If success in China is all about building relationships, this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival could play a determining role for the west.
“In 2009, guests in Shanghai realized that SIFF was no longer a startup event, but a more and more important global film platform,” says Zhang Zhao, president of Beijing-based Enlight Pictures, one of a handful of private film production companies leading Chinese cinema into a new era.
China, of course, has been steadily opening up for years, but observers say SIFF’s 13th edition could be a turning point, reflected in the presence of heavy hitters who’ll be attending the June 12-20 event. They include director John Woo, who chairs the competition jury; the Weinstein Co.’s Harvey Weinstein and Imax CEO Rich Gelfond, both set to participate in the fest’s accompanying informational series, SIFForum.
“Everybody wants to break into China,” notes Chuck Boller, director of the Hawaii International Film Festival, who also is attending. “Shanghai is one of the major avenues of contact, where it’s very easy to speak to the film establishment.”
It is also easier than it was to find good films, he adds. Last year, he discovered director Christine Yao’s “Empire of Silver,” about a late-19th century Chinese banking family, which went on to win the Hawaii fest’s top prize.
Because of opportunities like this, SIFF has become more attractive to the international film community, despite a long-standing cap on the number of foreign movies that are allowed to take a share of Chinese boxoffice, set at 20 per year by the state.
SIFF takes place against a backdrop of unprecedented growth at the Chinese boxoffice. After five years of robust boxoffice, averaging 25% increases, gross receipts in 2009 jumped 43% to $909 million. The State Administration of Radio Film and Television expects boxoffice to soar 61% this year as middle-class consumers continue to develop a moviegoing habit.
“Avatar,” now China’s No. 1 all-time boxoffice hit with $193 million, took in about 15% of its global receipts in the region. As the country’s screens increase by 50% this year to 6,000, that could be exceeded.
French director Luc Besson certainly hopes so and will present his new film, “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc Sec,” at SIFF. The film was recently approved for an early July run in China’s theaters, the fifth French film to get such a nod this year.
For up-and-coming Asian filmmakers, the Asian New Talent Award offers recognition in front of an increasingly viable group of Chinese backers for whom cash is plentiful. Singaporean independent film company Ochre Films, for instance, this year will bring Jean Yeo’s “Cooking Without Clothes” to SIFF, in the director’s fourth appearance in Shanghai in eight years.
At the same time as the festival takes place, SIFF’s concurrent film market, SIFFMart, organized by Beijing-based China Film Promotion International, will get under way in the charming, if aging, Shanghai Exhibition Center, June 14-16.
“SIFFMart is a chance for them to maintain a better presence in China, to do better promotion and to finally enter the market,” CFPI president Zhou Tiedong says.
While SIFFMart’s location may be the same, its composition is changing, Zhou notes: Of the more than 80 exhibitors registered, 43 will be from overseas, with the largest contingent made up of 12 companies from Japan. The foreign presence this year will far outstrip the 14 overseas companies that registered for SIFFMart in 2009, alongside nearly 50 Chinese companies.
But many local companies have opted out of the market this year — like market leaders Huayi Bros., China’s first publicly listed film studio. Huayi is passing because it, like many of its state-run peers, has few new titles ready, or few that have global appeal.
“That’s a major problem with quite a number of state-owned film studios — the lack of internationally appealing productions,” Zhou says. “Even when they do have them, they are co-produced titles with foreign or Hong Kong or Taiwan partners, for which (they) normally don’t hold international rights.”
Foreign entities on hand will include German Films, the Korean Film Council, the Finnish Film Foundation, Uni-Japan, Screen Australia, the Italian Foreign Trade Commission and Unifrance. Most will be looking to sell films into China and, hopefully, land a co-production or two. France last month signed its first official co-production treaty with China and a similar treaty between China and New Zealand is expected to be inked in July.
“It’s important for local film producers to showcase their products without going abroad to international film buyers, as long as there are enough film buyers (here),” Zhou says. Despite the increased presence of global players, he believes SIFFMart needs to invite even more buyers and festival programmers to bolster Chinese films.
Just how to do this better may be discussed at SIFForum (June 13-17). Organizers hope this will help chart the future course of the foreign market with a series of nine discussions held under the banner Chinese Approaches With Universal Values.
Woo, as head jurist, will give the President’s Lecture, sharing his personal perspective on cinema, then lead a discussion about what kinds of films China really needs to make. Panelists will include director Wang Xiaoshuai, whose latest drama, “Chongqing Blues” screened in competition in Cannes; Hong Kong director Pang Ho-cheung (“Dream Home”); and Taiwan director Doze Niu (“Monga”).
SIFF’s Industry Forum session this year is even more ambitious. Designed as a Sino-U.S. brainstorming session to clarify the oft-complicated issues swirling around international cinematic relations — think piracy, fair market access, technology sharing and co-productions, etc. — the event will include a mix of well-known names from east and west, including Shanghai Film Studio president Ren Zhonglun; Robert Pisano, COO of the MPA; Jim Breyer, president of film funder IDG; Han Sanping, chairman of CFGC; Jason Reed, GM of Walt Disney Studios International Prods.; and Yu Dong, CEO of Beijing-based Polybona Film Distribution.
“China’s film industry is undergoing speedy growth and there is gradual opening up in co-productions and regulations,” says Wang Ran, CEO of Beijing-based media adviser China e-Capital, who moderated a popular SIFF forum last year. “What panelists most need to discuss are the signs about when these openings will actually happen.”
Those behind the scenes will also be discussing how to get higher-profile pictures into the competition.
Although varied, the competition lineup has had trouble attracting major world premiere titles because it falls right on the heels of Cannes — though it will serve as a high-profile platform for several commercial films not in competition, including the appropriately titled drama “Shanghai” from the Weinstein Co. and Huayi.
In the festival’s Panorama section, devoted to world cinema, Belgian
director Jaco Van Dormael (“The Eighth Day”) will screen “Mr. Nobody,” a drama about a man who finds himself the last mortal on a new Earth where nobody dies. Van Dormael will take part in the Image and Cinema day at the Belgian Pavillion in the World Expo, a Sino-Belgian exchange touching on production, postproduction, new technologies, tax shelters and reasons to shoot in the heart of Europe.
As for the SIFF’s opening-night attraction, no one knows what to expect because fest organizers are keeping it mum. Industry insiders are betting on debut director Xue Xiaolu’s “Ocean’s Paradise,” which features martial arts star Jet Li’s first nonfighting role.