Chinese Companies Flock to Cannes, but With More Modest Ambitions

The Eight Hundred (The 800)
Bai Xiaoyan/Huayi Bros.

After a brutal first quarter for most Chinese movie studios, companies from the Middle Kingdom are still out in force at the Cannes Film Festival, but in search of quality and value for money instead of swagger and prestige.

About 600 Chinese representatives have flocked to the Cote d’Azur, about the same number as last year, according to the festival. But industry execs say Chinese buyers are likely to be more circumspect and price-conscious, with their sights set on a limited number of plum acquisitions.

That contrasts with last year, when Fan Bingbing was still strutting her stuff on the Croisette and China rights to her “355” project with Jessica Chastain traded hands for a reported $20 million. A major tax crackdown, a new industry regulator and a slowing box office have since created a winter freeze in China worthy of “Game of Thrones.” Production has plummeted, financiers have fled and audiences have grown pickier, leaving many of the best-known companies nursing losses.

Sally Yihua Li of indie distributor Time in Portrait, which has acquired China rights to three of this year’s Cannes competition titles, said her company will be “more conservative than in previous years” at the Marché, “as right now the Chinese economy isn’t looking so hopeful.”

Some said the more sober approach may not be a bad thing. “This shakeout is really healthy,” one veteran producer told Variety. “The industry was over-capitalized and unprofessional. The audience is not going to go away. It is just a question of getting good stuff to them.”

An increased focus on quality has been spurred by the box office success in China of last year’s Palme d’Or winner, “Shoplifters”; another Cannes competition title, “Capernaum,” which has now made more than $40 million in China; and “Green Book,” whose Oscar win led to a $70 million take. The past 18 months has also seen a succession of story-driven Indian titles rack up more than $350 million in the Middle Kingdom.

Picking winners has enabled smaller distributors to compete with larger firms. Both “Shoplifters” and “Capernaum” were distributed by indie company Road Pictures. But it’s still a tough business. “Even though Chinese audiences are becoming more sophisticated and are increasingly interested in quality international content, there is no guarantee that those [successes] can be replicated,” said Cai Gongming, Road Pictures’ CEO. “Each release is a battle.”

With the Communist Party’s propaganda department now in charge of film in China, uncertainty has also increased over what types of films will make it past censors. “They’re still figuring things out themselves, and it’s not yet very clear to most people what exactly they want,” said Jiang Wusheng, CEO of United Entertainment Partners, one of China’s major independent distributors.

Jiang expected Chinese buyers at Cannes to be “much more cool-headed” this year, on the lookout for films “that exude ‘positive energy’ — that are optimistic and suit mainstream Chinese values, focusing on families, pure love, patriotism, righteous heroes and social issues, as long as they’re not too dark.” The premium will be on stories “where the moral lines of the story are quite clear.”

On the sellers’ side, the production freeze means fewer Chinese projects in the Marché. “It is said that over 600 films in various stages of production were closed down,” said veteran distributor Milt Barlow. “Though there seems to be a reasonable amount of Chinese product in pre- and post-production doing the rounds at Cannes, we are all not expecting to see a return to the norm until Q4 or Q1 2020.”

Despite the tough times and smaller number of titles, Chinese production budgets are getting bigger. Some of these films are being offered up at Cannes, including Dante Lam’s Coast Guard actioner “The Rescue” ($90 million); Huayi Bros.’ wartime drama “The Eight Hundred” ($80 million); Distribution Workshop and Bona’s “The Chinese Pilot,” a “Sully”-like pic from Hong Kong’s Andrew Lau ($60 million); and “Ip Man 4,” a kung-fu pic that will pit Donnie Yen against Scott Adkins ($52 million).

On paper, these projects stand a better chance of international sales success than recent patriotically themed films like “Wolf Warriors 2” and “Operation Red Sea,” which were massive hits at home but left foreigners cold.

“Nationalistic treatments may appeal to Chinese audiences, but can be alienating for international moviegoers, especially amid growing anxiety about the country’s increasingly assertive foreign policy,” said Aynne Kokas, assistant professor of media studies at Virginia University.

In another shift from last year, Chinese buyers will be less focused on VOD, said Nathan Hao of distributor Times Vision. “The VOD market is bad, because the platforms have pushed the prices down,” Hao said. “So what’s very likely is that everyone’s looking at theatrical release. And we, for instance, will also be looking at remake rights.”

When Hao said that VOD is difficult, it’s a matter of perspective. China is unusual in that, for several years, its streaming sector grew strongly at the same time as theatrical business expanded. China’s top two streaming video platforms each claim more than 80 million subscribers.

Like their U.S. counterparts, Tencent Video, Alibaba’s Youku and iQIYI are now directing more effort into original content than acquisitions. But, given the power that they wield over purchase and co-productions, their execs will likely be among the most sought-after people on the Croisette.

Cannes’ Official Selection showcases a different side of Chinese cinema. Diao Yinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake,” in the main competition, and Zu Feng’s “Summer of Changsha,” in Un Certain Regard, are brainy genre films. “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains,” which closes Critics’ Week, chronicles changes in a Chinese village.