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Johnny Ma on the Dynamics of New Era Film Production in China

Shanghai-born Canadian filmmaker Johnny Ma says he’d planned to make three films in China before moving on to other things, but the current state of the Chinese industry has “forced his hand” and convinced him to move on early after two.

Currently living in Mexico, his next project is actually in TV: a pilot for a series of Asian-American stories for Amazon, in collaboration with the creators of “Westworld” that he says could be a “game-changer” for Asian-American representation.

“I first came here five years ago because I felt my story wasn’t being taken seriously in North America, where I was categorized as a minority filmmaker. I thought I could have more impact in China. But now it’s different,” he told Variety on the sidelines of the International Film Festival and Awards Macao, where his second feature “To Live To Sing” is competing in the new Chinese cinema section.

His works “aren’t getting a chance to reach an audience” in China, a country without robust channels for arthouse distribution, at a time post-“Crazy Rich Asians” when Asian-American stories are suddenly finding traction in North America. “Over there, things are changing,” he said.

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Meanwhile, his first film “Old Stone” never came out in Chinese theaters, and though his second has the “dragon seal” of censorship approval, he’s doubtful his backers will decide a theatrical release makes financial sense.

There’s as much push as pull when it comes to his desire to leave China behind. Ma says he’s still not in China’s movie-making “in” crowd, and no longer desires to be. In a wide-ranging interview with Variety, he discussed how mainland filmmaking right now is often tight knit to the point of near impenetrability, explicitly focused on the money, saddled with bigger talent egos, struggling with financing at a time of high taxes, creatively restricted by censorship, and convinced in an almost groupthink fashion that bigger is always better.

“The system (in China) is very insular. It’s very hard to get in. There’s a fear of collaborating with new people,” he said, explaining that his debut would never have gotten made without his executive producer Nai An on board, whose backing was the only reason why anyone would even take a meeting with him as an outsider.

The attitude initially baffled him until he saw where it came from. People only work with those they already trust because “there are so many bullshit productions around that never get made or just stop in the middle, and so many investment companies that want to get into movies but don’t know how and have no experience.”

While in the U.S., people in the film industry would be aware and steer clear of firms with obviously poor track records, in China, the sheer number of companies and size of the playing field means that even those with weak histories can continue to work in different circles.

“You can really have a disaster in China if you work with someone you’ve never worked with and you haven’t vetted them, much more so than in the States. Here, there are some real horror stories,” he said.

Everything from financing to casting to passing censorship all comes down to who you know, which makes things especially tough for younger filmmakers who don’t yet have the networks of their older predecessors, Ma points out, using director Wang Xiaoshuai and his protege Hu Bo as an example.

With his clout, Wang was able to guide his Berlin Silver Bear-winning “So Long, My Son” past censorship, despite it being a harsh criticism of the one-child policy. Meanwhile, the talented Hu ended up tragically committing suicide amidst reports of disagreements with Wang over his film “An Elephant Sitting Still,” which post-humously won him a Golden Horse Award for best feature.

“It’s really sad that in order to fight for your film [in China] you literally have to decide whether or not you want to lose your life for it. It’s crazy.” Hu’s film will almost certainly never get a Chinese theatrical release.

Furthermore, finding the right collaborators is increasingly hard these days as financing dries up due to new tax regulations. “It’s so drastic as a filmmaker for suddenly one third of the companies that were around a few years ago not to be around any more. You try to make your movie but suddenly you have fewer people selecting films who are more risk averse,” he said.

He explained that “to actually follow the rules, you’re paying more tax than in France to make a film, which is a lot” — meaning that mid-budget arthouse films have basically been squeezed into non-existence.

Coupled with this financial reality is a sort of internalized social pressure to always do things at a larger scale.

“In Europe, a filmmaker can get into his comfort zone and just keep making films at that level,” exploring the themes they’re interested in at the budget available to them primarily through public funding. But in China, “it seems you need to always get bigger and bigger and bigger. You can’t just stay the same,” he said, something he chalked up to a collective need to not lose face and pay back favors.

While it was fine for Ma’s first film to be made on a $230,000 budget, his producers balked when they heard his second feature would also be made with at a similar $300,000 price point. They pushed him to try his hand at a project that could entice bigger investment, but he resisted, feeling like he “shouldn’t not tell a certain story just because it’s not a certain size.”

The stance is not a popular one in China, where even arthouse darlings like Jia Zhangke and Lou Ye, best known abroad for films that were banned in the mainland, are now working with ever bigger budgets and chasing mainstream box office success.

To Live To Sing” began as a job Ma took adapting a documentary into a feature for the Chinese actor Zhang Guoli and his wife Deng Jie. It morphed into its present form when he decided it would be more interesting to tell the story through the original performers from the documentary, rather than professional actors. The film chronicles the demise a Sichuan opera troop that’s grappling with an aging audience and the impending demolition of its beloved theater.

Ma hopes to use his sense of being an outsider in both China and North America to his advantage. “There’s a whole new group of people who have these identity issues of not knowing where their home really is and not fitting in anywhere. But to fully accept that you’re just in the middle is kind of enlightening, because you bring something different as a creator.”

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