Jessica Chastain’s “Ava” has skipped a theatrical release in China, but is instead to get the widest possible online outing in the Middle Kingdom. From Saturday it is available on China’s four largest generalist streaming platforms: Tencent Video, Alibaba-owned Youku, iQIYI and Mango TV.
The maneuver was piloted by Los Angeles and Beijing based Leeding Media. The David U. Lee-headed company licensed the rights from Voltage Pictures, steered it through Chinese censorship and picks up a “presented by” credit.
Directed by Tate Taylor, “Ava” sees Chastain as an assassin who has to fight for her own survival after one of her missions goes wrong. It enjoyed staggered theatrical releases around the world from June onwards. Its limited U.S. release started from Sept. 25 and was followed by premium VoD outings on Amazon and iTunes.
There have been very few American films sold into China this year. And everything about this deal was hard unusually difficult, Lee says. Hurdles included finding a date, getting the film through censorship, and simply establishing the trust necessary to get the transaction done.
The litany of problems reflects the way that Chinese cinemas were closed for nearly six months between late January and July, ruining the finances of Chinese companies, and having a knock-on-effect on cross-border corporate relations. “A lot of Chinese distributors defaulted on deals this year. Others refused to take delivery, leaving titles in limbo,” Lee told Variety.
“Our company may have succeeded because we’ve been doing this for many years, we are involved locally in the community in both China and the U.S., and we have people on the ground in both countries,” he said. Leeding Media has marketed 14 feature films theatrically in China and controls exclusive digital distribution rights to nearly 500 titles in China, including “Million Dollar Baby,” “Whiplash,” “Rush” and the Divergent series.
The release date in China for “Ava” has less to do with government controls than the wrangling and co-ordination necessary to get four platforms to work together, Lee explains. China’s streaming platforms have become hugely powerful operations with at least three of them each able to claim more than 100 million monthly subscribers to their paid tiers. While they consider themselves as rivals, especially in matters of original production, the big platforms also occasionally cooperate as a means of risk-sharing.
“Censorship was challenging” said Lee, underlining the previously established trend of ever-tightening controls that has stalled and diverted the normal routes to approval and release for both local and foreign titles. That was most graphically highlighted earlier this month when “Monster Hunter” was ripped from Chinese theaters after only a day, due to a fit of nationalist hysteria over a line of dialog seen as racist by bloggers. “The (U.S.-China) trade war seems to have put a strain on relations,” he said.
Still, Lee is optimistic that “Ava” has what it takes to succeed in China. “First, it is a rare piece of fresh western content reaching Chinese audiences in 2020. Second, we expect the female empowerment angle to play well in China. The story examines family and social issues in addition to its crime-driven action elements,” Lee said.
Chastain, who will soon be seen alongside China’s biggest female star Fan Bing Bing in “355,” is also a western star who has a sufficiently established fan base in China that she has a local nickname, rather than a Chinese transliteration. To Chinese audiences she is known as “劳模姐,” which translates loosely into English as “Hard Working Big Sister.”