Young British outfit BB88 is one of the early beneficiaries of the ongoing diversification of the Chinese film industry.
BB88 – when pronounced in Chinese fashion means someone who is very noisy – is pulling the wraps off its first Chinese-backed production slate in time for Cannes.
Now in post-production, “GiantLand” is a poignant drama about a boy’s identification of a strange, bearded man as his father. It is written and directed by first time feature film maker Yousaf Ali Khan, who has a pair of BAFTA nominations for earlier work. It stars Goran Bogdan and Hayley Squires as adult protagonists and Mitchell Lawrence Norman as the boy, Ryan.
If that doesn’t sound particularly Chinese, it’s because BB88’s slate is intended to put more emphasis on quality than checking boxes or scoring points to qualify as a co-production.
“We want to make commercially viable independent films that are also artistically honest,” says co-founder Craig Conway. “We believe that we can do both.” By way of example, he points to the company’s first film, “Broken,” a very-low-budget 2016 drama with a horror twist, about a woman whose past intrudes on her caring for a handicapped patient. It was on the set of “Broken” that Conway was introduced to “GiantLand.”
The company was carefully structured from the outset. It matches Conway’s 25-year track record as a writer, director, producer and actor, with the business management skills of Kirsty Bell, a former tax adviser turned film producer and financier. She previously founded Goldfinch Entertainment in 2013 and has since raised some $90 million (GBP70 million) for investment in 130 movie projects. Goldfinch is a backer of BB88.
In April last year, the China-U.K. Film Fund, which is backed by Zhongze Culture Investment and Varcale Capital Management, announced that it was to back four U.K. film companies. (Duncan Heath’s Independent Talent Group was one of the others.) Zhongze and the fund committed to co-financing a slate of three films from BB88.
“We aim to have an ongoing production operation, not just make films one project at a time,” says Conway. That production flow will also help make use of the company’s in house post-production facility. “We are looking at new directors and talent all the time. But we have rejected many projects at script stage because we could not get the value equation right.”
“We were interested in BB88’s business model, Internet drama, and the possibility of making films that could work in China without necessarily having to get a theatrical release,” says Gina Fegan, director of culture at Zhongze. “(Zhongze and the fund) are looking at U.K. films that can travel, and at Chinese films for China, and then trying to grow the two teams together.”
BB88 company hopes soon to be able to announce a prominent autumn festival berth for “GiantLand.” And at Cannes it expects to be able to unveil its international sales agent.
Next up is “The Kruger,” a psychological thriller set in a South African safari park, and pitched as “Wolf Creek” meets “Cujo.” The nearly-$5 million budget picture is fully-financed and now casting. BB88 says the project is enjoying the competitive attentions of three sales agents.
Green-lighted in recent days, is one film with more obvious appeal for Chinese audiences. “Break” is a rags-to-riches tale about a wastrel from London who attempts to crack the milieu of professional snooker, but will have to break with good friends and bad habits to do so. It is to be directed by Michael Elkin and was brought to the company by actor Terry Dwyer.
Other Chinese companies have started to eye the U.K. and French film industries, particularly English-language French movies, reasoning that they can access decades of movie experience, but at a fraction of the cost of buying their way into Hollywood or competing for Hollywood projects.