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No Asian winners at Cannes, but mainland box office is the big prize

Cannes fails to reward Asian filmmakers, though Hong Kong proves a winner in promoting mainland movies to international buyers, while many Western companies woo mainland co-producers and promote lucrative remake rights.

Photo: The Great Hypnotist: mainland-made, Hong Kong-distributed.
The Great Hypnotist: mainland-made, Hong Kong-distributed.

The growing influence of mainland China's fast-growing box office was, once again, difficult to ignore at this year's Cannes Film Festival. If anything, it was more pronounced still at the accompanying film market. This was despite the fact that it was hardly a banner year for Chinese (or even Asian) cinema, with very few titles from the region in the festival's official selection.

Gong Li walked the red carpet for Zhang Yimou's Coming Home, which played in an official "out of competition" slot, while Wang Chao's Fantasia – the tale of a working class family struggling with medical bills – premiered in the Un Certain Regard section. There were no Chinese-language films, however, included in the main competition. Worse still, unlike last year – when Flora Lau's Bends premiered in Un Certain Regard – Hong Kong had no films at all in the official line-up.

Away from the red carpet – in the Palais des Festivals and the hotel lobbies where the real work gets done – much of the chatter focussed on how to best work with China. Indeed, throughout the course of the market, a number of Western companies announced a string of deals to co-produce Chinese films – or to buy other people's films for release in China, albeit through the country's heavily-regulated channels.

One of the highest profile of these deals saw IM Global, one of the largest US independent film companies, strike an agreement with Beijing-based Huayi Brothers to handle international sales on all of the Chinese studio's upcoming productions. In another move, Ivanhoe Pictures teamed up with Beijing Galloping Horse Group to buy Chinese rights to Begin Again, a musical comedy starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Ivanhoe, alongside Australia's Village Roadshow, was also among the investors in Mountain Cry, a new drama by the Chinese director Yang Zi.

Predictably, mainland film executives were very much in evidence at Cannes. Around 400 registered to attend the market and spent much of their time hosting parties and press events to promote upcoming movies. Among the most heavily trailed were John Woo's The Crossing, Jiang Wen's Gone With The Bullets and two animated features – Dragon Nest (produced by Mili Pictures) and Legend Of A Rabbit: Martial Of Fire 3D (Tianjin North Film Group).

Overall, though, mainland studios are still very much at the beginning of the process of figuring out just how to sell their films internationally. Preoccupied with their huge domestic market, they often work with Hong Kong or Western companies to distribute their films more widely. In Cannes, LA-based Arclight Films was selling Legend Of A Rabbit, while Hong Kong- and Amsterdam-based Fortissimo Films closed deals on two mainland titles – Black Coal, Thin Ice and The Great Hypnotist.

Explaining mainland companies' reluctance to sell their own movies, Elliot Tong, Head of Asian Sales and Acquisitions for US-based Arclight Films, said: "Producers are giving us their titles to sell because they've done the math. The money and the effort they would need to spend on the global markets all year round, together with the time away from China, just isn't presenting enough of an upside for them.

"Chinese producers, though, are slowly starting to realise that Cannes is the platform for brand-building. For a new player it's the perfect place to put your company on the map."

For Hong Kong producers – nearly all of whom are internationally-focussed and Cannes veterans – this year's market was less about brand-building and more about closing deals on the films they'd introduced to buyers at Hong Kong's FILMART back in March. As with their Western counterparts, they reported that the Cannes market was quieter than in previous years – a consequence of Europe's economic woes and the gradual decline of the DVD market, according to some.

Photos: Cross-territory successes: The Golden Era (left) and The Midnight After.
Cross-territory successes: The Golden Era (left) and The Midnight After.

Endorsing this sentiment, Julian Chiu, Head of Sales for Hong Kong's Edko Films Ltd, said: "Although we had back-to-back meetings booked before we came, there was much less walk-in traffic." Alice Leung, Head of Sales for Hong Kong's Universe Films Distribution Co Ltd, had a similar experience and believes buyers are becoming more selective, while also having smaller budgets. She said: "It's been the case for a few years now that the video market in some key territories is declining. This has meant that foreign buyers are no longer able to pay high license fees."

Any gloom, however, seemed to be mostly centred on Europe, with North America and the Asian territories quietly buying up new movies. As usual, the top sellers were star-studded English-language films, all sold by Western companies. Among the most high-profile of these were Eye In The Sky (a drone warfare thriller starring Colin Firth); Story Of Your Life (a sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams) and Civilian (an action thriller starring Hong Kong's own Jackie Chan).

