How staying local could ironically be the key to reaching an international audience was one of the major messages to emerge at the Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) second Asian Film Summit.

Delegates also received insider information from the likes of Keanu Reeves and Beijing-based producer Noah Weinzweig about the realities of setting up productions and shooting in China; animation producers discussed strategies behind selling animated features and Rome Film Festival director Marco Mueller conducted an on-stage interview with iconic Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To.

On a panel entitled ‘Local Stories, Global Films’, speakers refuted the notion that Asian filmmakers should try working in English to broaden their international appeal.

“When you try to make a film in English it loses the finesse of what was happening in the original language,” said Pinewood Iskandar CEO Michael Lake.

Lake added that rather than just aim at the American market, producers also have the option of making local-language films that can travel across Asia. “The [Asian] marketplace is so big, as attested by so many American companies making films and TV series with an Asian angle. World audiences embrace films in other languages more readily than America accepts foreign language films.”

Reliance Entertainment CEO Sanjeev Lamba said that very local but well-made films have more chance of crossing over than hybrid films aimed at the international market, using the example of Reliance’s Hindi-language 3 Idiots, which was hit across both South and East Asia.

“You have to build a bridge from one side; you can’t build it from the centre,” said Lamba. “If you try to design a crossover film it will fail as it’s neither one thing or the other.”

He continued that global interest in various cultures is often tied to their economic impact: “Look at the interest in Chinese cinema – the same thing happened to Japan in the 1960s and then Korea. India’s time is coming. We’ll see many Indian films within the global framework in the next 10-15 years.”

Also touching on the subject of local vs global, the Asian Film Summit’s animation panel debated whether locally produced animation can compete against global giants such as Pixar and DreamWorks.

“You can’t compete with the studios – you have to first decide why you want to tell the story in this format and then how to make money with it,” said Harlock: Space Pirate international sales and marketing consultant Tim Kwok.

Yona Yona Penguin producer Denis Friedman argued: “You can compete with the studios but only locally.”

Meanwhile, in a keynote speech, Weinzweig outlined the importance of building long-term contacts in China “where everything is relationship-based” and told delegates not to be afraid of engaging government officials as “they can open doors.”

“Don’t expect to go to China alone and be successful – you need to make those critical contacts and relationships,” said Weinzweig, who has provided production services for documentaries such as Edward Burtynsky’s Watermark and features including Iron Man 3. “That means a lot of time invested and lots of trips and jet-lag. But if you believe in the future of China and South-East Asia, and I think you have to because it’s a population of two billion people with a massive economy, then it’s going to be well worth your time.”

These were sentiments echoed by Keanu Reeves and Lemore Syvan, Reeves’ producer on his China-set directorial debut Man Of Tai Chi, during a case study of the film. Both talked about the importance of putting in the time and making many trips to China to get to know the market and the people you’re doing business with.

Syvan also said that Reeves was her “secret weapon” but stressed that access can’t be taken for granted even with a Hollywood star. “[Reeves] opens doors but you have to make sure that they don’t get shut and they do sometimes,” said Syvan. “They love Keanu but at the end of the day it’s about money and the theatre managers came to the table but would say we can only do so much.”