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Independent spirit

Chinese distrib Lin explores new rev streams

A correction was made to this article on Oct. 26, 2006.

More Chinese filmmakers are turning on to the idea of selling their movies abroad to make up revenues lost at home through rampant DVD piracy and a competitive domestic market, the head of China’s only independent film distributor, Infotainment China, said Monday.

Cindy Lin has pioneered selling high-quality indie pics abroad, but she thinks she won’t be on her own for long as China’s market grows speedily in sophistication.

“At the moment film marketing is not a concept on people’s minds in China. There are no other independent, private international sales agents in China but I think I’m going to have competitors soon,” Lin said at the Pusan Intl. Film Festival.

Of around 250 films made in China each year, around 80% of B.O. and investment goes into a small number of big films, such as “The Banquet” or “Curse of the Golden Flower,” leaving hundreds of smaller projects competing for the little that’s left.

Competition is ruthless. Then there is China’s biggest bugbear — piracy.

At times in China it seems like the most efficient distribution network is pirate DVD sales.

While Hollywood constantly bemoans the fact that good pirate copies of its movies hit the streets of Beijing and Shanghai within hours of screening, the problem is even more acute for local filmmakers, as speedy pirate copies wipe out their ability to cover their investment.

“Small producers can get some of their money back if they lose it on the DVD market. Income from foreign sales can help fill the gap. This also helps newcomers emerge,” said Lin.

Recent successes for Infotainment include selling North American rights of helmer Fang Gangliang’s “Story of Xiaoyan” to Delphis Film in Montreal as well the Benelux rights, and Cao Baoping’s “Trouble Makers” to Mitchell LeBank in New York.

Also getting good feedback is “366 Footloose,” a 3-D animation project in production in Shenzhen.

For a long time Infotainment has focused on selling indie Chinese films into international markets and avoided helping foreign movies gain access to China because of distribution problems, such as getting past the censor and dealing with piracy.

“But we are starting now because the China market is starting to deregulate. To protect your intellectual property you need to know which channel you are working in and the way a film is shot in Vancouver is very different from the way it’s done in Shanghai,” she said.

Distribs are also hampered by the undersupply of screens. There were only around 3,000 cinemas in China at end 2005 and multiplexing is still in its infancy.

This has the biz looking at different, less capital-intensive channels. Recent years have seen dramatic rise in online and wireless platforms and Infotainment is examining short-movie wireless content platforms.

“The wireless market is growing strongly in China and our move into wireless content is market driven. Even if someone pays five mao (cents), that’s a lot when you’ve got a country of 1.3 billion people,” she said.

Infotainment has attracted the interest of big production companies keen to buy the company, but Lin is not interested.

“I want to remain independent and bring good Chinese movies to the international market,” she said. “I only sell movies I love and this is a mission for me. And I’m complimented by the fact the market approves of my taste.”

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