Reassuringly, Hong Kong companies were not doing too badly when it came to selling Chinese-language movies to North America and out across Asia. Media Asia sold three films to North America, including Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2, while US distributor Well Go USA bought Pegasus Motion Pictures' $36 million Ip Man 3, starring Donnie Yen. The deal related not just to North America, but also covered right for much of the rest of the world. Well Go USA also bought North American rights to Pegasus' crime thriller Z Storm, starring Louis Koo.

Meanwhile, Media Asia had a bidding war on its hands when it came to the Korean rights for Helios, an action thriller starring the Korean actors Ji Jin-hee and Choi Si-won, as well as Hong Kong's Jacky Cheung, Nick Cheung and Shawn Yue. A deal was finally struck with Korea's Pan Cinema. Pegasus also sold Ip Man 3 and Z Storm to Korea, while Edko reported strong Korean interest in Ann Hui's biopic The Golden Era, starring Tang Wei as the Chinese writer Xiao Hong.

Addressing the high levels of Korean interest in its output, Fred Tsui, Assistant General Manager of Media Asia said: "Korean companies have been very aggressive when it comes to securing right for our movies, most probably because many of them feature strong Korean elements. Despite that, our other traditional markets, including South-East Asia and Taiwan remain, hugely important to us."

Among the other deals completed during the course of the event, Fortissimo Films sold The Midnight After – its recent Fruit Chan-directed Hong Kong hit – to Taiwan, while Universe secured the sale of Adrian Kwan's Little Big Master (starring Miriam Yeung) to both Singapore and Malaysia.

Animation again proved popular with many buyers attracted to China's animated movies, largely thanks to their increasingly high production standards and the ease with which they can be dubbed for foreign territories. Among the beneficiaries here were Legend Of A Rabbit, Dragon Nest and Media Asia's Monkey King Reloaded. Tsui said: "We had offers for pre-buys [ie money on the table before the film was completed] even from France, although we've decided to wait for the time being."

One of the trends observed at FILMART earlier in the year was an emerging penchant for selling remake rights. This was again apparent at Cannes, with Media Asia signing a deal with Korea's Jong Film to remake Johnnie To's Drug War as a Korean-language feature. The company is also in talks regarding an English-language remake of the film.

In general, however, Hong Kong companies, together with Korean, Japanese and European producers, maintained that global distributors are becoming more cautious with regard to foreign-language films. Tsui said: "Most European, American and Japanese companies need to see the finished film before committing. Unless you have a big name – like Jet Li, Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen – they're not going to pre-buy."

Even those companies specialising in English-language movies are concerned buyers are increasingly solely focussed on a limited pool of established stars. Many believe this is hugely detrimental to the business overall, especially as an increasing number of "name" actors are now splitting their time between TV and movies. One of the biggest grumbles among Western companies was that it's now getting far harder to package movies when all the talent is being sucked up by big-budget TV series, such as True Detective and House Of Cards.

This is less of a problem for China where the booming box office is keeping its biggest stars busy in the film sector. Chinese authorities recently announced that China's box office had surpassed Rmb10 billion ($1.6 billion) already this year. It is set to climb still further with a slew of Hollywood releases and several big local films waiting in the wings. Among these imminently anticipated high-earners are The Crossing, Gone With The Bullets and Tsui Hark's The Taking Of Tiger Mountain.

Despite their relatively poor showing in the official competition at Cannes this year, Chinese films are expected to make a real impact at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in the autumn. After Black Coal, Thin Ice won the top prize at the Berlin film festival in February, it was perhaps surprising that Cannes appeared preoccupied with other regions.

For next year, there are a number of clear Chinese festival contenders in the pipeline. These include The Golden Era (directed by Ann Hui whose A Simple Life won Best Actress award at Venice in 2011); Peter Ho-sun Chan's as-yet-untitled drama about child kidnapping; and Jean Jacques Annaud's Sino-French co-production Wolf Totem (based on the best-selling book set in Inner Mongolia during the years of the Cultural Revolution).

Photo: Black Coal, Thin Ice: snubbed by Cannes, but a winner in Berlin. Will 2015 see Asian films fare better?
Black Coal, Thin Ice: snubbed by Cannes, but a winner in Berlin. Will 2015 see Asian films fare better?

The 67th Festival de Cannes was held from 14-25 May, 2014.

Liz Shackleton, Asia Editor, Screen, Cannes

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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