Shanghai: Spanish Director Oriol Paulo on Cracking the China Market With Inventive Thrillers

Quim Vives
Oriol Paulo (left) during production of 'The Mirage'

The Barcelona-based director discusses his approach to genre filmmaking and how his movies earn 10 times more in the Middle Kingdom than they do at home in Spain.

Barcelona-born director Oriol Paulo has done what few European filmmakers have managed to achieve: he’s cracked the Chinese market.

Paulo's 2017 crime thriller Invisible Guest, which grossed a respectable, if hardly outstanding, $3.9 million in Spain, earned $26 million in China. In April of this year, his follow-up, the time-travel mystery Mirage, was a flop in Spain, making less than $900,000 on its initial release via Warner Bros. — but it grossed nearly $17 million in China, prompting the studio to take the unconventional step of re-releasing it in Paulo's home territory.

Netflix snapped up world rights outside China and Spain on Mirage before Paulo began filming.

In addition to their own success, Paulo's twisty, complex thriller scripts have spawned multiple remakes in Asia, the U.S. and elsewhere. He sold remake rights to his directorial feature debut, 2012’s The Body, to the U.S., South Korea, South Africa and India. Five countries, including China and the U.S., picked up remake rights to The Invisible Guest; and Mirage is set to be remade in four Asian territories, including China.

Mercedes Gamero, managing director of Atresmedia Cine and producer on all of Paulo’s films to date, suggests Paulo's particular style of plot-driven thrillers with a focus on storytelling over special effects, works nicely in China as "counter programming" to the blockbuster fare on offer from the major studios.

“His films combine ambitious script structures, suspense and characters in extreme situations,” adds Sandra Hermida, executive producer and production manager on Mirage and producer and production manager on Invisible Guest. “It's the balance between genre and emotion that makes his films unique."

Paulo, currently working on the eight-episode suspense series El Inocente for Netflix, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his inspiration, what he thinks of the remakes of his films and what it's like to be big in China. 

How would you describe the kinds of films you make, and who are your references?

Above all, I think I make thrillers, with an additional element of wanting to always challenge the spectator. I like to think my films take me back to when I was 14 years old and I would go to bed reading mystery novels that kept me up all night until the enigma was solved. In a certain way, I try to bring that same feeling to my films. I have a lot of references, but looking back I like Hitchcock and Clouzot a lot. I learned from them what the narrative pulse was. My two most admired references right now are Fincher and Nolan, two directors who transcend genre and have pushed to reach narrative perfection.

Your films have done well on Netflix and better outside Spain than inside. Do you chalk this up to culture, a question of tastes or maybe a lack of industrial support for their exhibition and promotion?

Every passing year, Spain loses more screens. My first two films did well within the parameters of a small market like Spain’s. The last one, though, didn’t meet expectations. I don’t know why. It might be the promotion or the fact that Spanish science fiction has never stood out at the box office, maybe for cultural reasons. What’s clear is that it rebounded later on Netflix, which has given the film a second life in Spain. Outside Spain, it’s true that the films have worked really well on Netflix, which is ultimately a window to the world, and on the big screen in other exhibition markets, especially in Asia. I think there’s been a big word-of-mouth effect. People have talked about the films, and it’s been the viewers themselves who have given the films life and room to grow.

You have a curiously large and seemingly faithful audience in China. How would you say Chinese audiences differ from, for example, Spanish audiences?

The truth is that the Chinese viewer is a very active viewer. And my films invite interaction, to keep the mind alert to completing the puzzle. I don’t like the viewer to be passive, and I believe the Chinese public enters very quickly into this game.

How is the South Korean remake of The Body different from the original, and did this experience teach you anything about Asian cinema versus Spanish or European?

The truth is I haven’t seen any of the remakes except the one they made in Italy of The Invisible Guest. I didn’t like it, so I haven’t seen any others. The feeling of redoing something that you’ve made is very strange.

It seems everyone wants to work with China, given the momentum of the market and industry there. Do you have plans to co-produce a film with Chinese partners?
I've got it in mind to look for a story that would allow a co-production, but I don’t want to force it. It has to make sense and offer me something. In any case, I’ve had three long trips to China and each time I’m fascinated by more aspects of that country, its people and its culture. So the desire is there. The disadvantage is that, obviously, my culture is Western. Taking on a story that takes place in China requires revising some of your own beliefs if you want to faithfully approach the material.

Do you have any other advice for European directors who want to reach the Chinese market?

I don’t really know what to say. I guess that they continue defending their own vision. Ultimately, my films have entered China because someone bet on them, it was never something sought after.