Road Pictures CEO on Turning Cannes Art House Winners into China Box Office Hits

Creative Space - Cai Gongming - Cannes Daily  - Photographed by Fang Yifei -H 2019
Photographed by Fang Yifei

Cai Gongming also reveals why fewer active Chinese buyers in Cannes may be a good thing and how he’s aiming to make his company "the A24 of China."

At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, Cai Gongming, CEO of Chinese distributor Road Pictures, pulled off a remarkable film buyer’s hat trick. He secured the exclusive Chinese theatrical rights to Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters, Nadine Labaki’s Jury Prize winner Capernaum and Pawe? Pawlikowski’s acclaimed black-and-white romance  Cold War, all of which would go on to be nominated for the foreign-language film Oscar. Cai bought the rights to all three titles before they had won a single award.

Perhaps even more impressive, given the regulatory difficulties of China and the developing state of the country’s indie cinema market, Road Pictures has since marketed and released both of the Cannes winners to enormous success. Shoplifters opened in China last July, earning $14.1 million (compared to $3.3 million in North America), while Capernaum debuted April 29 and has soared to $46 million (more than $1.6 million in North America). A China release for Cold War is planned for the spring.

Cai spent the first 20 years of his career in the auto industry, rising to the role of vice president at Mercedes-Benz, where he oversaw the German automaker’s entire sales and marketing operation in China, the company’s largest market worldwide. A passion for art and culture, stemming from his German literature studies at China’s Beijing University, has always been core to his identity and now guides his work at Road Pictures, which he co-founded in 2014. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Cai on the sidelines of the recent Beijing International Film Festival to discuss his approach to picking art house winners, how the Chinese industry’s "Cold Winter" is impacting Cannes and why he wants Road Pictures to become "the A24 of China."

Chinese buyers have been a growing force in Cannes over the past few years, but 2019 could be different, given recent regulatory crackdowns in China and less capital in the Beijing industry. What’s your read on the market?

Generally, many Chinese companies have financial problems now, so there are going to be fewer Chinese participants in Cannes. I think it’s both good and bad though, because there is going to be more rationality in the market — not just a bunch of Chinese money flying around buying up everything, even if they don’t know how to actually release the movie in China. The companies buying this year will be the more experienced guys who can actually get a release date and hopefully market your film well in China. You want a partner who can offer you some realistic hopes for backend, not [just] fast, minimum-guarantee thinking.

How do you assess which projects will work theatrically in China?

The first criterion is that it should be a film that might win major awards — in Cannes, Venice or an Academy Award. These honors help a lot for marketing in China. Second, we are interested in very director-driven, high-quality, meaningful projects. We want to be something like the A24 of China. But the film also must have real market potential in China — not everything can work. We have to be very selective. It has to be a story with some relevance for the Chinese audience. For example, films about social problems with relatable human stories. Strong emotions are important.

How involved are you personally in the selection process?

I make the final decision, but I have a great team that I trust throughout the evaluation process. With art house films, you have to be careful not to rely on one opinion too much — even your own. You have to be passionate about the film, though. I think maybe I have this passion for films in a way that other chief executives of many Chinese companies don’t. I’ll read a lot of scripts myself. I’ll do crazy things like fly to Paris for one day and screen five movies and fly back the same night.

How have you gone about marketing these art house films in China?

Well, the timing in the market is pretty good now. The demand of the audience is there. There’s a base of sophisticated filmgoers who want to see something meaningful. So you have to target that base and then think about how can you extend beyond it. For Shoplifters, we assembled a strong group of partners — Huawei and Alibaba for online marketing; Shanghai Film Group for theatrical support — which normally distributors do for big-budget films in China, but not this kind of art house movie. Then we pushed hard to get the film released close to the Palme D’or win — we released just three months after Cannes, which is very rare. Kore-eda has a fan base in China, so we worked with that and did a premiere event with him at the Shanghai International Film Festival in July that became the hottest ticket at the festival. On social media, someone posted that they were willing to trade a Shanghai apartment for a ticket to the premiere.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 18 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.