AFM Buzz: Can China Save Indie Film?

Sean Gallagher; AP Images
Zhang Zhao, Zhang Yimou

"China is going to be our saving grace for this business," says Brett Ratner

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Mandarin Chinese has become a familiar sound at the American Film Market in Santa Monica. In recent years, independent producers have regarded cash-rich Chinese companies as potential saviors that could prop up the flagging U.S. and European markets. This time, there finally were projects to back up the hype.

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One such project garnering buzz was Zhang Yimou's $135 million The Great Wall, a co- production between Legendary and China's Le Vision Pictures. "For these mini-major and independent movies, China can generate half the box office for the global market," says Le Vision CEO Zhang Zhao. Meanwhile, Easternlight, the Asian unit of Sydney- and L.A.-based Arclight, is partnering with Chinese film/TV production and distribution company Huace on the female superhero movie Lights Out and is looking for an A-list Chinese actress for the lead.

Perhaps most intriguing, Alibaba Pictures, the film arm of Chinese e-retail giant Alibaba, was in town taking meetings. "Alibaba has 800 million users on the firm's Alipay, Taobao and Tianmao sales platforms, which offers huge potential," the company's Zhang Qiang told a film forum. Fresh off a trip to Beijing, Brett Ratner told the AFM finance panel that his goal is to capitalize on the 12 to 14 new multiplexes opening in the country every day. "China is going to be our saving grace for this business," said Ratner, whose RatPac Entertainment has joined a content fund with a Chinese partner. "There's a time coming when a studio won't even care if a movie gets a release here. It will make hundreds of millions more in China."

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Another key factor in China's transformation into a major industry player is the country shedding its reputation as the world's biggest pirate. "China is finally getting control of piracy — for theatrical, that is definitely the case," says Millennium Films president Mark Gill. While piracy in Russia bankrupted the non-U.S. distributor of The Expendables 3, $73 million of the action pic's $206.2 million global total came from China.

Still, some remain cautious amid all the Sino hype. Many longtime China hands remember the bold promises of a gold rush a decade ago that, for most, never materialized. "China is great for big movies, but there are still too many restrictions for it to be the savior of the indie market," says David Garrett, CEO of London-based Mister Smith Entertainment. "They are introducing quotas on VOD now, which will make it even harder."

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China's best-known entertainment lawyer, Allen Wang, insists that China is open to small production companies as well.

"To make a small independent-budget movie with China is fine," says Wang, "as long as the story is good enough and [producers] find a popular star in China to make the film and find a solid channel for distribution." 

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