Shanghai market called work-in-progress

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SHANGHAI -- Mainland China's first film market got off to a slow start Monday with only one potential sale, but guests who turned out en masse for the event held in conjunction with the Shanghai International Film Festival said they viewed it as a work-in-progress.

Planned for a year by state-run China Film Group Corp., the film market was designed to showcase Chinese films to the world -- but few buyers were among those present.

"We're busy, but there's no business. Not yet," said Zhou Tiedong, president of CFGC's China Film Promotion International. The market is set to close Wednesday.

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The one would-be sale, by CFGC, was of "Son of Tibet," the debut feature by Chinese music-video director Dai Wei. The story of an ethnic Han Chinese singer who travels to Tibet to seek her lost voice, drew an offer of about $25,000, pending approval from executives at fledgling Los Angeles-based independent distributor 24 Frames, Inc.

"This is a new kind of film for China with a natural audience in home video in America," said C.K. Tsang, 24 Frames' director of operations and Asia acquisitions, who previously worked for Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Other feature films at the festival, now in its 10th year, were roundly criticized as old. There are few premieres here, but guests allowed that forums exploring China's evolving market made the trip to the commercial capital worthwhile.

"Our China focus began four years ago, and it's paid off," said Alfred Hurmer, a member of the German delegation presenting the competition films "According to the Plan" and "The Gamblers."

At last year's SIFF, the German film "Four Minutes" won Shanghai's Golden Chalice prize before it had a distributor at home. It was subsequently picked up by director Luc Besson for distribution in France and went on to win the German Film Award in May.

Although no big Hollywood films were competing, or at the market, a few recent studio pictures enjoyed the chance to reach the Chinese audience via festival screenings. Strict rules limit regular big-screen imports to 20 each year and drive most moviegoers here to pirated DVDs.

20th Century Fox brought prints of five films it does not plan to submit for censors' approval, including Oscar winners "The Last King of Scotland" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

"I really want to see the audience reaction," said Luke Xiang, chief China representative for Fox, adding that he hoped festival organizers will devise an impromptu ratings system, the lack of which has made it easy for censors to bar all but middle-of-the-road films. "This would be progress toward an open market," Xiang said.

Chinese producers seeking money far outnumbered buyers at the market. Many listened intently to a standing-room-only panel on marketing and distribution, featuring, among others, producer Michael Shane ("I, Robot") of Los Angeles-based HandPicked Films.

Shane said the Hollywood trend of private equity financing films would, in his view, last another 18-24 months and questioned if it would spread in China in time.

"Investing in the Chinese marketplace is risky," Shane said. "It's two to five years out before that's likely to happen here."

Others on the panel said they were ready to dive in, looking for Chinese films to be remade in English, for Chinese films with an international cast, or for genre films that worked in China.

"We're putting a fairly significant amount of money into China," said Douglas Hansen, CEO of Endgame Entertainment of Los Angeles.

Endgame is partnered in China with Los Angeles-based Iron Pond, whose CEO, Peter Shiao, said that SIFF "shows a lot of promise, but the practicalities are still murky."

One man with paramount confidence in the market is Yu Dong, CEO of Beijing Poly Bona Film Distribution Co., the leader in Hong Kong films distribution on the mainland and the cultural arm of the People's Liberation Army.

Yu said he sees China's film market at 20 billion yuan as it grows to serve the rapidly growing pool of those who can afford movie tickets.

China's boxoffice was 262 million yuan ($335 million) in 2006, and a recent study showed that only about 19% of the population, or roughly 247 million people, can afford the $6.50 price of admission.
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