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China’s Mature Dealmaking at Cannes Proves It’s a Player on the World Stage

Seeing Gong Li on the Croisette for Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” was a reminder of the last time she trod the carpet at Cannes for a Zhang film — in 1995 for “Shanghai Triad.” And while that wasn’t so long ago, it seems like eons considering the great leap forward made by the Chinese film industry ever since.

“Shanghai Triad” was an early French-Chinese co-production, but it was an exception. This year, Cannes has been full of signs that such cooperation is becoming more normal, and that the Chinese film industry is on its way to becoming a more global citizen. 

The interesting mix of colleagues with Gong on the red carpet at the May 20 “Coming Home” screening embodied the nation’s new approach to the international film biz: producer Bill Kong (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), director Zhang and actor Chen Daoming (“Hero”), all Cannes regulars; and Croisette newbies Jerry Ye of Wanda Media (backed by China’s richest businessman, Wang Jianlin), which made its international mark by buying the AMC theater chain; and Zhang Zhao, the influential content production and distribution head of new-media enterprise LeVision/LeTV, which was a financier on “Expendables 2.”

The Chinese presence on the Croisette reached record levels — some 400 executives registered with the Cannes market, and at times it felt like there was a similar number of Chinese media types in attendance. But anyone expecting a tsunami of Chinese rights-buying was disappointed.

“The Chinese buyers have come a long way in a very short time,” said Stuart Ford, head of sales powerhouse IM Global. “They are much more realistic about what can be done, much more understanding of their role in the market.”

That means that while in previous years lots of deals were announced, only to be eventually cancelled for unstated reasons (often pegged to censorship issues), fewer pacts were disclosed at this year’s Cannes. Instead, the buzz was about China being part of a two-way East-West financing and production continuum.

For instance, Ford’s IM Global will represent the massive H-Plan slate of Chinese-language movies being put together by Chinese private-sector major Huayi Brothers Media, while Huayi is poised to pour upwards of $120 million into Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8 shingle.

“Chinese companies increasingly understand that if they are to project Chinese films onto a global stage, they need to be executed at a higher level,” said Ford, who added that IM Global was in a good position to make the deal with Huayi Brothers, considering it has a pair of Jackie Chan movies on its sales slate in the near future.

Other East-West projects and partnerships include the following:

» John Penotti’s Ivanhoe Pictures is opening production and distribution offices in Greater China while also investing in some of Fox Intl. Prods.’ growing slate of Asian titles;

» Zhang and LeVision are mulling the director’s first Hollywood picture in English (although no studio has been set);

» Universal Pictures is poised to strike a two-picture deal for distribution of major Chinese animated film “Dragon Nest” and its sequel; and

» Starting in September, the U.K.’s Peter Hewitt will begin shooting on the first China-New Zealand co-production, “The Wonder 3D.”

China is also part of the picture on pan-Asian co-productions, with Chinese remakes of Korean and Indian films being discussed.

Wanda, meanwhile, unveiled details of its planned film festival in Qingdao, and more significantly, announced the hiring of a non-Chinese national — Stephen Mensch, former director of strategic production partnerships and studio operations at Turner Broadcasting -— as its programming chief.

And directors including Jiang Wen (“Gone With the Bullets”), John Woo (“The Crossing”) and arthouse director Jia Zhangke (also a Cannes juror) used the fest as a marketing opportunity for pics either in the can or in post.

More importantly, fresh foreign investment is flowing directly into China’s entertainment infrastructure. Singapore developer Cubix unveiled plans for a $1.5 billion entertainment hub to be built on the outskirts of Shanghai — an area also being targeted by Disney and DreamWorks Animation. And just before Cannes, China Media Capital showed that it had no problem raising $350 million for its latest structured fund.

“China has become so much more of a partner than it was just three or four years ago,” says Michael Favelle of Australian producer-sales agent-distributor Odin’s Eye. “I can get equity finance there and I can produce animation there. And while the sales deals may be fewer than in the hype period, what remains is more lucrative.”

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