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European Execs Look to Strengthen Chinese Entertainment Industry Ties

The year of the Rooster has dawned, and European entertainment executives are already crowing that 2017 could mark a turning point for industry ties between Europe and China.

Co-productions are brewing, investments and acquisitions are under way, and the uncertainty of Sino-U.S. relations under President Donald Trump is prompting Chinese entrepreneurs to broaden their horizons. In Berlin, Chinese representation at the European Film Market was up by 17%, with 148 registered participants this year versus 126 in 2016.

The fact that they’re giving priority to the EFM “says something about how important Europe has become to them,” says Rikke Ennis, CEO of Danish powerhouse TrustNordisk, which has a Zentropa China outpost.

Zentropa China will soon be announcing the Chinese director for its Hans Christian Anderson movie “My Best Friend Andersen.” The film is the first co-production between Denmark and China, and tops a slate primarily geared towards the Chinese market.

France is at the forefront of the emerging Europe-China film industry relationship. China’s Fundamental holds a 28% stake in Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, whose “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is set to hit global screens in July. The sci-fi epic “will hopefully mark a new step in the co-production history between China and France,” says producer Isabelle Glachant, who is based in Beijing and is also Unifrance’s representative for Greater China.

“Valerian” is among the titles in the running to open the Cannes Film Festival in May. Its key cast includes Chinese box office star Kris Wu, who stars alongside Vin Diesel in the Hollywood-China collaboration “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage,” which made $137 million in the Middle Kingdom as of Feb. 20.

Wu also toplines Hong Kong action thriller “Europe Raiders,” produced by Wong Kar-wai, which recently completed a 10-week shoot in Italy. “Raiders” is the first Chinese film to benefit from Italian tax incentives on foreign productions, line producer Marco Valerio Pugini notes.

Glachant says that China’s relationship with Europe is different from the one with Hollywood, which “generates lots of big announcements,” but “very often a year later you find they never turned into something real, or ended up in court.” European companies, by contrast, “do co-productions mostly on a project-by-project basis,” without much media fanfare.

Still, there have been some high-profile developments. These include Wanda-owned AMC theater chain’s acquisition of Nordic Cinema Group, the Nordic and Baltic region’s top exhibitor, in January, which followed its acquisition of Western Europe’s largest cinema operator, Odeon-UCI, last year. Germany’s Studio Babelsberg has inked a strategic pact with Shanghai Film Group, and Britain’s Pinewood Studios is expanding in China.

But challenges remain. Co-productions are hindered by a Chinese requirement that the minority partner account for 30% of the package, and the Chinese market is so much larger than any individual European partner territory that most co-productions will likely be in Chinese and dominated by Chinese elements and cast.

Censorship and the avoidance of taboo genres are also stumbling blocks.

“There is a problem getting the Chinese on board for Western-Chinese projects,” says German producer Oliver Damian (“Iron Sky”), who is trying to mount Shanghai-set cyber-thriller “Blow In,” about a Western blogger fighting a gang of Chinese criminals, with French first-timer Jerome Duvall helming. “They really normally want Chinese director or main cast, to make it…attractive to the Chinese market.”

They also want European “talents that Chinese audiences can recognize,” says former Venice Film Festival director and China expert Marco Mueller.

There are only a handful of those outside Britain. One is Lea Seydoux, who has been to China twice on promotional tours, to promote Bond film “Spectre” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

Likewise, finding Chinese talent with international appeal is also difficult. A starry Western and Chinese cast is still no guarantee of success – witness the modest box office performance of Zhang Yimou’s costly action pic “The Great Wall,” starring Matt Damon and Andy Lau. That, plus the fallout from Trump’s election, could steer Chinese producers away from Hollywood and “towards the potential [value] of European partnerships,” says Glachant, adding: “I hope so.”

Patrick Frater contributed to this report.

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