project will be an intergenerational epic spanning the 1940s to the present day, set in China, Vietnam and France. It is based on a screenplay by Fan Yiping who wrote the script for Lu Chuan’s cult 2012 hit thriller The Missing Gun.

Further French companies making in-roads into China include Paris-based entertainment management firm ECI, which also has offices in Beijing and Los Angeles.

“You can’t just go over once or twice and hand out business cards. You have to visit often and regularly,” says ECI CEO Vincent Fischer, who is developing a slate of English-language co-productions with China that he will announce during BJIFF.

Ile de France Film Commission is keen to promote Paris as a location and post-production hub. It is at Filmart with a consortium of companies including line producers Bayoo and VFX firm Knightworks.

Upcoming France-China co-productions to receive the official stamp to date include Charles de Meaux’s The Lady In The Portrait, inspired by the 18th century empress Ulanara; Wang Chao’s Looking For Rohmer, a road movie travelling between Tibet, Beijing, Paris and Provence; Jean-Jacques Annaud’s completed Wolf Totem, majority-produced by China Film Group; and Pascal Morelli’s feature-length animation 108 Demon Kings, which is inspired by the Chinese classic Water Margin.

108 Demon Kings is perfect for us, given our knowledge of China and Chinese culture, as it is based on one of the ‘Four Great Classical Novels of China’,” says Gregory Ouanhon, executive vice-president of Shanghai-based production and distribution company Fundamental Films, owned by Mark Gao Jingdong. The animation is being lead-produced by France’s Same Player with the support of Belgium’s Scope Pictures and Luxembourg’s Bidibul Productions. It combines martial-arts scenes shot in Beijing using motion-capture technology and animation work being done in Europe.

EuropaCorp, which has a production and distribution pact with Fundamental Films, is selling the film internationally. Fundamental is also co-producing EuropaCorp’s Warrior’s Gate and its upcoming reboot of the Transporter franchise, which will shoot partly in China.

Delegations from the UK and Italy will also be out in force at Filmart and BJIFF. The UK and China announced a co-production treaty last December, which is awaiting ratification. One project to benefit from that could be an English-language remake of Feng Xiaogang’s hit A World Without Thieves, to be produced by experienced UK producer Duncan Kenworthy (Notting Hill).

A co-production treaty between Italy and China will be signed during BJIFF. Italy-China co-productions in the works include Maurizio Sciarra’s Everlasting Moments, and Cristiano Bortone’s Coffee. Set against the backdrop of Yunnan in 1905, Everlasting Moments portrays a doomed love affair between an Italian photographer and a Chinese woman on the run from an arranged marriage.

Rome-based Urania Pictures is producing the project in association with China Movie Channel and Stephen Lam at Sil Metropol. Principal photography is scheduled to take place in 2015.

Bortone’s Coffee intertwines three stories set in Rome, London and Beijing and will shoot this summer. The $3.5m (€2.5m) production is being co- produced by Italy’s Orisa Produzioni, the UK’s Ipso Facto Films and China’s Ray Production and Road Pictures. The latter is a production and distribution company founded by former Mercedes Benz China vice-president Cai Gongming in 2013.

Bortone, who teaches at Beijing Film Academy, is also trying to launch a development workshop aimed at fostering projects that appeal to both Chinese and European sensibilities, called Bridging the Dragon.

Romantic comedy C’e Sempre Un Perche, produced by and starring actress Maria Grazie Cucinotta, which features Chinese actor Huang Hai-Bo, is also expected to receive official co-production status. The film shot in Sicily and the western Chinese city of Chengdu, and was co-produced by Seven Dreams International, Beijing Ciwen Film Distribution and Stars Pictures.

Netherlands is also pre-preparing a co-production treaty with China and exploring different ways to collaborate. “A memorandum of understanding was signed between Beijing Film Academy and Netherlands Film Academy last September and the two institutions are now gearing up for a student exchange,” said a spokesperson for Netherlands Film Fund.

Several Dutch-Chinese documentaries are in the works, while Amsterdam-based Lemming Film is planning to shoot David Verbeek’s Shanghai-set, Mandarin-language vampire picture Dead And Beautiful in late 2014. It is a co-production with Natacha Devillers’ Shanghai-based China Blue Films. 

France-China co-pros: the first wave

Following 11 Flowers, which grossed $800,000 (rmb5m) in China (170,000 admissions), the first co-productions to test the Chinese market will be 108 Demon Kings and The Nightingale. Fundamental, which will release 108 Demon Kings on more than 2,000 screens later this year, is putting together a high-profile Mandarin-language voice cast.

“This is a bit of an experiment for us,” admits Fundamental’s Gregory Ouanhon. “The Chinese have yet to fully embrace the feature-length animation format. Audiences in the big cities are pretty sophisticated but the growth at the moment is in the second or third-tier cities, where tastes are more mainstream.”

The Nightingale is due to hit screens in China and France in May, where it will be distributed by Stella Mega Films and UGC Distribution respectively.

“We’re in this strange situation where the film is regarded as an arthouse picture in China and a film with mainstream, commercial potential in France,” says the film’s producer Steve René. “We don’t quite know what to expect in China, the audience is changing so rapidly.”