China’s Art House Alliance Strives to Increase Film Diversity

The goal is to place more highbrow titles and festival winners on the country’s screens

Manchester by the Sea
Courtesy of Amazon

In 2012 there were just three cinemas in Beijing dedicated to art house films. That’s low for a city of 20 million inhabitants and the capital of China’s booming film industry, which is now the world’s second largest in box office terms.

And while Chinese films have consistently won major prizes at top festivals — hard-hitting documentary “Mrs Fang” took the Golden Leopard at August’s Locarno festival — there exists a gulf between China’s embattled auteur sector and the exposure of those films in their home country’s theaters.

That disconnect appeared to have been tackled with the launch last October of the Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas. The alliance took flight with some 100-member screens and stretched across 31 of China’s provinces and regions. Numbers were billed as growing to 300 screens within a year. And that looks on course. “Manchester by the Sea” was cleared for release on 275 screens in 185 cinemas.

The Alliance includes: the China Film Archive, the country’s national film archive and co-programmer of the Beijing film festival; three exhibitors, in Wanda Cinema Line, Lumiere Pavilions and the Chinese cinemas of Hong Kong’s Broadway Circuit; online ticketing firm Weying Technology; and Fabula Entertainment, one of the production and distribution ventures of art-house darling Jia Zhangke.

While public-private partnerships are common in China, the Alliance was not originally conceived as having such a high degree of government involvement. It is understood that the addition of state-owned Huaxia Distribution as an alliance partner was a last-minute requirement by film industry regulator SAPPRFT.

Programming is cautious and state-guided. Open for consideration are award-winning titles, and those that are especially suitable for Chinese audiences. However there is to be no politics, nudity or LGBT themes, programmers say.

Most of the Alliance’s program of 40 films in its first nine months have been unchallenging: a mix of classic Italian movies; six documentaries; specialty titles arranged into four festival seasons; and two Chinese art films, “Summer Is Gone,” by Zhang Dalei, and “Absurd Accident.” “Manchester,” from Amazon Studios and Sierra/Affinity, was the first title to be imported for the Alliance circuit.

That may change. “At China Film Archive we have abundant experience in promoting arthouse films in our own art house cinema,” says Wang Yilan, senior executive of the NAAC. “And via social media, many fans have asked us to expand the screenings to a bigger range.”

It doesn’t work for everyone. “We are aware of the Alliance, but it is not something we can take advantage of at the moment,” says Brett Lauter, who recently launched Saga Films, a pan-Asian distributor whose sister company Red Apollo holds a China distribution license. “There is no additional quota for the import of art house titles. They are still subject to censorship. And (the Alliance) pays very little for rights.”

And while Jia gives the circuit some credibility, questions still abound about the prospects for art cinema in China. The government has closed down several independent and underground fests in the past five years and dismantled the organization and archives of the Beijing Independent Film Festival. Other signs of a crackdown: the expectation that Cannes Un Certain Regard title “Walking Past the Future” may not get a commercial release, and the adult-oriented animated drama “Have a Nice Day” was withdrawn on government instructions from the Annecy festival in June.

Possibly the most interesting element of the Alliance is the presence of Weying, which has already become China’s leading platform for the online ticket buying. And in China more than 80% of movie tickets are sold via mobile devices. That not only gives Weying users the opportunity to discover art house movies, it gives the company the ability to weigh localized interest. Films can then be programmed where there is demand.

Weying has also moved upstream into production finance and also sees itself as a distributor. In Cannes this year the company unveiled a deal with sales agent Wild Bunch to license nine titles playing at the festival, including fest opener “Ismael’s Ghost.”

All the pickups will be subject to approval by China’s censors and import regulators, but the move provides some additional hope that foreign-language art titles and major festival winning films may one day be more common in Chinese cinemas.