Mainstream films face increasing local competition in China and India, but as both markets grow, there will still be room for strong stories and speciality product, writes Liz Shackleton, Asia Pacific editor, Screen International.
The International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards, which took place recently in Macau, demonstrate perfectly why the US studios have been retooling their strategy in India.
“China is flush with funds and the local industry is pumping out growing numbers of sci-fi, action, romance and comedy films - all with its own cash, technology and stars”
In keeping with a Bollywood movie, the ceremony was an eye-popping five-hour spectacle that spanned every form of entertainment, from circus to dance to comic skits and parodies of the best-film nominees.
But all this was a side dish to the main attraction, the stars themselves, who are so impossibly dazzling, charming and larger-than-life that it¹s difficult to imagine any Hollywood star outshining them in their own firmament.
The same evening, over on the mainland, Chinese fans turned out en masse for the star-studded opening of the Shanghai International Film Festival.
China’s commercial film industry is in its infancy compared with Bollywood, so the overseas guests, including Clive Owen and Halle Berry, created as much excitement as the Chinese stars.
“China is fast catching up with its own special-effects spectaculars, as was evidenced last year by Woo’s Red Cliff”
But as the festival’s conference programme unfolded, it became clear the US studios also have their work cut out in China. The country is flush with funds and the local industry is pumping out growing numbers of sci-fi, action, romance and comedy films - all with its own cash, technology and stars.
Hollywood films do well in China when they get the chance - the first Transformers film was a massive hit in 2007 before red-faced officials yanked it off screens - but China is fast catching up with its own special-effects spectaculars, as was evidenced last year by John Woo’s Red Cliff.
Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities show no signs of widening the annual quota of 20 revenue-sharing imports, which MPAA chairman Dan Glickman lobbied against when he was in Shanghai. The quota means only a relatively small number of blockbusters make it to China, and even then the government tries to limit the extent of their distribution and success. Small wonder, then, the US studios have started to produce local-language films in both China and India.
But none of this means the world’s two most populous nations are closed to foreign product, only that mainstream films - or at least those that rely on stars and CGI - face increasing competition as both nations develop their own commercial cinema. Both territories are already big enough to support $15m domestic productions, with costs around one-fifth those of Hollywood, and both have box-office markets that are set to boom.
The good news is that, among all this growth, there’s still room for foreign films with strong stories, innovative concepts and emotionally powerful content. As both nations become richer, they are more curious and open to a wider range of product. The multiplex revolution in both countries is also expanding the possibilities of what can be screened.
This is true for specialty films as much as mainstream cinema. In China this year, films such as Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and French comedy Two Worlds enjoyed surprising box-office success - making $2m-$3m each -as flat-fee imports outside the revenue-sharing quota, despite high piracy levels.
And at Cannes, Indian multiplex operator PVR bought a large slate of independent films, including Taking Woodstock and Martin Campbell’s Edge Of Darkness, to “attract new audiences, fill a gap in the market and develop cinema viewing patterns by exposing Indian audiences to new genres.”
In other words, the audience is there, it’s just a case of identifying it, nurturing it and releasing product in the right locations and at the right price.
Meanwhile, the West has little to fear from the two rising superpowers joining forces to create one mass market for local product. Despite their growing openness, rivalry and cultural differences mean the two rarely co-produce or watch each other¹s films.
During the IIFA weekend, Indian and Chinese film-makers discussed the potential for collaboration but found little common ground. One suggested a biopic about Buddha would be relevant to both countries. But the question was soon asked, “Would the Buddha speak Hindi or Chinese?”