Chinese, International Producers Beat Path to Co-Productions

Partnership ventures lead China film export successes and boost imports as well.

BEIJING -- Producers and movie industry advocates visiting the Beijing International Film Festival’s first full day on Sunday from around the world joined their Chinese counterparts in a summit to slice and dice the potential perks and pitfalls of making movies together.

Co-productions can save foreign producers money and increase their chances of distribution in China’s tightly controlled but booming market, where gross ticket sales rose 64% to $1.5 billion in 2010 despite a 20-title cap on the Hollywood films that out-gross locals films two-to-one.

And Chinese companies stand to benefit from co-productions, too, at a time when the central government is encouraging local producers to hone their skills by working with foreign experts -- thus helping to boost China’s soft power around the world.

Zhou Tiedong, president of the summit-organizing China Film Promotion International, said 48 of the 49 Chinese films that had some recent export success, were made with foreign participation: “This shows the promising future of co-productions,” Zhou said.

Mike Ellis, the Hollywood studios’ lead lobbyist in Asia at the Motion Picture Association of America said that despite the desire to work together and the great potential gain, the level of uncertainty in China’s business climate was “really difficult for visiting producers” working for publicly traded companies that must answer to investors.

“China must look at easing the process of script approval,” said Ellis, who’s been working for the MPAA in Asia for 13 years and has seen projects get stuck in red tape at the Film Bureau. “Scripts are approved and then they’re not approved,” he said, referring to moving goalposts often set by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television.

Director Gao Qunshu said that most co-productions thus far had succeeded in only one of the home markets involved. Even Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a big hit in the U.S. in 2001, saw mediocre returns in China.

Gao said the problem lay partly in impatience among inexperienced investors demanding films be made quickly. “Chinese investors don’t have any idea how to make a film,” Gao said. “They’re shortsighted. Chinese blockbusters tend to be dark, because critics don’t take lighthearted stories seriously. But China has had a hard time finding new ways of telling stories.”

Yu Dong, CEO of the Nasdaq-listed Bona Film Group, whose 15 films last year commanded a 10 percent share of the Chinese marketplace, sounded as if he agreed: “We’ve have good box office for romantic comedies, but of our 500 films each year, there are still a limited number of stories. This is a problem under the current censorships and we must seek a new breakthrough. We cannot make 500 films based only on kung fu and comedy. Real flourishing will depend on the change in the kinds of stories we can tell.”

Corky Kessler, a lawyer for independent filmmakers visiting Beijing for the first time, said he would encourage his clients, many of whom use incentives offered by 37 U.S. states and the federal government to consider spending some of the money they save in the U.S. on making their movies in China.

Asked about the biggest challenge she faces in working in China -- where some subjects are politically fraught and deemed inappropriately challenging to one-party rule -- producer Janet Yang, whose last film here, Disney’s China High School Musical, was a disappointment, remains upbeat.

“Things are pleasant and easy here. While SAG actors are asking for private dressing rooms, Chinese actors like to hang out with each other,” said Yang, who’s been coming to China to work on films since the early 1980s.  “In some ways it’s easier to shoot here. People here tend to be friends with one another. There’s not as much back-biting here and sense that everyone’s trying to make things better for each other. We know what the hot button issues are, such as a movie about Tibet, then we avoid them, but then the space you can work within is actually very large.”