I’d been to Shanghai and Beijing twice in the last several months and after a hectic start to the year I was looking forward to being at home for a while. However, an invitation to speak alongside some of the biggest players in the Chinese film industry was too good to pass up.
I first visited the Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) in 2009. I’d launched my sales company Odin’s Eye two years earlier and was there with three films in selection. This was before the boom. Before the flood of Chinese investment. There was no VOD market and few international releases of any significant scale. SIFFMart itself was comprised of a few dozen companies in humble partitioned booths highlighting the same films that they had been involved in – be it investment, production, post-production, marketing or distribution. There were very few parties – simple receptions in ballrooms with great food but often undrinkable wine. Flash forward to 2016 and it is hard to believe it’s the same event. The festival, always known for tasteful programming has not changed drastically however, the market has grown exponentially. With huge booths that remind me of MIPCOM and the lobbies in surrounding five star hotels chock full of executives, agents, producers and financiers. The parties are numerous and often lavish affairs with quite excellent wine.
I arrived in Shanghai during a torrential downpour causing the usual traffic chaos and made my way to the Shanghai Theatre Academy. Greeted by the MPA’s Mike Ellis, I was taken into a private room to join a gathering of Chinese distribution royalty. I was well aware that I was the least important person in the room but was greeted warmly by Jiang Ping of China Film Co, Jerry Ye of Huayi Bros and friends like Carrie Wong whom now heads up local production for Sony Pictures.
The panel itself was a personal challenge as it was predominantly a Chinese language affair. Being a non local speaker I relied entirely on the translations coming in live through a set of headphones and hoped what I was hearing bore some resemblance to what was actually being said. I was even less hopeful that my words were being translated correctly to Chinese but I guess that serves me right for still not having learnt Mandarin.
Launching the Shanghai Film Project Incubator, Jiang Ping spoke passionately about China’s growing dominance as the world’s leader in gross box office but he surprised me by remarking upon the elephant which has long been in the room – that dominance does not necessarily equal influence. In a rapid-fire speech – which the English language translator struggled to keep up with – I understood that he spoke to the inability to date of Chinese films to penetrate a mass market global audience. The root cause? The lack of development in Chinese productions. Now, this would not surprise many actively working in the industry but coming from Jiang Ping it is a firm reminder that China is not simply interested in being a cash cow for Hollywood but is also acutely aware of the historical importance of soft diplomacy through film. China may be bankrolling films like The Revenant and with Wanda’s ownership of Legendary, pictures like Warcraft however, a Chinese developed and produced film with a Chinese protagonist, has yet to cross the east west divide in a meaningful way. This will inevitably happen, the question is how long before it becomes a reality.
The panel itself was devoted to how each company was working with China and how they felt China could benefit from adopting certain structures used successfully in other parts of the world. For my part, I spoke to Australian preferential taxation / rebate system, which has become a crucial cornerstone for attracting offshore production and stimulating the local industry, and government supported development programs, which have produced the occasional break out success but has also supported the development of some of the worlds top directors and on screen talent. I also mentioned that, after nine years of searching for genuine Chinese / West live action co-productions, I’d only found two viable productions which would work as co-productions within the confines of official government treaties, and as a result I’d switched focus to animated co-productions with China (a strategy that is currently paying dividends).
Shanghai is a fascinating city, which much like the film business, is full of contradictions and insecurities. This is highlighted by the Beijing / Shanghai rivalry somewhat akin to Sydney v Melbourne; Los Angeles v New York; Vancouver v Toronto. Shanghai has always been suspicious of the power of Beijing and in turn Beijingers often accuse Shanghai-nese of being elitist. This was pretty much played out in every taxi-ride I took with my Beijing friends invariably arguing with the local driver. Again, I really should learn Mandarin – if only for pure entertainment purposes.
The most discussed topic during the festival was most certainly Warcraft’s record breaking box office opening and subsequent USD$18m VOD sale. Given its contrasting poor performance in the US and in other key territories, I think people were rather shocked something like this could do so well in China. Some have argued that it is because the online game has a lot more players in China, however when you look at the statistics on a per capita basis that argument is a fairly hollow one. To me, it’s success reinforces the obvious – that Chinese cinema going tastes are (currently) fundamentally different to that of western cultures. This in turn, poses an interesting question of what the future holds for east / west collaborations, as China becomes the most valuable territory (in terms of box office at least). Films are already tailored to the political sensitivities of China, so it will be curious to see if storytelling itself changes. As this dynamic, fast changing market evolves, I for one intend not just to watch from the sidelines, but participate in it however I can. It’s bound to be one heck of a ride.
THRONE OF ELVES from Mili Pictures
Michael Favelle is the founder of Odin’s Eye, an Australian sales and production company.