Shanghai International Film Festival Bows Amid Logistical and Programming Challenges

Susan Sarandon, jury president Barry Levinson and "Aftershock" director Feng Xiaogang were among those attending Saturday's opening gala.

SHANGHAI – Rain drenched the red carpet at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival on Saturday, amplifying general disarray on opening day, but SIFF jury president Barry Levinson's forecast was one of hope for the industry from Hollywood to China.

"When films connect with us they become shared memories, personal, and magical," the Oscar-winning director of Rain Man told a packed house at the Shanghai Grand Theater. "Stories are a part of our DNA and film is the latest way to share them with people around the world. That's what we're looking forward to this week."

Levinson heads a jury that will have to watch three films a day to cover all of the entries vying for SIFF prizes, called Golden Cups, in eight categories. Fest ends June 19.

"Usually, we watch just two," said Levinson, 69, whose last jury stint was in Marrakech, adding he'd last watched three films in a day at a Clint Eastwood marathon at a theater on Sunset Boulevard now long gone. Would this marathon cloud his judgment in China, where he's visiting for the first time? "We'll see," he said.

Before Shanghai Mayor Han Zhang and Zhang Pimin, vice minister of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, officially opened the festival, Levinson marveled at how far he'd come from his roots in Baltimore. "I'm overwhelmed by the size of this place," he said, asking, "where are all the potholes?"

Shanghai's infrastructure may be strong (thanks to investment in preparation for the World Expo in 2010), and its cinemas may be booming (China's box office jumped 64% last year), but its film festival's organizers flagged under international pressure, leaving some guests stranded for hours without registration, hotel rooms or gala or movie tickets.

"There are some film festivals that are rigid and you follow the rules and some were you have to go with the flow. Shanghai is one of the latter," Hollywood producer Frederic Golchan said while riding in a festival minivan stuck in traffic as organizers bickered about where he was to be driven next. "This is a beautiful jam, but it's fun. I'm beginning to think that China is more complex than I thought."

One of the festival's seven film programmers told The Hollywood Reporter that the event, which is owned by the Shanghai Media Group, China's No. 2 media conglomerate, is "underfunded" but still fighting to try to bring in newer films, even premieres. Its hand are tied, however, she said, by strict SARFT censorship that leaves the event showing older films that can be faster to get and easier for censors to review.

"China's is not yet a film market like other markets," she said, adding that the whole SIFF staff, including accounting and administration, was fewer than 30 people. She said Shanghai has a hard time attracting world premiere films because there was no guarantee that a screening at SIFF would lead to a theatrical release.

Some of the lack of funds at SIFF is counterintuitive since China's cities by and large are cash rich and international film delegations appear desperate to make Chinese co-productions that can get around a 20-title cap on the import of movies.

Tom Yoda, chairman of the Tokyo International Film Festival, sipped water in VIP waiting area (no alcohol was served), and said: "It's early, but it seems to me there are fewer people there than last year. Perhaps it's just the rain. We'll see."

The VIP room, a gallery in the Shanghai Art Museum, sounded at times like an airport departures lounge with a deafening P.A. system. But the pre-gala mood was jovial as directors Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock), Jia Zhangke (24 City) and Gordon Chan (Painted Skin) milled among their respective entourages, posing occasionally for fans who snuck in cameras.

Once inside the theater, Feng, director of China's No. 2 highest-grossing film of all time, was awarded the SIFF Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Cinema Award. Director and friend Zhang Guoli cracked wise on stage, bringing the local audience to laughter with inside jokes lost on hundreds of international guests when the interpreter forgot to do her job.

Next up, Susan Sarandon, also on her first trip to China, was feted with the SIFF Artistic Life Achievement Award and joked that Zhang ought to make her acceptance speech, too.

As the ceremony closed and many of the VIPs walked out into the rain again, Fox 2000's Water for Elephants was set to screen as the opening film – a first for a Hollywood title and a nod to News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, who is set to speak on film finance to a SIFF market forum on Sunday.