Chinese Industry Pulls Out of Berlin's European Film Market Amid Coronavirus Crisis

Berlinale - Getty - H 2020
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As cases of the virus continue to climb in China, most of the country's leading film studios have already canceled their EFM sales booths, with other Asian territories also seeing a downturn in attendance.

Thanks to a quirk in scheduling, Berlin's European Film Market was expected to see a record year of business activity from China's vast film industry in 2020. But due to the escalating global health crisis caused by the "novel coronavirus pneumonia," as the disease has now been officially designated, participation from Beijing film players at the upcoming 70th Berlinale will amount to nearly nil.

"A Chinese delegation of companies that was planning to attend EFM has seen no other option than to cancel their attendance due to the difficulties in obtaining visas related to the current health situation in China," the European Film Market's director Matthijs Wouter Knol on Tuesday told The Hollywood Reporter. The festival head noted that 2020 was supposed to play host to China's first designated large-scale sales booth on the Berlin market floor.

"EFM regrets the fact this first-time Chinese umbrella stand will not be realized,” said Knol, explaining that the companies that had to pull out from the project included many of China's largest film studios, such as Wanda Media, Alibaba Pictures Group, Shinework Pictures, Times Vision, New Classics Media, Beijing Enlight Pictures and others.

China's forced retreat from the EFM comes as the health statistics emerging from China continues to worsen. On Tuesday, the coronavirus epidemic passed a grim pair of milestones, with the death toll climbing to 1,018 and confirmed cases soaring past 40,000. Tuesday also marked the first time confirmed deaths had exceeded 100 in a single day.

Knol said EFM had received 59 cancellations from mainland China, but none so far from Hong Kong. Five film professionals from other countries had also cancelled, citing the coronavirus as the reason. "Exact numbers are not known at the moment, but a slight increase of cancellations is expected," Knol said.

The Berlinale has deep ties to the Chinese film industry. The German festival was the first major European event to feature a Chinese film in its main competition (Chun Yen's The Valley of the Lost Soul, 1957) and also the first to award a Chinese title its top prize — Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum won the Golden Bear back in 1988.

But the Berlinale's legacy scheduling in mid-February has made it the most difficult major event for Chinese industry players to attend, as it has tended to overlap with China's long Lunar New Year family holiday, which takes place anywhere from late January to mid-February.

The Berlinale's move later into the calendar in 2020 — this year's festival runs Feb. 20-March 1 — happily coincided with an earlier-than-usual arrival of China's Lunar New Year on Jan. 25. The stage, it seemed, was set for an influx of Chinese buyers and sellers at the European Film Market — welcome news given the way the tastes of Chinese film viewers, both in theaters and over streaming, have continued to diversify in recent years, creating numerous European sleeper hits in the Middle Kingdom.

But when the coronavirus caused China's leading studios to cancel all tentpole film releases over the usually lucrative holiday, domestic concerns began to take far greater priority than international business activity. China's 70,000 cinemas have mostly sat idle since Jan. 24, and many industry insiders fear it could be many weeks, if not months, until the virus is contained enough for the public to confidently return to multiplexes and for film releases to resume. Local analysts already estimate that lost ticket revenue is well in excess of $1 billion.

Many Chinese film executives contacted by THR on Tuesday referenced either visa difficulties or their government's current instructions to avoid unnecessary travel as their primary reasons for not making the trip to Germany this year. Some said they simply feared the potentially infectious environment of a confined airplane cabin, while others voiced worry that they might be shunned by European film colleagues, treated as an unwelcome potential contagion on the market floor (ugly stories of racist and xenophobic behavior towards Chinese people in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak have popped up all over the world — some of them carried in the Chinese media). 

"I'm not sure I could make it even if I wanted to go," said an acquisitions executive for Chinese distributor Times Vision. The exec, speaking by phone from Sydney, said they have been stuck in Australia ever since from the country's major airlines suspended all direct flights in and out of China on Feb. 1.

Julian Chu, a veteran sales executive for Hong Kong and Beijing-based Chinese studio Edko Films, said he had been hoping to attend Berlin as usual until just this week. "Most of my sales meetings were canceled, so I'm wondering if I should go after all," he said. The most reliable markets for Chinese films tend to be other territories in Asia, and Chiu said his best clients from those markets have told him they won't be attending Berlin for reasons related to the virus.

The vast majority of the confirmed coronavirus cases have been in China — 42,638, as of Tuesday — but new infections continue to appear in other Asian countries. Japan has seen 163 cases; Hong Kong, 49; Singapore, 47; Thailand, 33; South Korea, 28; Taiwan, 18; and Malaysia, 18 — and public anxiety in all of those places is on the rise.

One Chinese buyer reached by THR said she will still be visiting Berlin, but more so for reasons of escape than because she expects to achieve much business there this year. "We're all so sick of staying indoors in our homes for so long," she said, asking not to be named because of the potential sensitivity of speaking about the health crisis. "I'm going to do some meetings and see some films, but really I want the vacation — eating in restaurants, attending some parties. The situation in China now is very stressful and also very boring."

That intrepid attitude is far from the norm, however. In a text sent over messaging app WeChat, Ronan Wong, Endeavor China's veteran vp film and television, said: "I'm at home in Beijing and I'm not going anywhere right now."