China’s Film Sales Agents Take First Steps, Face Long Learning Curve

China's Film Sales Agents Take First
Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival

After decades in which films from mainland China were mostly repped internationally by Hong Kong or overseas sales agents, new Chinese firms are now emerging to handle foreign sales. A long learning curve awaits.

Newcomers such as Movie View International, Rediance Films and Asian Shadows are assembling slates of indie films and shopping them at major sales markets, including at the EFM in Berlin. CMC Pictures, which drew attention last year representing $850 million-grossing “Wolf Warrior II,” is an indie sales unit within the China Media Capital conglomerate. And venerable indie sales label Fortissimo Films is set for an imminent comeback.

The change reflects growing film-production volume in China, an expanding independent sector, and burgeoning self-confidence within the mainland industry. It also aligns with the Chinese government’s ambitions to expand cultural exports and increase its soft power. But the companies are going to have to figure out how international markets and festivals work, whether they can afford to attend half a dozen foreign markets per year, and just how much appetite international buyers have for smaller, indie titles from the Middle Kingdom.

Leading Chinese studio groups Huayi Bros. and Wanda have sometimes set up shop at Cannes or the American Film Market. But their strong emphasis on pleasing mainstream audiences at home means that their focus on international has been inconsistent. The costs of hiring booths and flying executives to markets has rarely seemed worth it, and so they have often turned to IM Global, Wild Bunch or Hong Kong sellers such as Golden Network or Distribution Workshop to handle markets.

The newcomers, by contrast, want to be known for Chinese independent and art-house product. “We want to take good care of Chinese independent films in the international market,” said Rediance founder and CEO Xie Meng.

Rediance was launched at the Shanghai festival last June with the backing of production company Blackfin Productions. It started with two Blackfin titles and two pickups. In Berlin, it has Forum selection “An Elephant Sitting Still,” one of six Chinese films in the festival.

Movie View Intl. has no Berlinale pick but is at the EFM with “Dragon Fly Eyes,” a film that is assembled from security camera footage and that has already played in Locarno, Toronto and Busan. The company is also selling “From Where We’ve Fallen,” which premiered in Marco Mueller and Jia Zhangke’s new festival in Pingyao, China.

Asian Shadows (formerly Chinese Shadows) is a Beijing- and Hong Kong-based seller headed by Isabelle Glachant, a French producer whose credits include Wang Xiaoshuai’s “11 Flowers” and Lou Ye’s “Love and Bruises.” No longer seeing China as isolated or separated from the rest of Asia, Glachant is now handling titles from across the region, including Thailand’s “Die Tomorrow,” and upcoming projects from Indonesia.

But many seasoned executives remain uncertain about the sales potential of Chinese content. The country’s mainstream commercial fare may be too localized for global tastes, while art-house titles that don’t hail from veteran auteurs such as Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang and Chen Kaige are a tough sell.

“Just because I have a Chinese blockbuster on my slate doesn’t make it an easy sell,” said Julian Chiu of Hong Kong’s Edko Films, which is handling sales of Chinese box-office sensation and Berlinale Special selection “Monster Hunt 2.”

“Whenever a Chinese film is pitched to me, I tell the producer that they need to do 98% of their business in China, rather than seeing international as where they will make any money,” added Ricky Tse, a sales and production veteran who launched mainland-backed, Hong Kong-based Bravos Pictures four years ago.

The change of ownership at IM Global, now taken over by Tang Media Group, could offer another opportunity for the new players, although Go Global, IM Global’s PR affiliate in China, has already closed, with its staff moving over to a new Beijing base for Fortissimo.

Previously based in Hong Kong and Amsterdam, Asian sales pioneer Fortissimo collapsed into bankruptcy in 2016. Early last year it was bought from receivership by Chinese mini-conglomerate Hehe Pictures and operational control was handed to its Amsterdam crew. But the Hehe executive who championed the deal has now left the company, and Fortissimo’s new Beijing outpost is not expected to launch new titles before Cannes.

Not all of the Chinese companies appearing at markets are sales agents pure and simple. The AFM last year welcomed record numbers of Chinese businesses, but few were conventional sellers. Instead, they included buyers and large numbers of entrepreneurs. “All are looking to expand. Most are planning to be completely vertically integrated,” said AFM MD Jonathan Wolf.

And nothing replaces experience. “It is good that more [mainland] Chinese companies are willing to learn about international markets and festivals,” said Clarence Tang, who heads pure-play sales business Golden Network in Hong Kong. “For the moment, what we can offer in terms of festival strategy and planning may be more valuable that the value of sales dollars we can bring in.”