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China’s European Ties Heat Up in Cannes

It used to be the glamour and the chance to cultivate relationships with Hollywood that drew Chinese film executives to Cannes. But more than ever before, execs from China are arriving in the South of France ready to do business with Europe.

Sino-European co-productions are increasing. So is inward investment into Europe, as the frenzy of China-Hollywood acquisitions cools off.

“The new emphasis on ties with Europe is not a replacement for the relations that have been built by Chinese companies in Hollywood. But it is a sign of the times – and a sign of sanity,” says producer-director Cristiano Bortone, who maintains offices in Berlin and Beijing.

“There is an expansion of the middle ground between the Hollywood blockbusters and Chinese local productions,” says Bortone, whose Italian-Chinese co-production “Caffe” played in competition at last month’s Beijing film festival. “And there is a growing interest in art-house cinema.”

Bortone heads Bridging the Dragon, a two-year-old initiative that connects independent filmmakers in Europe and China through pitching sessions, production labs, conferences and social events. Bridging the Dragon is holding a half-day conference in Cannes on Friday; another seminar on co-production and storytelling, featuring top Chinese executives such as Huayi Bros.’ Jerry Ye, is scheduled for next week.

For Chinese execs, Europe offers an alternative entry point to English-language filmmaking from Hollywood, where budgets are higher and story development takes longer.

Two years ago, Beijing-based Thunder Communications unveiled its first action project with British writer Andy Briggs through London- and Paris-based Poisson Rouge. Thunder has followed up with a corruption thriller with a pair of writers from Leeds, England, and a big fantasy drama with Brendan Foley out of Belfast and London for top Chinese TV producer Croton Media.

“The attractions of working with Europe are multiple: native English speakers, strong creative history, and the costs are much more reasonable than Hollywood,” Thunder founder Charles Lei says.

The Chinese companies’ English-language approach also boosts French players such as Gaumont, EuropaCorp and Studiocanal, which are all producing English-language slates for global consumption.

In terms of investment and acquisitions, China’s Fundamental Films last year acquired nearly 30% of EuropaCorp and is a co-financier of Luc Besson’s big-budget “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” In February, it emerged that China’s He He Pictures was to buy bankrupt sales agency Fortissimo Films, to build off of its art-house brand name.

Last week, U.K.-based production company BB88 revealed the first three films on its slate that are to be financed by the China-U.K. Film Fund.

Significantly, none of BB88’s films are set in China or have especially significant Chinese elements that would help ensure a theatrical release in China. Rather, BB88 sees its movies as being made at reasonable budget levels and as able to make money from Chinese online distribution rather than theatrical release.

Another opportunity that may be opening in China is the art-house sector. Last October, public and private partners, including Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke and France’s MK2, announced the launch of China’s first dedicated art-house cinema circuit. This promises better conditions for specialist films, eventually permitting the import of more foreign pictures, and more room for China’s own art-house filmmakers.

A wave of co-productions is expected to be unveiled in Cannes and at next month’s Shanghai festival.

Zentropa, already working on “My Best Friend Andersen,” a Danish-Chinese production based on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, is expected to announce more projects, including one based on China’s Singles Day. Bortone’s Orisa will start foodie romance “Italian Recipe” in the fall, Dutch producer Lemming Film will shortly start shooting “Dead and Beautiful,” and Germany’s Gebrueder Beetz will this week unveil upscale nature film “Colors of China.”

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