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Hollywood Descends on China for Beijing International Film Festival

Greetings From Beijing - H 2013

Keanu Reeves will debut the trailer for "Man of Tai Chi," while LucasFilm's Kathleen Kennedy is expected to announce a "big cooperation deal" with a Chinese company.

HONG KONG – Hollywood’s love affair with China – or at least the longterm business opportunities the country presents – will be in on full display in Beijing this week, as major U.S. studios descend on the Chinese capital to shop projects, sign agreements and show films during the film market at the city’s third annual international film festival, which began its eight-day run Tuesday.

Following in the footsteps of James Cameron, who last year attended the Beijing International Film Festival’s opening ceremony and then participated in an industry panel at the Beijing Film Market, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy will be delivering a keynote speech about “Modern Storytelling: Where Creativity Meets Innovation” during the market’s so-called Sino-Foreign Film Co-production Forum on Sunday.

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Kennedy will also be signing a “big co-operation agreement” with a Chinese technological company, according to Helen Chen, the managing director of the Beijing Film Market, which runs from Apr. 20 to 22.

Meanwhile, Keanu Reeves will unveil the trailer of his Village Roadshow-backed U.S.-China co-production, Man of Tai Chi, at a press conference during the market on Saturday. The film, Reeves' directorial debut, was shot mostly on location in China, with dialog in Cantonese, Mandarin and English, and features Reeves (as the villain) opposite Tiger Hu Chen in the lead role, as well as Hong Kong actor Karen Mok and Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais (The Raid).

Reeves himself will then appear on Sunday alongside Twentieth Century Fox co-president Paul Hanneman, French filmmaker Luc Besson, Beijing Galloping Horse vice-president Ivy Zhong and Hong Kong producer-director Peter Chan in another panel on film co-productions.

Among the other big Hollywood-related events at the festival-market will be a Paramount-initiated press conference on Thursday advertising the Chinese characters in the next installment of the Transformers franchise, and also upcoming local auditions for these roles. The film is now slated to be made as a co-production with Chinese participation, with the studio aiming for a Chinese cut with more sequences shot in the country with local actors.

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Jean-Jacques Annaud (who was once banned from entering China for his Brad Pitt-starrer Seven Years in Tibet) and Wolfgang Petersen will also both be signing agreements for their latest co-production projects on Saturday, while details of the 3-D Imperial City – Beijing, a project born out of a collaboration inked last August between James Cameron and Vince Pace’s Cameron Pace Group and several Chinese companies, will be revealed in a press conference on the same day.

Helen Chen said the convergence of American heavyweights at the event is proof of the importance of China as a player in international cinema. “The most important reason for this is that the Chinese film market is becoming larger and larger – and more and more people focus on the Beijing Film Market,” she said, referring to the much-quoted MPA report last month crowning China as the second-biggest film market in the world.

Chen and her team have set the bar of expectations high this year too: noting participation in the market of 200 companies – a 30 per cent increase from last year, according to official figures – market organizers predict $1.3 billion worth of contracts will be signed at the event this year (compared to a claimed $856 million last year -- such figures are not independently verified).

Chen also said the film market has proved to be attractive to international visitors because of the increase in room for more variety in the country as a whole. “After three years, the Chinese film market has become more open,” she said.

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With the furor over the abrupt withdrawal of Django Unchained from mainland Chinese cinemas on Thursday, the openness of the Chinese film market – which, at the end of the day, is tightly regulated by the authorities and the state-sanctioned behemoths such as China Film Group – might well prove to be a regular topic of debate at the event. But the discussion, of course, will probably take place off-stage in conversations among delegates, buyers and insiders. 

Beyond the market – which takes place in the National Convention Center, a complex located in the city's outskirts – ordinary film buffs will be drawn more to the film festival, which begins tonight with an opening ceremony at the Temple of Heaven Park, where the seven-strong jury (led by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov) of the festival’s official competition will appear.

The star-studded closing ceremony will take place on Apr. 23, with British singer Sarah Brightman slated for a performance and along with an appearance of the cast of Iron Man 3, according to an announcement from the festival organizers last week.

In between, 260 films will be shown in 30 cinemas across the city – including the screening of the complete Harry Potter franchise – and a carnival in Olympic Park, where production artefacts from Hollywood hits such as Avatar, Lord of the Rings and King Kong will be displayed. Robert Downy Jr.'s Tony Stark will have a whole zone dedicated to himself – part of the Iron Man 3 publicity blitz underway in the country prior to the film’s release in China later this month.