Future film in China: co-prods, competitions

Industry observers offer opinions to nation's filmmakers

BEIJING -- The future and growing pains of Chinese cinema were hot topics Thursday when the nation's biggest student film festival organizer compared notes with a veteran foreign film industry reporter on how to internationalize movies from the Middle Kingdom.

Although China's domestic films increasingly compete with the limited imports allowed to vie for ticket sales at the boxoffice -- up 25% on average five years in a row -- few Chinese films are bought for overseas distribution.

Tackling the problem before two dozen filmmakers gathered at the 13th Beijing Screenings, Huang Huilin of the Beijing University Students Film Festival said she trusted young Chinese to "take ownership" of the nation's industry, while Patrick Frater, a Hollywood Reporter contributing editor, advised Chinese filmmakers to place their trust in greater international cooperation.

Huang, a screenwriter and a professor at Beijing Normal University, said the millions of Chinese youth who each year go on to Sina.com to discuss the films in her 16-year-old festival are critical enough to mould a new industry, one which, despite 30 years of political reform, is still closely monitored by government censors who approve all films aiming for wide release.

China's government has warmed cautiously to outside influences, and, for now, still favors films that, Huang noted, "reflect China's rich cultural heritage" -- a common code for approved topics that don't threaten the status quo. But now that China is about to become the world's No. 2 economy after the United States, Huang hinted that it is time for greater confidence and further change.

"Films can be unique and meaningful, reflecting the unique morality and beauty of a people in transition," she said, adding, "The public, as inspired by movies, can be increasingly diversified."

Frater noted that while Hollywood had dared to succeed making Chinese-themed films such as Disney's "Mulan" and Dreamworks' "Kung Fu Panda," most of the few Chinese-made films to succeed commercially overseas -- such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Hero," and "Red Cliff" -- were cut roughly from the same cloth, telling war stories from a bygone era, stories that are of dwindling interest in export markets where viewers now are curious about the China they saw on television during the Beijing Olympics.

"Chinese filmmakers must find export potential in other genres," said Frater, adding that one way to do this could be to adopt a pro-active, outbound film "foreign policy," inviting exchange students to study film in China and Chinese students to study film abroad.

It's not enough, Frater said, for China's Film Bureau to tell global filmmakers to bring their money into China and make Chinese films if they wish to avoid the 20-film annual import cap.

Why not host an international competition for films about China, Frater asked. And why not brand China's industry as "big enough, cool enough and confident enough to let people get creative?"

China should take a lesson from the wild success of "Slumdog Millionaire," the British-French-Indian-American mash-up that brought millions in investment into India, won three Oscars (including one for an Indian composer) and drew the world's attention to Bollywood despite the film's having been written and directed by non-Indians.

"Chinese films can grow and prosper from enlarged contact with film industries, filmmakers and film cultures from the rest of the world," said Frater. To do so, he said, Chinese filmmakers should develop better overseas sales agents or entrust their films to foreign sales agents with greater experience.

Japan's Oscar-winning film "Departures" might not have gotten the attention it did had it not been represented by a British sales agent, which was seen to have chosen it specially, Frater said. If a Japanese sales agent had tried to sell "Departures," the film could have risked getting lost in the shuffle of the hundreds other Japanese titles made last year.

The Beijing Screenings, which began Tuedsay and end Friday, is an annual Chinese film sales showcase hosted by the state-run film studio China Film Group. This year's event is screening 60 recent movies and is attended by 100 foreign distributors and festival programmers.