Berlin: France Setting the Pace On China Co-Productions

Wolf Totem BTS

There's high hopes for Jean-Jacques Annaud's big-budget, China Film Group-backed eco-epic 'Wolf Totem.'

With the $40 million Sino-French epic Wolf Totem generating heat at the European Film Market and about to open in China, execs are keen to learn about France's expertise in pacting with the world's second largest film market.

Wolf Totem director Jean-Jacques Annaud used real wolves in the movie, which was backed by the state giant China Film Group, and every day he would start the shoot by greeting the pack leader, establishing his authority but also showing respect.

It's this kind of director-focused approach that makes French movies so attractive to the Chinese, said producer Isabelle Glachant, Unifrance's Beijing representative.

"France is the most active because we have been doing co-productions for many years and it is part of the core of our cinema. France is more into director-driven films. With Wolf Totem, the Chinese were reaching out for a French director," Glachant told THR on the fringes of the Berlin International Film Festival.

Under the terms of the co-production treaty signed in 2010, Sino-French films do not come under the quota limiting overseas movies allowed to screen in China on a revenue-share basis to 34 films a year.

"Hollywood films in China tend to be more with a little soya sauce on the side, not a full Chinese dish. I understand the studios – they make international films, and can't make films that just work in two countries," said Glachant.

Since the treaty was signed, there have been eight official co-productions, and earlier this year, Philippe Muyl's Sino-French co-productionThe Nightingalewas selected as China's candidate for the best foreign-language film at the 2015 Oscars.

"If you look at the directors involved in the co-productions, like Wang Xiaoshuai, Muyl and Annaud, these are directors that travel and are not afraid of doing films with Chinese actors," said Glachant.

"There is strong interest here in Berlin from Europe in co-producing in China. The most ahead in experience and contact are the French, we have done quite a few. The Chinese are showing us they like the way we do it," said Glachant.

Other Sino-French productions at the European Film Market include Europacorp's 108 Demon Kings, a 3D animated title based on the Chinese classic tale, The Water Margin, and Journey To China, a co-production between Shanghai Qingxi Media and France's Haut et Court.

Wolf Totem has had quite a journey making its way to the screen.

Annaud annoyed the Chinese government with his 1997 film, Seven Years in Tibet, but he appears to have been rehabilitated and Annaud said that he had "carte blanche" to make the movie exactly as he planned, without any interference from the censors.

"It took us 10 years to get this movie to the screen, I bought the rights to the novel twice before I could find the right director," said producer Max Wang.

Wolf Totem is due to be launched in China on February 19 in time for the Chinese New Year holiday, and in France on February 25. The French film company Wild Bunch has European sales rights.

As the Berlin film festival unspooled, Hi-Show Entertainment and Shanghai Media Group officially launched the biggest Sino-French co-production to date, Le Paon de Nuit (which translates as "Peacock of the Night") in Chengdu in Sichuan province.

A love story set in both China and France, the film is directed by Dai Sijie, who lives in France and is well-known there for his adaptation of his novel Balzac and the Little Chinese Princess.

It features four Chinese stars – including Hong Kong actor Leon Lai, Liu Yifei, Liu Ye and Yu Shaoqun, and marks Dai's first Chinese work since his return to China. Neither Seamstress nor his other previous work, Les Filles Du Botaniste (The Botanist's Daughter) were screened in China.

Shooting in France is completed, and lensing is now taking place in Sichuan province, with a release date set for the end of the year.

"Sino-French coproduction is the consummation of China and France, and this film is the consummation of France and Chengdu," said Olivier Vaysset, who is France's consul general in the Sichuanese city.

French filmmaker Nicolas Brigaud-Robert told a gathering of industry folks in Beijing in December that co-production was about give and take.

"You do have to find compromises on content that are suitable for audiences on both co-producers' countries. So that's called co-production. When we say we were not faking it, (it's because) if you want to make a success, you better sound true, otherwise the audience will not get fooled," Brigaud-Robert told local media.

French filmmakers do not have the same issues with meeting the criteria required to gain co-production status "We are used to making films that don't look French. The need to look Chinese doesn't bother us," said Glachant.