You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

China’s Independent Sales Shingles Adapt in Tough Market

Chinese films have won a shelf-full of top prizes at major festivals in the past few years. And the country is now making major movies that increasingly top global box office charts – Chinese sci-fi title “The Wandering Earth” is by far the highest- grossing movie in the world so far in 2019, grossing more than $676 million in China alone – but none of that is helping shore up the business of independent Chinese sales agents.

“It is a tough business, we may not be doing it after Cannes,” says Yang Ying, head of sales at Movie View Intl. The company, which represented the stunning 2017 experimental film “Dragonfly Eyes” and star-studded drama “Forever Young,” may instead fall back to its magazine publishing and local marketing strengths.

The problems are multifold: Chinese films have little recent record of scoring with international audiences; China’s sales companies are mostly small and fragile; and recent turmoil within the Chinese film industry creates market instability.

“The last three years has seen the emergence of several (mainland) Chinese sales companies, and the past three to five years has seen more Chinese films in major film festivals,” says Clement Magar, who previously represented IM Global in Beijing and who now heads the revived Fortissimo Films. “But Chinese film sales over the past three years have not been strong.” Magar suggests that 2014 Berlin Golden Bear-winner “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” sold by the old, pre-bankruptcy Fortissimo, was the last Chinese arthouse title to score a meaningful volume of international sales.

The example is telling of the narrow range that Chinese sales agents are able to operate within. “Black Coal” director Diao Yinan’s next title, “Wild Goose Lake,” stands a realistic chance of finding a berth at Cannes this year. It is not represented by a Chinese company, but rather France’s Memento.

European institutional finance and privileged access to major festivals mean that French and German sales agents have often been able to cherry-pick films by China’s best-known auteurs. MK2 finances and represents the films of Jia Zhangke. Wang Xiaoshuai’s double Berlin winner “So Long, My Son” is handled by Germany’s Match Factory, while France’s Wild Bunch has handled Lou Ye’s “Mystery” and “Love and Bruises,” Bi Gan’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster,” Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin.” At the other end of the scale, Hong Kong studios and indie sales agents have traditionally handled most of China’s more commercial output.

The new crop of mainland China-based sales companies, which include Chinese Shadows, Rediance, Parallax, Movie View, and the new Fortissimo (under the ownership of China’s Hehe Pictures), almost of necessity must instead focus on smaller festival titles and take on a talent discovery role.

“The aim is to make Chinese films travel now, and hope that revenues follow,” says one seller, who requested anonymity. “Fortunately, if we stick to an agency business, not taking on finance or production roles, the financial risk is quite limited.”

Cao Liuying, who heads sales at Parallax Films (aka Midnight Blur), describes her recent trip to Berlin’s European Film Market as “quite fruitful.” She succeeded in booking multiple festival dates for her film slate, but only expects to close rights sales deals at FilMart.

“We are frustrated by Western audiences’ stereotype images of what Chinese films should be about. They expect them to be critical, depict recent history and show scenes based on real-life situations,” says Cao. “Our ‘Vanishing Days’ struggled because it doesn’t fit that mold, it is so personal.” “Vanishing Days” has a market screening in FilMart and plays the youth film competition at the Hong Kong Intl. Film Festival.

Admitting that most Chinese films are made primarily with Chinese audience tastes in mind, Cao sees limited upside in the short-term. “If the scope of the market is festivalgoers, then to play a film three times at an overseas festival means exhausting the entire potential audience,” she says.

CMC Pictures, part of Li Ruigang’s sprawling China Media Capital group, is taking a different approach. While CMC Pictures handles sales for its own productions as well as some acquisitions, the company is increasingly pursuing a direct distribution model.
“The overseas market for Chinese films is going down. And prices are lower than before,” says Julia Zhu at CMC Pictures. “But more Chinese films are able to get day-and-date releases, and in more markets.”

This is an expansion of an approach pioneered in recent years in by China Lion, WellGo USA and Asia Releasing (now part of Australian-Chinese Tangren Cultural Film Group0. Having learned the painful lesson that Chinese films are not being picked up by Hollywood majors and given wide outings, these companies have instead targeted the Chinese diaspora markets with releases of commercial Chinese-language films in only a few dozen theaters.

