Lure of Biz China Pulls Execs

Hollywood continues campaign to break into Sino market

BEIJING — Overseas industryites are gathering in the Chinese capital for the third Beijing Film Festival, which this year will continue to focus on growing overseas business and co-productions while taking a hard look at its local movie output.

Kicking off today, the eight-day event will unspool 1,300 films from 63 countries, with a contingent of Hollywood execs doing the rounds.

Ever since “Avatar” took some $220 million at the Sino box office, Hollywood has been keen to exploit the potential in China, which displaced Japan as the world’s second largest movie market with a box office of over $3 billion last year.

At the fest, Keanu Reeves will show the trailer for “Man of Tai Chi,” his feature directorial debut, while the head of LucasFilm, Kathleen Kennedy, is in town and expected to announce moves in the market.

French helmer Luc Besson will unveil his latest project, an adaptation of Chinese bestseller “Wolf Totem,” and other big names will also grace various red-carpet events, seminars and screenings at the eight-day event.

A key seminar will be the Sino-Foreign Film Co-production Forum, featuring Film Bureau director general Zhang Hongsen, Peter Ho-sun Chan, Besson, Reeves and Galloping Horse Films’ Ivy Zhong.

Warbler Sarah Brightman, who is huge in China, will sing at the closing ceremony.

Last year, Hollywood movies took more than half of the 17 billion yuan ($2.7 billion) ticket revenue for the first time in nine years. This is partially due to China expanding its quota of foreign films allowed into the country on a revenue sharing basis from 20 to 34 — the extra 14 being premium format movies such as Imax or 3D offerings.

This has made China even more appealing to Hollywood.

Peter Shiao, CEO of Orb Media Group, who has been involved in many bridge-building efforts between the U.S. and China, believes there are always three or four conversations going on at the fest.

One of these concerns the domestic internal debate, which will see industryites discuss recent changes in China such as the new government of Xi Jinping. If previous experience is anything to go on, we can expect little insight into these conversations, as they tend to be closed-door talks.

“There will also be a bit of a celebration about the performance of Chinese cinema, about how far the industry has come in the past six months, shining a new light on the power balance between China and Hollywood. There will be a recalibration of the relationship,” he said.

However, at the back of Chinese minds is the nagging irritation that none of the successful homegrown movies, such as Xu Zheng’s “Lost in Thailand,” were considered critical successes and they all did badly overseas.

The comedy took $200 million in Chinese theaters, but only $57,000 in the U.S.

“There will be a conversation about how to make better movies, and a conversation about how to co-produce projects,” said Shiao.

Co-productions will be on the agenda, though a lot of the hubris is gone from the market following the evaporation of a number of key projects.

One successful co-production is Stephen Chow’s “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” which involves Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, a unit of Australia’s Village Roadshow, and has taken more than $200 million in China.

In early April, Viacom’s Paramount Pictures announced a deal with state-backed broadcaster CCTV’s China Movie Channel and its online movie service partner, Jiaflix Enterprises, to produce “Transformers 4” here.

Elliot Tong, producer and head of international distribution at Tianjin North Film Group, said Chinese filmmakers are approaching co-productions more cautiously.

“It is becoming more evident that Chinese companies do not gain all that much from a foreign co-production partner unless the partnership truly offers something that the Chinese producer needs — great scripts, directors to infuse fresh direction to a different way of making Chinese films, and a true platform or insights to world distribution to safeguard both sides of the investment,” he said.

Medium-budget films with great production values and savvy Hollywood-influenced ways of telling Chinese stories are continuing to take the market by storm.

China’s biggest online video company is Youku Tudou, formed by the merger last year of the country’s two dominant video sharing sites. It is focusing on providing licensed content, which is good news for Hollywood and other overseas shingles trying to break into China.

Yukou Tudou has signed deals with all the majors, including Sony, WB, DreamWorks, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Disney, NBCUniversal and Lionsgate.

“We have already set up partnerships with all the major Hollywood studios, therefore, for this festival, we may well come up with more new campaigns, announcements and updates,” said Youku Tudou spokesperson Jean Shao.

“And we network, of course. For our Movie team, the ultimate goal is to bring in quality content. The team is also looking into opportunities to work with independent production studios,” said Shao.

No doubt there will be conversation, too, about why Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was pulled from screens in China on its opening day and when it will open again, with cuts, as everyone hopes.

It was a grim reminder that despite the great advances made, old ways die hard.

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