Dodd on China: ‘Walk before you can run’

MPAA topper encourages thoughtful approach with Asian markets

Bizzers took time out from Toronto’s hectic sked of screenings and dealmaking on Monday to take part in confabs and Q&As regarding the state of film production and finance.

“You need to walk before you can run” was the overarching message in the wide-ranging conversation between MPAA topper Chris Dodd and Toronto festival artistic director Cameron Bailey at the fest’s inaugural Asian Film Summit held at the new Shangri-La Hotel Toronto.

At the Winston Baker Film Finance Forum presented in association with Variety , panelists stressed that opportunities abound, with the six majors spending more resources on tentpole franchises and reducing or shuttering their once-burgeoning specialty units.

“Studios are making fewer films,” noted Mark Ankner of WME’s finance and distribution group. “Yesterday’s New Lines are today’s independents.”

Scott Lambert, a producer with Film 360, advised that recognizable actors will agree to reduce their fees if the indie project is attractive enough.

Christopher Woodrow, chairman and CEO at Worldview Entertainment, agreed that thesps are willing to work for far less if it a major studio isn’t financing.

“We were able to pay one actor $100,000 for six weeks work at a time that his studio quote was $10 million,” Woodrow said during the daylong confab at the Metro Toronto Convention Center.

Producer Michael Benaroya, whose “Margin Call” scored major success theatrically and on VOD, spoke of the importance of tapping new sources of financing and exhibition revenue for films. He noted that the financial thriller generated seven bonus payments — each for 100,000 views on VOD — along with two bonuses for eclipsing $3 million and $5 million at the box office, but added that the business still requires financial rigor.

“I claim poverty every day,” he added.

Oddlot Entertainment’s chief operating officer Bill Lischak said that his company, behind “Ender’s Game,” which Lionsgate is launching early next year, sees the landscape as wide open for nimble indies.

“Five to seven years ago, independents could not touch the level of talent that’s available now,” he noted. “It’s a fertile opportunity.”

The Asian Film Summit focused mainly on opportunities and issues in the fast-growing markets of China (now in a theater-building boom) and India (now at 3.3 billion in ticket annual sales).

Dodd pointed to the landmark negotiations leading to China’s decision last February to allow 14 more foreign 3D or Imax films per year (up from the previous 20). The proliferation of U.S.-China co-productions — such as Toronto fest opener “Looper” — are indications of increasing biz opportunities between East and We st.

China’s blackout periods, which allow domestic films to bow without foreign competition, caused a “bump” in the relationship last month when Chinese regulators forced “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises” to compete head-to-head.

“These are issues that are going to require lots of work,” said Dodd. “There are two blackout period during the year, which will put pressure on films that want to come in.”

Dodd said co-production status i s something “all of us should be interested in,” though that too hit a snag last month when China’s head biz regulator Zhang Peiming hinted at tighter scrutiny for those requirements, citing cynical “so-called co-production movies (that) just do superficial changes” to reap benefits like guaranteed playdates and higher revenue share.

Still, Dodd acknowledged tentpole and action pics — like Keanu Reeves’ helming bow “Man of Tai Chi,” financed by Village Roadshow, China Film Group, Wanda Media and Universal — as co-prod fare mostly likely to find greenlights in the near future.

The former senator, who served as co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, cited India’s growing middle class (expected to reach approximately 300 million in the next 12 to 15 years) as another “incredible market,” but added that U.S. players “often charge in with their own model — you have to be patient, learn about the audience and how the system works.”

As the discussion moved to the tension between new technologies and content protection, Dodd said great co-production efforts between the U.S. and China, for example, could go a long way to curbing piracy — perhaps the top issue for the biz interests Dodd represents.

“As China has a greater vested interest in its own production, you’ll see that change … we’re seeing the maturation of an industry,” he said, referring to influence high quality U.S. productions could have on China’s industry.

“In the shorter term, Asia does represent the great opportunities in terms of market and production,” he added. “So aside from the obvious financial advantages, I think you’ll see an explosions of projects from that part of the world.”