Buyers in short supply at Shanghai film mart

But attendees praise panel array

Mainland China's first film market got off to a slow start Monday with only one potential sale, but guests who turned out en masse for the event held in conjunction with the Shanghai International Film Festival said they viewed it as a work in progress.

Planned for a year by state-run China Film Group Corp., the market was designed to showcase Chinese films to the world — but few buyers were among those present.

"We're busy, but there's no business. Not yet," said Zhou Tiedong, president of CFGC's China Film Promotion International. The market is due to close Wednesday.

The one would-be sale, by CFGC, was for "Son of Tibet," the debut feature by Chinese music-video director Dai Wei. The story of an ethnic Han Chinese singer who travels to Tibet to seek her lost voice drew an offer of about $25,000, pending approval from executives at Los Angeles-based independent distributor 24 Frames Inc.

"This is a new kind of film for China with a natural audience in home video in America," said C.K. Tsang, 24 Frames' director of operations and Asia acquisitions, who previously worked at Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Other feature films at the festival, now in its 10th year, were roundly criticized as old. There are few premieres here, but guests allowed that forums exploring China's evolving market made the trip worthwhile.

"Our China focus began four years ago, and it's paid off," said Alfred Hurmer, a member of the German delegation presenting the competition films "According to the Plan" and "The Gamblers."

At last year's SIFF, the German film "Four Minutes" won Shanghai's Golden Chalice prize before it had a distributor at home. It was subsequently picked up by director Luc Besson for distribution in France and went on to win the German Film Award in May.

Although no big Hollywood films were competing or at the market, a few recent studio pictures enjoyed the chance to reach the Chinese audience via festival screenings. Strict rules limit regular big-screen imports to 20 each year and drive most moviegoers here to pirated DVDs.

20th Century Fox brought prints of five films it does not plan to submit for censors' approval, including "The Last King of Scotland" and "Little Miss Sunshine."

"I really want to see the audience reaction," said Luke Xiang, chief China rep for Fox, adding that he hoped fest organizers will devise an impromptu ratings system, the lack of which has made it easy for censors to bar all but middle-of-the-road films. "This would be progress toward an open market," he said.

Chinese producers seeking money far outnumbered buyers at the market. Many listened intently to a standing-room-only panel on marketing and distribution, featuring, among others, producer Michael Shane ("I, Robot") of Los Angeles-based HandPicked Films.

Shane said that the Hollywood trend of private equity financing films would, in his view, last another 18-24 months, and questioned if it would spread in China in time.

"Investing in the Chinese marketplace is risky," he said. "It's two to five years out before that's likely to happen here."