Beijing Film Fest: Marco Mueller Wants to Forge International Connections

Marco Mueller H 2015
Clifford Coonan

Building links between overseas filmmakers and Chinese production and distribution is a key function of a revived fest, says the festival veteran.

The Beijing International Film Festival's chief adviser, Marco Mueller, hopes the event would help overseas filmmakers gain a closer connection with production and distribution in what has become the world's second biggest movie market.

"For me a key question was to understand not just the artists and filmmakers, but also the producers and international exhibitors and film companies wanted from an ideal Chinese platform," Mueller told THR in an interview at the Beijing Hotel, where much of the festival will take place.

"Obviously they wanted a closer connection with production and distribution in this country, so we need an event where it would be possible to understand which films can or cannot reach out to different groups of Chinese viewers. They need to understand how different films can enter the Chinese market," said the former Rome and Venice festival chief.

The Beijing festival is now in its fifth year, and it has undergone many changes in that period as it tries to find its feet and become a properly international festival.

Hiring Mueller to run the international section is a big step, although the festival veteran was given just 40 days to come up with a program, and the identities of big-name guests such as Arnold Schwarzenegger are still coming out.

The growing importance of the Chinese market internationally made Mueller's decision easy.

"One of the big pieces of information that spurred me into taking the position in Beijing was that my friends at Lionsgate told me they were really considering a launch here of a Hunger Games in China," he said.

Wondrous Boccaccio (Maraviglioso Boccaccio), from Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, will be the opening film in this year's festival, which will begin April 16 and feature 15 competition titles together with four gala premieres.

French director Luc Besson, riding high after the success of his sci-fi action-thriller Lucy in China last year, will chair the international jury.

Mueller started his involvement in film in China, arriving in Beijing in the 1970s, very shortly after the period of ideological frenzy known as the Cultural Revolution, which ended with the death of Mao Zedong (China's founding father) in 1976.

As the libraries were still closed, he watched two movies a day, including those from North Korea, Romania and Soviet Russia, and he decided it made sense that the key final phase of his professional life also would take place in China.

Reports that China is planning to expand the quota system to allow more art house movies into the country, perhaps through a dedicated "prestige movie" theater chain, also were intriguing, he said.

Mueller said that there had been no interference in the selection of films that he made, and he had been permitted to bring along his whole team of programmers.

"We were told we could decide on an ideal roster of 40 titles that would be submitted to the executive committee, and then we could discuss with them and understand more deeply which films can make it through the censors. What is really interesting is that out of those 40 films, apart from the films that contained explicit sex scenes, we did not have any problems. Somehow they considered the possibility of showing in Beijing a wider array of film experiences," said Mueller.

Part of this was because of his close collaboration with Chinese director Chen Zhihong. Other selectors on the 11-person team include Alena Shumakova, writer Marie-Pierre Duhamel and the curator and selector Deepti D'Cunha. They all advised Mueller during his time running the Rome festival.

The decision to increase the number of international premieres led to a "totally different kind of interest."

"Once you get an international premiere, you get the talents traveling to the festival, and that will create even more excitement, that will push things to the next level," Mueller said. "The next step in renovating the Beijing Film Festival will be making sure that all the sales companies, all the international people who have representatives attending each and every screening, understanding how the audience react and what will and will not work."

The timing of the festival so close to Cannes was something that would be discussed.

"The first and most urgent conversation has been about changing the dates, not just because of Cannes, but also because it's not a very good time for Chinese films.

Let's face it. Any Chinese director or producer, and especially their sales agents, would never relinquish a Cannes option at this stage, for Beijing," he said.

He said that this year was a transitional one, but it also was important as a trial year for a new formula.

"At the beginning I was wary, it could have been a facile operation and nothing would change. I had offers from various festivals but I said to myself, 'Beijing is the youngest, the one that still has to be born, but it's also the place where the core of the Chinese industry is, no doubt about that.' "