Hungry buyers swamp newest Chinese market

BEIJING — Showcasing the world’s fastest-growing biz was going to be a challenge for the folks behind the inaugural Beijing Film Fest, and while it had been a choppy ride in terms of logistics and communication in the run-up to the event, organizer Li Chunliang was justified in hailing the fest as a success as visitors headed home last week.

“The festival proved to be a platform for world filmmakers and film festival chairmen to discuss developments in the industry, and for film buyers and sellers to share business opportunities,” Li says.

Beijing fest organizers say that 334 film institutions and shingles from China and overseas, with more than 800 professionals, attended the fest, and 100 of these players publicly announced 256 contracts worth around $427 million while they were here.

Most of these deals had been in the works already, but the big public signing ceremonies were a definite statement of intent.

The event had its fair share of celebs — among those attending were local heroes Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing, and Hong Kong superstars John Woo and Jackie Chan, while Hollywood was represented by helmers Darren Aronofsky and Rob Minkoff, as well as key industry players in areas from entertainment to 3D to open trading and the fight against piracy.

Among the films shown were “Black Swan,” which might have struggled for a China release given its dark subject matter, had not Aronofsky shown up at the fest.

In a nice irony, “The Social Network” was also screened — a film about Facebook in a country where Facebook is banned by the Great Firewall of China.

Motion Picture Assn. Asia Pacific prexy/m.d. Mike Ellis was there to eloquently argue the studios’ case for greater access to the booming Chinese market.

And what a boom it is — B.O. topped a boffo $1.5 billion last year, up 40% on 2009, and a record 450 films were made and screened on the Mainland. In a telling remark, producer Gao Xiulan said that local filmmakers needed to stay focused despite the boom in the biz, and not allow domestic strength to distract from international opportunities.

“A lot of hot money has flowed in, but we should keep cool-headed,” Gao said. “Producers need to be responsible to their investors. We should aim not only to attract a domestic audience, but also a foreign audience.”

Bai Qiang, prexy of the 3D China shingle, says his booth in the market section of the fest had worked out very well.

“We were overrun with people, lots of interest,” he said. “The only complaint was that we didn’t have enough 3D glasses.”

Consensus among attendees was that the Beijing fest market was much easier to negotiate than the market at the Shanghai fest. There had been speculation in the run-up to Beijing that it would overwhelm the Shanghai fest in June.

In truth, there is probably room in this country of 1.4 billion people for two major film festivals. Shanghai remains a more cosmopolitan city, too, and the arrival of the Beijing event appears to have prompted the SIFF organizers to get busy, introducing new elements, such as its first Mobile Film Festival section.

The Beijing fest was low on meaningful preems, and missed out by not programming a competition and prizes.

Nevertheless, having a film festival in Beijing makes sense, and was probably long overdue.

Most of the biz is located in the capital, because this is where the decisions are made on what movies get made and shown, as the country’s chief regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV, is in Beijing. It’s here, too, that the Film Bureau decides the fate of new projects.

Just how much censorship played a role in the fest was always a question, and the poor flow of information in the run-up to the event augured badly, as did the decision to cancel a news conference a few days before the fest, and an attempt to keep media out of the forums.

Open question and answer sessions at government events are as rare as hen’s teeth, and it looked like the Beijing Film Festival would be no exception.

In the end, however, the fest proved to be relatively open, and reporters were ultimately allowed to attend many of the forums.

The fest clearly met a need in what is a hungry market. Everyone leaving the forums was mobbed for business cards.

Beijing joins the swelling ranks of Asian fests competing for international attention, including Tokyo, Pusan, Shanghai and ScreenSingapore, which is due to bow in June. There is every reason to believe that it will prevail.

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