Berlin: China Warms Up to Indie Titles With New Theater Network

'Mountains May Depart'

An emerging niche market for mid-budget releases could be a game-changer for independent producers hoping to get a slice of the Chinese movie boom.

China’s booming box office — the country is on pace to pass North America to become the world’s largest theatrical market sometime next year — has independent filmmakers around the globe wondering how they can get a piece.

Until now, however, the China boom has been fueled by, and benefited, Chinese and Hollywood blockbusters, with few indie or alternative films even getting into the country, much less making any money.

But the Chinese film sector is changing fast, and there are signs that a niche market for art-house films could be emerging. Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke had his first-ever local release last year with Mountains May Depart, which grossed a healthy $5 million, and Diao Yinan’s noir thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice, winner of the Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear in 2014, grossed a stunning $16.5 million in China.

"There’s a younger generation growing up in China, and while, right now, they might want big blockbusters and broad local comedies, their tastes are changing. An audience for films outside the Hollywood mold is starting to emerge," says Rikke Ennis of Danish art-house specialists Zentropa, home to filmmaker Lars von Trier, which has set up a Chinese division to develop co-productions with, and for, the Middle Kingdom.

"There is no doubt that a strong desire for quality independent films does exist in the market," seconds Elizabeth Yang, managing director of China film sales group DDDream International Media, which specializes in indie productions.

What still doesn’t exist, however, is an art-house infrastructure. China has just one dedicated art-house cinema in the entire country: the Broadway Cinematheque MOMA in Beijing. From the perspective of indie films, China is all flyover country.

But a source close to SAPPRFT, China's state authority that regulates the country’s film sector, tells The Hollywood Reporter that there are plans to develop just such an indie theater network in China’s so-called "first tier" cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The project, expected to roll out in the first half of this year, would bring together private and public cinemas in a network totaling some 50 screens. Sources say that SAPPRFT will provide the China Film Archive with a distribution permit to exhibit imported foreign titles on this network, with an initial 70-30 programming split between Chinese and international art-house titles.

Wang Yu, whose Ray Production produced Berlin competition title Crosscurrent, is spearheading an even larger art-house circuit, with plans to link existing college movie theaters into an indie exhibition network of 200 screens spanning the country.

"The understanding in the industry is that there will be a huge change to the quota system at the start of 2017, which will make it easier to import smaller films into China," says Wang. "[Then] we should be able to show more foreign art-house movies — as long as they pass censorship."

And the sheer size of the country means even incremental change can have a major impact on the indie market. Says Italian director Cristiano Bortone, co-founder of European/Chinese film association Bridging the Dragon, which on Wednesday is holding a seminar at EFM: "Even if the niche market gets a very thin layer [of total screens], it can still amount to substantial box office for independent films."

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