‘Slow-fast’ Secrets of Franco-Chinese Co-productions Discussed at Paris Images

China was the spotlight of the 15th edition of the Dream Industry event

PARIS – Co-productions with the world’s fastest growing film market, China, was the subject of this year’s 15th Dream Industry (Feb. 4-6), integrated within the Paris Images Trade Show.

The event included round tables with representatives from French and Chinese film agencies, directors and producers, and a master class with guest of honor, Chinese helmer Wang Chao (“Fantasia”).

Discussions provided fascinating insights into the different working models prevailing in France and China, and how industry players have come to terms with this complex reality.

Key French-Chinese coproductions discussed during the event included Wang Chao’s romantic tale, “Looking for Rohmer,” Jean Jacques Annaud’s epic production, “Wolf Totem,” Pascal Morelli’s animation feature, “108 Demon-Kings,” Philippe Muyl’s “The Nightingale,” Pengfei Song’s “Les Vagabonds de Pékin”and Emmanuel Sapolsky’s “The Eye of Silence,” plus Zoltan Mayer’s 100% French production, “Voyage to China,” and Leon Lai’s Chinese action comedy, “Wine Wars,” that lensed in 2014 in the Paris region, under the TRIP scheme.

Analysis highlighted key differences between the French and Chinese film industries while emphasizing that co-productions between the two countries have delivered highly positive results.

France has a relatively stable box office: 2014 was a particularly good year in tix sales – with 7.7% growth, 206 million paid admissions. (It still remains to beseen how that translates into box office). More than 65% of cinemagoers were 26 or over in 2013 and the domestic market share in 2014 was 44%.

In the mid-2000s, China had a similar level of admissions, under 300 million, but has been growing at more than 30% per annum. In 2014, China’s box office surged ahead by 36% to hit RMB29.6 billion ($4.82 billion), with 830 million admissions, making it the world’s second largest theatrical market. The domestic market share in 2014 was 55%. The average age of cinemagoers is much younger than in France – 21.5 years old.

Whereas the French industry is heavily subsidized and continues to have a strong tradition of auteur films, the Chinese film industry is financed by a mixture of private equity and state-owned enterprises, such as the China Film Group, and is highly geared towards churning out genre-based blockbusters.

In order to penetrate the Chinese box office, star power is absolutely vital, and leading Chinese actors earn rates comparable to top Hollywood talent. They are also highly booked which makes it difficult for co-productions to get Chinese stars on board.

The difficulty in gaining access to stars or screens for auteur films led Zoltan Mayer to decide to produce her film “Voyage to China” as a 100% French production. Despite the subject matter and the fact that the film is set in China, the helmer quickly realized that it would be impossible to get a Chinese co-production partner or a theatrical distribution deal.

Censorship was another major issue during the day’s discussions. Projects have to be submitted twice to the censorship board – at script stage and prior to the film’s release. The censor’s main concern, according to the panelists, isn’t so much the inclusion of more racy images, such as scenes about sex or drugs. Above all the censors want to avoid portraying a negative image of Chinese society.

Chinese actress Xin Wang, who has been living in Paris for the past 12 years decided to produce a film offering her biting view of modern-day China – “The Eye of Silence,” directed by Emmanuel Sapolsky and budgeted at €0,4 million ($0,5 million), primarily through investments in kind.

Silence” shows the dark underbelly of Beijing, with night clubs, prostitution and drugs. Wang was convinced that the censors would prohibit her from filming and so decided to shoot clandestinely.

At the other end of the spectrum, Matthieu de la Mortière, assistant director on Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem” which is majority-financed by the state-owned China Film Group, suggested that despite the political sensitive topic – China’s Cultural Revolution – the production team felt virtually no pressures from the censorship authorities, partly due to the creative approach taken in the film and the political savvy handling by the CFG’s producer.

French helmer Philippe Muyl was full of praise for his Chinese partners, following his experience on “The Nightingale,” which has been chosen to represent China in the 2015 Academy Awards. Muyl’s 2002 film “Le Papillon” was a major hit in the Chinese box office and the Chinese financiers gave him carte blanche for his recent film, provided that it once again featured an old man and a small girl.

French producer Olivier Akni, at Reboot Films, explained how he met Chinese director Wang Chao in the Paris Cinema festival in 2001.

Chao was touting a project about classic French helmer Eric Rohmer and had an eight-page script. Aknin got Chao to expand the script to 40 pages and received avance-sur-recettes funding from the CNC. Chao succeeded in getting a popular Chinese actor, Han Geng, and the film quickly switched from being a majority French-Chinese co-production, to a film in which over 60% of the financing was raised in China.

