Of the 85 feature films screening across Cannes this year, there are just eight from Asian directors, and only two from China, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home and Wang Chao’s Un Certain Regard title Fantasia.
Compare that ratio with Asia’s majority share of the global population — 4.3 billion of the world’s 7 billion — and the region appears grossly underrepresented.
Undeterred, China aggressively has tried to assert itself as a more influential player on the Croisette. This year an estimated 400 Chinese sales agents and execs are in attendance and the country co-sponsored the Cannes market’s opening-night party. The question is: After such heavy investment, what is China getting out of Cannes in return?
So far, the answer is lots of glitz but little tangible business, and even less of the international cultural prestige the country’s leaders expressly covet.
“There have been a lot of parties, a lot of black ties and a lot of yachts,” says one Hollywood studio head who prefers to remain unnamed due to the always sensitive nature of doing and talking business related to Beijing.
As of May 18, just one headline deal involving China had emerged from the 2014 festival: Mili Pictures Worldwide’s announcement that it soon will launch a Los Angeles office headed up by veteran producer Bill Borden and will release its first major Hollywood co-production, the $22 million fantasy-adventure Dragon Nest: Warrior’s Dawn, on July 31.
The key barrier between Cannes and the booming Chinese film industry appears to be both structural and a little paradoxical: As the country’s domestic industry grows stronger, its international ambitions are on the wane. While Chinese movies recently have achieved market dominance over Hollywood at home by telling stories that speak to local themes and aspirations — the highest-grossing film in 2013 was Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons with $201 million, ahead of Iron Man 3, which earned $123.5 million — the sudden success has led to a glut of quickly produced mass-market titles with little to no potential to travel.
“The films that work in China don’t work outside China,” says Felice Bee, president of Huayi Brothers International. Gong Li, star of Zhang’s Coming Home, which is getting a special screening at Cannes on May 20, tells THR she finds local directors less interested lately in producing work that can attract interest abroad.
“In China we already have so many people, when they’re done watching these movies, we’ve made a few hundred million,” she says. “So we don’t need foreign support, and we don’t need film festivals, and we don’t need to have these high standards. This is very bad.”
So it seems that in lieu of actual business in Cannes, the huge Chinese delegation is likely to benefit most from forging new relationships and gaining insight into the way the West makes movies for the world, a stated goal by many heavy hitters in the sector.
Still, not everyone is convinced the Cannes trip was worth it. In an interview with THR in Shanghai ahead of the festival, Coming Home’s producer, Zhang Zhao, was defiant about not getting into the competition: “We can market the movie without the support of Cannes,” he said. “This is China. Zhang Yimou and I asked the question, ‘Why do we make this movie? For Cannes?’ No. It is for Chinese audiences.”