China Co-Productions: Still in Search of a Winning Formula

Matt Damon The Great Wall
Courtesy: The Great Wall

Film co-productions involving China have been going on now for years, but the search for a winning formula continues as partners try to overcome differences in culture, work style and financing, industry leaders in China say.

The difficulties surrounding co-productions were a running theme at last week’s FilMart market and conference in Hong Kong, Asia’s largest such gathering. At a seminar organized by the China Daily and sponsored by Variety, industry heavyweights said that surefire success in co-producing remains elusive even as the number of co-productions seems certain to expand.

The session pointed up several different definitions of co-production. There are those arranged under bilateral treaties, while some qualify according to Chinese rules. Still others may be of the unofficial kind, simply international joint ventures between private companies.

Amy Liu from data agency Ent Group said that the opening of the China market since the country joined the World Trade Organization had created the opportunity between 2001 and 2012 for co-productions and film imports. A new era since 2012 saw 54 Chinese co-productions with Hong Kong and 10 with the U.S., she said.

Using a different basis for calculation, William Feng of the Motion Picture Assn. said there had been just two co-productions per year between China and the U.S. from 2009 to 2012. That number rose to nine in 2016. Feng suggested that co-productions have been the most successful kind of films in China. He described “The Great Wall,” which earned more than $170 million in China and $42 million to date, as a flagship for co-productions.

One of the greatest challenges facing co-productions is finding films and stories that can work both in China and international markets. “Finding content for both audiences is really difficult,” said Chen Yiqi, chairman of SIL Metropole Organisation, a Chinese government-owned producer and financier based in Hong Kong.

Sharing technology “is one of the easier aspects of co-production,” added Dagan Potter, production lead on “Kung Fu Panda 3.” “Getting the working culture right is harder.”

Different methodologies and scale also pose problems for Sino-foreign film relations. Ann An, producer and chairman of Desen Intl., who is working with Paula Wagner’s Chestnut Ridge Prods. on “Moonflower Over Flying Tigers,” said that trying to bridge those differences was tough.

“After two years, we are still at script stage. We now have a well-structured U.S. screenplay, but it no longer meets Chinese criteria,” An said. “Also, there is a budget mismatch between the U.S. and Chinese partners,” suggesting that American firms have greater resources at development stage.

William Pfeiffer, executive chairman of Lionsgate-affiliated Globalgate Entertainment, acknowledged that some past co-productions had failed to attract audiences equally in China and the U.S. But he said that international corporate expansion was a force for change.

“Globalization is inevitable and a positive,” Pfeiffer said. “There will be a big blurring of borders. We are already seeing it in film financing. And now there are attempts in story.”