Aknin said that they’re prepping the film to be ready by Cannes and he believes that it also has significant potential in the Chinese box office, notwithstanding its more art house feel, because it appeals to the poetic and romantic vision of France that is cherished in China.

Vincent Roget, at Same Player, talked about his experiences with his first animation pic, “108 Demon Kings,” set in 12th century Imperial China – that combines live-action footage with animation. It took him two-and-a-half years to find the right Chinese partner – after “lots of meetings and big promises.” Around 25% of the financing comes from China.

The live action scenes were shot in the studios of the China Film Group, which Roget described as “quite an experience.” He suggested that in terms of equipment the studios had all the latest technology, and ten times as much equipment as an equivalent French studio, but often lacked the technical training to be able to use it correctly.

108 Demon Kings” was released in France in January on just over 600 screens, but Roget said that they were disappointed with the results. In China it will be released on 2000 screens but he noted that if a film underperforms it can be withdrawn even after the first weekend.

Another key subject of discussion during the round tables was the difference in working methods between the two countries. In China, the participants suggested that the director is viewed as an almighty, dictatorial figure – whatever he says is law. This means that teams must be able to work last-minute miracles to achieve his goals. It also means that the chain of command is extremely top heavy.

Mortiere explained that on “Wolf Totem” he initially had difficulty imposing respect as First Assistant Director because technicians were used to only listening to the director.

Quan Rongzhe, production designer on “Wolf,” also admitted that there was tension at first because he was not used to having an assistant director challenge his approach. Working hours was another major difference. Whereas French crews are highly regulated, with eight hour days, lunch breaks and weekend breaks, Chinese production was portrayed as a round-the-clock endeavor, with 15-hour shooting days, seven days a week. In order to maintain the pace, Chinese technicians grab mini-siestas whenever there’s any down time on the set.

The Chinese directors shooting in France under French rules, stated that they were amazed that they had a weekend break and suddenly had time for a lavish lunch, including on occasions a three-course meal – as Wang Chao revealed, to the audience’s amusement.

At the same time, the Chinese helmers and technicians felt that there was a lack of flexibility in the French system because they were used to be able to change everything at the last minute, whereas in France everything was planned well in advance.

Wang Chao said that his only saving was that he had written the script and if he changed the script he could usually get what he wanted.

The language barrier was another major issue. In terms of work methods, the participants suggested that given that film is a universal visual language, it wasn’t so difficult to communicate. Helmer Philippe Muyl said that it was a bit like tasting different culinary dishes: You couldn’t necessarily explain the recipe in words but it was easy to communicate about the final taste.

Producer Vincent Roget said that the language barrier’s often more keenly felt at a more mundane level – for example, getting in to a taxi and trying to go somewhere.

Taiwanese producer Vincent Wang has been based in Paris for many years, and through his production company House on Fire has produced all the films directed by Tsai Min-Liang. He discussed his latest production, “Les Vagabonds de Pekin” by Pengfei Song, whose screenplay won a prize at the Torino Film Lab and at the Sundance Film Lab, and then received a production grant from the CNC’s “Cinema du Monde” programme. He was finally able to raise the finance for the production after receiving a call from a young Chinese producer based in Beijing and who previously studied at Oxford.

The final case-study was the Chinese production “Wine Wars,” directed by and starring Leon Lai. Pic was produced under the TRIP international tax rebate scheme. With a 160-man crew and a 35-day shoot, primarily in Saint Tropez and a chateau in the middle of France, “Wars” is the biggest ever Chinese production in France, with a total production spend of €3 million ($3,5 million).

Line producer Bernard Lorain said that the shoot went very well, but that there was a major learning curve for the Chinese team to adapt to French working methods. There were four major Chinese stars on the production, each accompanied by around 4 assistants. Lorain complained about the incessant need to set up production meetings, which added a further three hours after a 10-day shoot. However, he said that during the production it was possible to minimize meetings and achieve a common working method.

On the evening of Feb. 4, 50-year old Chinese helmer Wang Chao delivered a master class in Le Grand Action cinema in the Paris Latin Quarter, where he talked about how he first got into the business as a student at the Peking Film School and as assistant director to Chen Kaige.

He then reviewed his recent pics such as “Luxury Car” which won the Un Certain Regard sidebar in Cannes, 2006, followed by the Franco-Chinese co-productions “Memory of Love” and “Fantasia,” which played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2014. He also talked about how his long-running admiration for the French Nouvelle Vague, which inspired him to put together his latest film, “Looking for Rohmer.”

For the two-week shoot in France for the film, he chose to work with cinematographer Caroline Champetier who has worked with leading French helmers such as Jean Luc Godard and Leos Carax.

Paris Image Dream Industry runs Feb. 4-6.


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