Berlin: Canadian Producers Eye Bollywood as Chinese Film Financing Dries Up

Jennifer Roberts
Jason Moring, Double Dutch International

Chinese attempts to curb capital spending abroad are seeing co-production partners suddenly scramble to replace lost equity commitments.

Canadian film producers in Berlin this week are busily eyeing Bollywood for co-production opportunities after they were sideswiped by China looking to curb massive spending of money leaving the country.

"We've met with producers [in Berlin] who had Chinese equity commitments in the eight figures, and now they have to figure out whether they will be able to get that money out of China, or not, to make their films," Jason Moring, of Double Dutch International, told the Hollywood Reporter.

The Chinese government is making it harder to get Chinese money out of the country for any foreign investment, not just film. In early December, Beijing announced it was monitoring a pattern of "irrational" overseas investments in several sectors, particularly film, real estate and sports. In an effort to stem capital flight, which was seen as contributing to a devaluation of China's currency, regulators signaled that stricter oversight is on the way. 

China's concerns are understood to be twofold: that some companies are disguising capital flight as foreign investment, while others are using high-profile entertainment purchases — a trendy sector among Chinese investors — as a short-term strategy to boost stock prices.

Difficulty getting film equity out of China comes at a time when Hollywood is increasingly shooting its studio movies in Canada, but local producers are having to look to two-partner and three-partner co-productions with Hollywood names to finance their films.

Indian and Chinese producers have emerged as the Canucks' preferred foreign partners after European players, not least because the Chinese movie market is set to surpass North America's as the world's largest market, and Canada signed a first-time co-production treaty with Bollywood two years ago, which is only now kicking into high gear with a pipeline of projects.

David Miller, a producer with A71 Productions who has produced two India-shot films by Canadian-Indian director Richie Mehta, Amal and Siddarth, said now is the right time to collaborate with Bollywood. "We're a multicultural country and there's an appetite for the exotic and social-issue films made in India," Miller told the Hollywood Reporter while attending the European Film Market.

Canadian filmmakers like Deepa Mehta, Sturla Gunnarsson and Mehta have long made films in India, and large Indo-Canadian communities in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are considered key overseas markets for Bollywood.

The official co-production treaties with China and India enable producers from respective countries to share production coin and risk on film and TV projects. And Bollywood and Chollywood are looking to shoot more movies in Canada, as well as get more of their movies in front of the growing Indo-Canadian and Chinese-Canadian markets here.

Canadian film sales rep and producer Marina Cordoni is in Berlin shopping Khoya, a drama by Sami Khan about an Canadian-Indian man who was adopted and returns to an India entirely foreign to him to search for his birth parents. She said movies that speak to both the Indian market and the Indian diaspora in Canada and elsewhere are hot properties.

"Canada has so many diverse cultures, immigrants from Asian countries that might want to see a co-production, films about their lives in Canada, or Canadians in Asia. That's what Khoya does for the Indian community in Canada, and in India," Cordoni said.

The hope in Berlin is that film producers in Mumbai and Beijing will use co-productions with Canada to bridge their audience gap with Hollywood movies. "For Canadian producers, we're open to helping them find any partner, in India or China, to make their movies," said Karen Thorne-Stone, president and CEO of the Ontario Media Development Corp., a key government financier for local producers, while in Berlin.

At the same time, Canadians in Berlin are weighing whether India and China are a fad or future for their film industry, given the time and commitment necessary to make inroads into those markets, and which could be spent elsewhere, including in traditional markets like the U.S. and Europe.

Thorne-Stone points to bigger challenges than China imposing capital controls. "There's questions of quotas limiting the number of foreign films, less control of your own release and certain topics being off limits for story-telling," she said. The uphill challenges aren't deterring Canadian producers, however.

Mike McMillan, a producer with Toronto-based Lithium Productions, is screening Bruce McDonald's Molly Parker-starrer Weirdos in Berlin as he develops Canada-China co-productions with Chinese producing partners he met while completing a producing program at UCLA in 2011.

"They do $50 million movies by day, and by night they work on $5 million passion projects," he said, which is where he comes in. McMillan agrees Canada-China co-productions with too few Chinese elements are unlikely to work.

"Projects tend to die on the vine if they don't have a cultural fit," he insisted. Knowing what cultural elements to include, and what to leave out, is tricky.

Colin Geddes, a veteran of Asian actioners after programming the Midnight Madness sidebar at the Toronto Film Festival for 20 years, and this week drumming up movie co-productions in Berlin, said Canada is an exotic and appealing locale for Chinese cinemagoers.

"The Chinese like travelogue comedies, fish-out-of-water road movies so they can see what's around in the world they can go to," Geddes said.