The day-and-date strategy gets movies in theaters ahead of pirated versions and before overseas Chinese audiences can access them via mainland Chinese VOD platforms. CMC Pictures earned an astonishing $5.7 million in North America with its pickup “Wandering Earth.”
Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada have been the pioneer markets, but Zhu says more are catching on. “We are increasingly seeing it happen in the U.K., Singapore, Malaysia and Germany too,” she says.

The other uncertainty dogging the sector flows from last year’s regulatory interventions into the film sector, which led to a sharp slowdown in film production. But the sales executives cannot be sure how that will play out for their businesses.
“[The lower volume of production] could be good for the films that are completed, as there is less competition, or worse because everybody is acting so cautiously,” says Cao.

The big commercial titles targeting holiday releases are still being made, says Zhu. “But the smaller ones are coming to us less well-financed than before.”


More Film

  • The Kings Man

    Film News Roundup: Disney Sets 'The King's Man' Spy Comedy for February

    In today’s film news roundup, “The King’s Man” and “A Kid From Coney Island” get release dates, and “Barry” star Anthony Carrigan joins “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” RELEASE DATE Disney has set its Fox spy comedy prequel “The King’s Man” for release on Feb. 14, 2020. Disney made the announcement Wednesday at its [...]

  • Shyrakshy: Guardian of the Light

    Shanghai Film Review: 'Shyrakshy: Guardian of the Light'

    The bombastic English title might sound like it describes some comic book sci-fi epic, but in “Shyrakshy: Guardian of the Light” our hero does not wear a cape but a weathered cap, and the light he guards is not an interstellar death ray but the flickering beam of a battered old movie projector. Prominent Kazakh [...]

  • Wanda Film's Zeng Maojun

    Shanghai: China's One-Mighty Wanda Casts Itself in Role of Survivor

    The soundtrack for the introductory showreel at Wednesday evening’s Shanghai press event announcing Wanda Pictures’ annual line-up was aspirational and strangely defiant.  It began with Nina Simone crooning, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good,” and then continued with “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. “You [...]

  • 'The Souvenir' Costume Designer Fashioned 1980s'

    'The Souvenir' Costume Designer Put a Decadent Twist on Opulent ’80s Style

    Set against the backdrop of London’s early-1980s cultural renaissance, British auteur Joanna Hogg’s exquisitely sculpted and critically acclaimed “The Souvenir,” which A24 has been widening in platform release for the past month, follows film student Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her gradually destructive romance with the magnetic Anthony (Tom Burke). “We didn’t want a film [...]

  • Anne Hathaway

    Crew Member Stabbed on Set of Anne Hathaway's 'The Witches' in England

    A crew member has been stabbed in the neck on the set of Anne Hathaway’s “The Witches” remake, which is being shot at the Warner Bros. Studios stages in Leavesden, Hertfordshire. The Hertfordshire Constabulary said in a statement that the victim was hospitalized and his alleged attacker was arrested. The two men are believed to [...]

  • paranormal-activity-1

    Paramount, Blumhouse Announce Seventh 'Paranormal Activity' Movie

    Paramount Pictures and Jason Blum’s Blumhouse are teaming on a seventh “Paranormal Activity” movie. Paramount chief Jim Gianopulos announced the untitled project Wednesday during the studio’s CineEurope presentation in Barcelona. Plot details are also under wraps. The franchise was launched with 2007’s “Paranormal Activity,” a micro-budget film about a young couple who had who moved [...]

  • Steve Buscemi

    Steve Buscemi Joins Judd Apatow's Upcoming Pete Davidson Comedy (EXCLUSIVE)

    Steve Buscemi, Kevin Corrigan, Domenick Lombardozzi and Mike Vecchione have rounded out the cast of Universal’s untitled Judd Apatow comedy starring Pete Davidson. Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Pamela Adlon had been previously announced. Apatow is directing from a script he co-wrote with Davidson and Dave Sirus. The film is a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content