The ability to import films from outside the quota regimes is a powerful weapon in the armory of the Nationwide Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas, a dedicated circuit of cinemas and screens that was launched in China in late 2016.
The number of foreign films brought into China by the NAAC has been modest so far. But with a team of three selectors at the Berlin Film Festival — despite this year’s clash of dates between the Berlinale and the Chinese New Year holidays — the task is being taken seriously.
“We see our role as doing something to level the playing field for arthouse films,” says Sun Xianghui, director of the China Film Archive, the state-backed organization that piloted the initiative for two years before launch.
“Before 2014 there were no specialist arthouse cinemas in China, that made it very hard for art films to compete for screens and the resources needed for promotion,” says Sun. China now counts over 50,000 screens, of which the NAAC now programs 1,200 affiliated screens in 100 cities.
“We have different systems for selecting Chinese and foreign films. But the process is a familiar one. We attend Berlin, Cannes and Hong Kong FilMart, and sales agents and producers also submit titles to us,” says Sun.
“We know that there is audience demand for films from outside the mainstream. Many people think that China is a difficult market in terms of content. I don’t see it that way,” says Sun. “The only content we find difficult to select are those that are politically sensitive, [religiously] sensitive, LGBT, have too much sex, too much violence or deliberately discriminate. We have to comply with the censorship regulations of the Film Bureau.”
Foreign films acquired to date by the NAAC include “Manchester by the Sea,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Third Murder.”
As well as creating mini-festivals, the NAAC programs uses increasingly sophisticated strategies for programming and marketing. It uses Tao Piao Piao, the ticketing platform operated by Alibaba, to create a version of theatrical on-demand programming. “A bit like crowdfunding, we use it to find out in advance what level of audience interest there is for a film, and in which cities. That allows us to program accordingly,” Sun says. And for films with stronger crossover potential, it uses ticketing platform Maoyan for promotion and sales.
Online platforms are also used to for community engagement. “Doing roadshows would be too expensive for us, but we are able to do a lot of Q&As after the screenings, with speakers including experts and academics.”