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Shanghai: Previously Banned Producer Nai An Now Hails Chinese Film Funding

At a panel on indie film production at the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival, Chinese and foreign producers discussed the shifting funding landscape for their projects over the years.

Nai An, the longtime collaborator of controversial “sixth generation” Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye, kicked off the talk with a look back at her producing career, which has spanned the entire range of his works from 2000’s “Suzhou River” to last year’s “The Shadow Play.” Nai and Lou both received five-year bans over 2006’s “Summer Palace,” which depicted the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and was screened at the Cannes Film Festival without the permission of government censors.

A decade ago, Nai was forced to look to Europe for arthouse funding, which was largely unavailable in China. Her first seven or eight films were all made with foreign investment, she said – sidestepping the fact that most of them were also banned in her home country. But now, she added, “things are changing.”

Europe’s economy is faltering, and many entities have cut down on budgets once designated for Asian or Chinese directors, Nai said. More Chinese filmmakers have also learned about such channels, making competition for finance fierce.

More important, China’s economy has boomed in the meantime. Financing prospects within China have improved thanks to “a huge amount of hot money, but also more and more professional funding sources that have emerged over time,” Nai said. “There’s now a huge amount of capital in China. I suggest that young directors try to find their funding here.”

It was a notable statement from a producer with so many of her own works still unavailable within the mainland. But stances clearly change along with the economic tailwinds: Her last three collaborations with Lou marked their return to working within the state censorship system, and “The Shadow Play,” their most theatrically successful feature yet in China, enjoyed box office of $9.3 million (RMB64.7 million).

Director and producer Tomm Moore, whose “Song of the Sea” won the Shanghai festival’s Golden Goblet Award in 2014 for best animated film, also took a long look back at his own trajectory.

When he first started making animated features 20 years ago, “the European co-production model was just finding its feet, becoming a way of making an independent animated film,” he said. Producers from all over Europe would meet once a year to discuss projects and find partners.

The model worked for decades, but Moore says things began to change three or four years ago, when a number of European features received international attention and were nominated for Oscars. Then Netflix arrived on the scene — and so did Chinese money. “Suddenly we’re making independent movies but with a big corporation involved, and they have different concerns than just a small group of studios who band together to make independent movies,” he said.

Under the old co-production approach, directors and producers had much more freedom to make exactly the film they wanted to make. But “when you take money from a big funder, you have to take in their concerns,” he noted. “We’re kind of tiptoeing into a more commercial, mainstream way of working with studios.”

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