China has been emerging as an exciting international partner. But with its government putting co-productions under scrutiny, could that be about to change? Liz Shackleton reports

Long touted as the most effective way of gaining access to the Chinese market, Sino-foreign co-production has come under a huge amount of scrutiny in recent months.

In August, Zhang Peimin, vice-minister of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), announced there will be a much more rigorous review of Sino-US co-productions. Ever since, the status of planned co-productions such as Looper, Iron Man 3, Cloud Atlas and The Expendables 2 has remained unclear.

“Nowadays there are a lot of foreign movies which are completely American stories,” said Zhang. “They get some Chinese money invested, include a few Chinese elements and cast some Chinese actors, then call themselves co-productions. This is quite terrifying.”

‘We identify and produce films that are organically rooted in Chinese culture and that will resonate with the Chinese audience’

Ellen Ellasoph, Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia

He added that so-called ‘stick-on co-productions’ crowd the market and take investment away from Chinese-made films.

The proclamation has caused a great deal of alarm - not just in Hollywood but also among Hong Kong producers for whom co-producing with mainland China has become a lifeline. It has also created some confusion. Looper was singled out by Zhang as one of the co-productions that was causing concern, yet it secured a highly coveted release slot during China’s National Day Holiday, usually a blackout period for US films, opening on September 28 day-and-date with the US.

But the uncertainty does not mean there cannot be co-production success stories. Keanu Reeves’ upcoming directorial debut Man Of Tai Chi, co-produced by China Film Group, Wanda Media Group and Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia (VREG Asia), appears to be one package that fits the Chinese co-production criteria like a glove. The Beijing-set film, about the spiritual journey of a young martial artist, has a story closely connected to China and was filmed in Beijing with Chinese dialogue and local cast and crew.

VREG Asia president and CEO Ellen Eliasoph says: “The approach we are taking at Village Roadshow Pictures Asia is to identify and produce films that are organically rooted in Chinese culture and that will resonate with the Chinese audience.” The involvement of Reeves, both as director and in the cast, should also assist Universal Pictures, which is distributing the film overseas.

Fox International Productions (FIP) also appears to have cracked the co-production code - though its Chinese-language films are produced primarily for the Chinese market and any foreign box office is considered a bonus. Speaking at the recent Asian Film Market in Busan, FIP president Sanford Panitch said: “Because of the quota issue in China, you need to make Chinese-language films, and if there’s a chance for them to travel because of their uniqueness, scale or visual style, we have the system to be able to do that. But it is the exception for those films to travel.” FIP is currently lining up a third film from Hot Summer Days directors Tony Chan and Wing Shya, and is working on a co-production deal with Wanda Group, in addition to its ongoing relationships with Bona Film Group and Huayi Brothers.

Meanwhile, producers in countries other than the US may find co-production slightly easier - particularly if they can utilise China’s growing number of co-production treaties.

Arclight Films recently used China’s treaties with Singapore and Australia to set up shark thriller Bait 3D as a Chinese co-production. Co-produced by China’s Yunnan Film Group, Enlight Pictures and Scholar Media, along with partners from Singapore and Australia, the film shot partly in China and stars Singapore-based Chinese actor Qi Yuwu, though most of the action takes place in an Australian supermarket.

The film, which premiered at Venice this year before a global roll-out, received a wide 2,000-screen release in China on October 12.

However, China currently only has co-production treaties with six countries: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Italy and France. And while Sino-foreign co-productions enable films to bypass China’s import quotas and return a revenue share of up to 43%, the difficulty lies in finding stories that work both in China and overseas.

There are also signs that SARFT will tighten up rules that were previously left open to interpretation. The government body has previously said co-productions must have a story that is connected to China, secure finance from and partly shoot in China and feature around one-third Chinese cast. There is now talk that at least one-third of the investment must come from China and at least one of the leading roles must by played by a Chinese actor.

‘Co-production rules are on the SARFT website. If you try to do something that doesn’t entirely qualify, you’re taking a risk’

Bruno Wu, Seven Stars Entertainment

So with the rules being more firmly enforced, many US and Chinese producers are starting to rethink how they can work together. It is understood that Beijing Galloping Horse is considering fully financing Two-Gun Cohen, a drama about Sun Yet-sen’s British bodyguard to be directed by Doug Liman, but may not set up the film as a co-production. US producers are also mulling whether direct investment by Chinese financiers into Hollywood films, rather than co-production, may be the way to go.

The trick is identifying which projects work as co-productions and while China may have recently sent out mixed messages, the rules are actually quite straightforward.

“They are on the SARFT website in black and white, so if you try to do something that doesn’t entirely qualify you’re taking a risk,” says Seven Stars Entertainment chairman Bruno Wu.

Wu, who aims to finance English-language projects that work both in China and globally, explains that while some of the projects he is backing, such as historical drama The Last Empress, will be set up as Sino-foreign co-productions, he will not even attempt this with others such as the remake of John Woo’s The Killer, to be directed by John H Lee. Currently being scripted, The Last Empress fits the co-production criteria as it is a Chinese story that will be completely filmed in China and star Chinese actress Gong Li.

On the other hand, The Killer will star Chinese actress Sarah Yan Li but will transplant Woo’s story about a repentant hitman to Los Angeles. The film will be a 100% US production, produced by Woo and veteran producer Terence Chang’s Lion Rock Productions.

Interview: Liu Yuan, china mainstream media

Several film and media funds have recently been announced in China, and among these China Mainstream Media NFC Hollywood (CMM) has been the most active in film investment.

The government-backed fund recently unveiled a slate of Sino-US co-productions in which it plans to invest, including $100m Chinese superhero project The Annihilator, being scripted by Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) for Stan Lee’s Magic Storm Entertainment, and The Silent Flute, based on a script written by late action star Bruce Lee. Screen talks to CMM co-chairman and president Liu Yuan.

What is the aim of the CMM fund?

Our head office is in Beijing and our Los Angeles company aims to be one of the leading companies in Hollywood specialised in US-China co-production. We are aiming to bridge the gap between China and the US film market by investing in China co-production projects and creating efficient communication with the leading US film-makers.

Many good projects are missing an important piece of additional box office: many US film projects start without a plan about China, and many Chinese film projects start without a plan about the US and international markets.

We want to improve this situation so both US and Chinese film-makers can benefit. Many film-makers in Hollywood are extremely talented - we are here to encourage the top-level film-makers to think about China co-production when they start a project.

Will all the projects you invest in be US-China co-productions?

We mainly do US-China co-productions, but we also invest in non co-production projects. We want to invest in top-level projects and will mainly do English-language films.

How much finance do you hope to raise through the fund? And what percentage of the budget will you invest in each film?

We have enough funding to co-produce Hollywood big-budget films. In general, we’d like to invest 25% to 50%, depending on the projects.

Do you think the fund will indirectly support the local Chinese film industry?

Yes, our aim is to help and support both Chinese and US film-makers. If there are more high-level China co-production projects, both Chinese and US film-makers will benefit, as more projects can be made and will be able to reach higher box office than without co-production. We think China co-production is a win-win solution for both Chinese and American film-makers.