Shanghai Surprise

China's largest film festival has become an unlikely ambassador for international cinema

There's a reason why locals who attend the Shanghai International Film Festival are so enthusiastic.

The 12th edition of the event, set for June 13-21 in China's largest city and financial hub, will screen 1,925 films and showcase more than 200 international premieres. And because Beijing still limits imported films to 20 a year, most are unlikely ever to land in China again -- except as pirated DVDs or illegal downloads.

That has led the SIFF to be an international ambassador of sorts, an appealing alternative inroad to the growing yet difficult-to-crack China film market.

"Our goal is to be the incubator of China's, and even Asia's, film industry," says SIFF managing director Tang Lijun, now in her fourth year at the helm.

It's no coincidence that the global-minded Tang went after and landed "Slumdog Millionaire" director Danny Boyle, a Brit who made an Oscar-winning film about Indian children, to chair this year's jury, which will award a Golden Goblet in eight categories.

"(We want) to be an ideal platform for promoting international cooperation and a good place for film investment," she says, and "to be a place to showcase multicultural films."

The international theme permeates the festival, in contrast with the state-run China Film Group and the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, which are -- fairly or not -- often are painted as protectionist heavies who block imports and censor anything that might anger the country's one-party leaders.

Li Ruigang, head of the Shanghai Media Group, which owns the festival, is an English-speaking, Columbia University-educated media leader who has made market-minded partnerships over the years with the likes of Viacom and Nielsen, parent of The Hollywood Reporter.

Foreign regulars at the festival and its concurrent market (June 14-16) are sure to include such stalwarts as Technicolor Beijing, Cinelabs Beijing (Kodak's joint venture with the China Film Group), Fortissimo Film Sales, Filmitalia, the Korean Film Council, Unifrance, UniJapan and Taiwan's Three Dots Entertainment, the company behind the China-Taiwan co-production "My DNA Says I Love You" with China Film Group and China Warner Film HG.

Reps from the companies and dozens of others will be in Shanghai to meet the Chinese big fish, including Huayi Brothers, the country's best-known indie production house; Zhejiang Hengdian World Studios Co., operator of the world's largest backlot; Pearl River Film Co., which is in the process of expanding its HD film-production capability; and the China Film Co-production Corp., the de facto gatekeeper for foreign co-productions.

Indeed, at a time when private-equity cash and public funding are shrinking in Europe and the U.S., China's film industry is experiencing tremendous growth. With more than 300 screens built each year, the burgeoning middle class is going to the movies more than ever before. China sold $1.2 billion in movie tickets in 2008, up 25% from 2007 and the fifth consecutive year of growth, according to a recent Tsinghua University study.

The trend is rubbing off on SIFF. "Last year, our moviegoers were over 200,000," Tang says, "and this year we expect more of an audience."

In tandem, China-aimed film funds are popping up like mushrooms. At last month's Festival de Cannes, a $150 million private-equity play called the Tiger Portfolio Film Fund emerged. Backed by Tiger8 Media and Chinese investment group Wuxi Jinyuan Industry and Development Co., the fund is allied with Switzerland- U.K.- and Los Angeles-based sales agent Omega Entertainment and has a debt facility from Standard Chartered Bank of Hong Kong.

Some insiders raised eyebrows at the announcement of the fund, which they said might be a play to move Chinese investment into Hollywood projects with little topical connection to China. But the venture will open offices in China and Los Angeles boasting equity, mezzanine and debt financing from Chinese, European and Middle Eastern investors. Warner Bros. head of domestic distribution Dan Fellman said the company was in negotiations to make the fund's first picture.

Wang Ran, a Beijing-based media analyst at China eCapital, says co-production continues to be a major avenue for Hollywood to tap into the region, despite some failures.

"There are two trends going in parallel: One is for Hollywood to produce films with a China element, whether it's the story line or the cast, mainly for the Western markets; another is for leading Chinese film producers to engage mainstream Hollywood talent in their production effort, primarily for the domestic markets," says Wang, who will moderate a SIFF panel that includes MPAA CEO Dan Glickman.

Fox also will soon make its first picture in China, pacting with director John Woo and producer Terence Chang's Los Angeles-based Lion Rock, with which the studio hopes to sign a first-look deal.

Coming off the huge success of "Red Cliff" and its sequel, Chang and Woo are leading a new sortie into China. Their latest film, also announced at Cannes, is the $30 million Mandarin-language "Legend of the Magic Bell," billed as the first stereoscopic 3-D film from China and Korea.

Chang is bringing to SIFF "Dirt Rich in Shanghai" along with director Peter Lee and star Sun Honglei. He also plans to announce two or three more China projects for Lion Rock.

"The festival is really trying hard to internationalize, and I think they're getting there," Chang says.

Shanghai is still no Cannes. Following the Hong Kong International Film Festival in March, the Tribeca Film Festival in April and Cannes in May, Shanghai -- which is hot and sticky in June -- often is left with less desirable premieres.

Last year, the festival awarded its best feature prize to Russian director Vladimir Kott's debut film "The Fly," but the dark family comedy's international reviews largely were negative, and it has all but disappeared since it left Shanghai.

Tang says the festival's selection team works independently of China's media censors and that its choices are not driven by geographic consideration. She also believes the relationship between China's power center and its commercial capital is changing.

"Both Shanghai and Beijing are very important to China's film industry," she says. "It's hard to say who's the leader and who's the follower."

At a glance
Shanghai International Film Festival
Dates: June 13-21
Jury chair: Danny Boyle
More info: SIFF.com
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