Shanghai Goes Hollywood

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With Rupert Murdoch and Chris Dodd on hand, the Shanghai Int'l Film Fest stakes its claim as China's premier film event.

A lot can happen in a year in China, especially in a city of more than 20 million people whose confidence is riding high.

Since the Shanghai World Expo finished in October, the city's place among neighboring Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong has gotten stronger and a notch closer to the middle of all things entertainment.

In February, leading independent film studio Huayi Brothers, a distinctly Beijing company, announced plans to invest $152 million in Shanghai to build East Asia's largest indoor movie studio. In March, New York University unveiled plans for its first China campus, a Shanghai center that could draw world-famous film scholars. In April, the Walt Disney Co. broke ground on a $4.4 billion Shanghai theme park and resort.

To be fair, film also is booming in Beijing. In December, the NYSE float of video-sharing site Youku was that exchange's hottest in five years. That same month, Beijing-based Bona Film Group managed a Nasdaq listing, followed in February by the China Film Group preparing for its domestic IPO. In April, the inaugural Beijing International Film Festival launched hastily, apparently to upstage the Shanghai fest on the calendar.

SIFF managing director Tang Lijun is gracious -- and diplomatic -- about her capital competitors. "First, we are happy to see that the Chinese film industry is getting more prosperous and that there are more film-related events," she says. "Second, they are different in content and position. We're going different ways."

This year's SIFF, which will begin June 11 on the red carpet at the Shanghai Grand Theatre and see 200 films unspool at various locations through June 19, arrives as China's box-office growth has slowed. Ticket sales  from January to March were up a slow but enviable 8.8 percent year-over-year, hitting 2.68 billion yuan ($407.2 million).

But Tang is a confident leader, and the fest's 14th edition promises to show off efforts to compete with Beijing and bolster Shanghai as China's media hub.

Indeed, SIFF organizers are wise to remind visitors of Shanghai's storied past -- particularly the 1930s, when movie palaces and a cosmopolitan culture earned the city the moniker "Paris of the East." Things certainly have changed, however: There remains a possibility that to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Chinese Communist Party -- founded in Shanghai on July 1, 1921 -- the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television will co-opt SIFF's opening-night screening for a sneak preview of the star-studded propaganda film Beginning of the Great Revival (aka The Founding of a Party), set to open nationwide June 16.

To do so in front of an audience of foreign luminaries including News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, MPAA chief and former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson and Hollywood stars including Susan Sarandon, Marisa Tomei, Willem Dafoe and Matt Dillon could be a move to make it appear to China's citizens -- through state-run media coverage -- that state filmmaking has arrived on the world stage.

In keeping with SIFF's singular tradition among A-list international festivals, Tang says the opening-night title will remain under wraps until the eleventh hour. "It is always a difficult job to select the best of the best to open the festival," she says. "We always expect a great surprise for everyone."

Regardless of whether politics end up trumping art, Tang's grand plans have the fest looking glitzier than ever before. Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre is aboard as a sponsor, Roland Joffe's Spanish Civil War drama There Be Dragons will vie for the SIFF Golden Cup, and Levinson is the first Hollywood director to serve as a main-competition jury chairman at a film festival in China.

Put it all together and the event begins to look like its organizers are thinking globally. It's a notion Tang gently denies.

"Actually, it doesn't matter where our jury president comes from," she says about the choice of Levinson. "The most important thing is the chairperson and that his or her films are respected within the film industry."

Highlighting its vanguard position in China and perhaps farther afield, SIFF is the first A-list international festival to launch a mobile-phone film competition. Winners will take home more than $15,300 in cash. With China Mobile -- the world's largest telecommunications provider, with more than 600 million mobile users -- SIFF hopes mobile-short dramas, action films, comedies, sci-fi flicks and documentaries will emerge to the delight of the country's
450 million Internet users.

"I hope in a few years, when we look back on what we are doing, people in the industry will recognize and agree with the contribution SIFF made to the era of new media," Tang says.

Murdoch, for his part, will address the Shanghai Film Market -- set to run June 13 to 15 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center -- on the topic of film finance. He'll be accompanied by Wendi Deng, his Chinese wife and producer of the upcoming English-language Chinese drama Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.

During the market's opening-day forum, Dodd will address co-productions with China, often cited as the best route around the nation's imported-film cap. He no doubt will bring Hollywood's bafflement that China has gotten away with all but ignoring a World Trade Organization ruling demanding more foreign participation in distribution. Dodd was not available for comment at press time.

Elsewhere, SIFF has lined up directors John Woo, Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock) and Bille August to serve as mentors in the SIFF Budding Talent Plan, helping with screenwriting and sharing their experiences with young filmmakers.

And while SIFF mostly is focused on the new, it's also showing respect for the old. For a third consecutive year, Jaeger-LeCoultre will sponsor the restoration of 10 Chinese film classics set to screen at the fest in 2014, as well as the China Film Pitch and Catch competition, which will award 100,000 yuan ($15,380) in prizes to Chinese film projects that show the greatest export potential.

Says Jaeger-LeCoultre president Jerome Lambert: "We hope the booming Chinese film industry will support more innovative and creative investment in potential films and promote film culture."

Shanghai International Film Festival
June 11–19
Shanghai Grand Theatre  

Three Reasons Shanghai is On the Rise

Huayi Brothers Film Studio In February, Beijing-based independent studio Huayi Brothers announced plans to build East Asia's largest indoor movie studio in Shanghai, a $152 million investment.

NYU Film School In March, New York University unveiled plans for its first China campus, a Shanghai outpost it hopes will draw famous film scholars.

Disneyland of the East In April, the Walt Disney Co. broke ground on a $4.4 billion resort, a first for mainland China.

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