18 June 2019
No Star Turn for Mainland Movie Industry at 2019 Cannes Film Festival
Following several years when mainland movie makers, money men and distributors had almost taken top billing at the festival, local difficulties and new regulatory arrangements saw them happy to eschew the spotlight this time around.
For the second year running, an Asian filmmaker walked away with the Palme d'Or, the highest honour the Cannes Film Festival can bestow. This time around, it was South Korea's Bong Joon Ho who took the highly coveted award. His winning submission was Parasite, the darkly comic tale of an impoverished family that infiltrates a far richer one. For many it was a worthy successor to last year's winner – Shoplifters, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's much less comic social drama.
Bong's win marks the first time a South Korean film has been awarded the Palme d'Or, a decision that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the President of the Cannes jury, said had been unanimous. Speaking at a press conference after the awards, Bong thanked the festival, saying: "It is the 100th anniversary of Korean cinema this year. I think that Cannes has now given Korean cinema a great gift."
Although Chinese films didn't win any prizes, Diao Yinan's The Wild Goose Lake earned rave reviews in the Cannes Competition, while three further mainland movies were deemed worthy of being screened in other sections of the festival. Among these was Summer Of Changsha, the detective thriller that marked the directorial debut of actor Zu Feng, which premiered in Un Certain Regard. Johnny Ma's To Live To Sing, which focused on a Sichuan Opera troupe, then featured as part of the Director's Fortnight section, while Gu Xiaogang's Dwelling In The Fuchun Mountains, was screened as the closing film of Critics' Week.
Outside the festival programme, though, in the Cannes Marche and a number of other industry-focused events, the Chinese film industry kept a far lower profile than in previous years. While there were some big-budget Chinese films being sold on the Croisette – notably Dante Lam's US$90 million action-adventure The Rescue; the Huayi Brothers' $80 million war epic The Eight Hundred, directed by Guan Hu; and Bona Film Group's $60 million The Chinese Pilot, directed by Andrew Lau and sold by Distribution Workshop – most of the buyers in attendance were already well familiar with all of them. Indeed, there were very few new mainland Chinese or Hong Kong films being launched in Cannes this year, an outcome that saw many of their respective movie makers decide against making the trip to the south of France.
Although few companies were willing to speak openly about the situation, the lack of new titles was clearly due to the ongoing production slowdown in Beijing. All in all, since the end of last year, several developments have effectively hamstrung mainland studios. On top of the recent tax clampdown, which deterred a number of would-be backers, the introduction of a new censorship regime has made it difficult for producers to determine exactly which kind of projects it is safe to greenlight. On top of all that, the domestic box office appears to have now fallen victim to China's overall economic slowdown.
Speaking strictly off the record, one mainland producer said: "We just don't know what kind of films we're supposed to be making." Others, meanwhile, said they had deemed it prudent to postpone any project until after this October's celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
A combination of all the above factors has also made China less forthcoming as a source of finance for international productions, with even previously announced projects having fallen by the wayside. At last year's Cannes, for instance, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing made a red-carpet appearance as news broke that Huayi Brothers had agreed to invest $20 million in 355, her female-centric action movie. Ultimately, the studio pulled out of the deal in the wake of the actress' well-publicized tax scandal, while the studio is itself now having its wings clipped by a government that's far from keen on Chinese capital moving offshore.
Speaking during the course of the festival, James Wang, the Chief Executive of Huayi Brothers, said the studio had now adjusted its strategy and would be focusing on a few carefully chosen partnerships with international directors, rather than spending millions of dollars on a slate of financing deals. At present, the company is working with Joe and Anthony Russo, the directors of the Avengers series, and is the majority financial backer of their new venture, AGBO Entertainment, which was in Cannes to present Cherry – its forthcoming Tom Holland drama – to potential buyers.
Explaining how this new arrangement will work in practice, Wang said: "It's an approach that very much resembles what we've been doing in China, where we have partnerships with a number of directors and a range of creative personnel. The only difference is that we'll be making English-language films with the Russo Brothers and Chinese-language films with our existing partners in China."
As well as cutting back on financing overseas projects and producing comparatively few domestic movies, China was also noticeably less active as a buyer of international titles this year. At the 2018 festival, mainland buyers scooped up the Chinese distribution rights to dozens of films, including the multi-awarded Shoplifters and Capernaum, as well as Natalie Portman-starring Vox Lux and Roland Emmerich's Midway, which is scheduled for global release in November. This year, though, Emmerich's new film – the sci-fi epic Moonfall – was bought by practically every territory except mainland China.
Again speaking off the record, Chinese buyers indicated that now is not a wise time to be acquiring US independent titles, largely on account of the ongoing US-China trade dispute. In a normal year, China permits the import of 34 films, mostly Hollywood studio titles, on a revenue-sharing basis, as well as okaying a few dozen independently made overseas films through what is known as a "flat-fee" or "buyout" deal. While the Chinese authorities are unlikely to restrict the flow of Hollywood blockbusters, which keep the turnstiles turning for mainland cinema chains, US independent films are not such a sure bet financially and could easily get caught in the crossfire if things escalate between China and the US.
With US independent films apparently off the menu, however, this could prove a real opportunity for any company looking to sell non-US, foreign-language films into China. Indeed, one of the talking points at this year's festival was the huge success Capernaum, a Lebanese drama, had met with at the Chinese box office. Directed by Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, the film has grossed more than $53 million in China alone, an extraordinary result for an Arabic-language arthouse film with no well-known stars. Perhaps indicating that this is more than a one-off, Kore-eda's Japanese-language movie, Shoplifters, grossed $14.5 million in China last summer, while Spanish, Indian and Thai titles have also delivered impressive returns.
In the case of both Capernaum and Shoplifters, part of their mainland success may be down to the promotional strategies of Beijing-based Road Pictures, the company that acquired the China rights to the two at last year's Cannes. This saw carefully crafted marketing campaigns undertaken for both films, with a particular emphasis on creating a social media buzz via the Douban and Tik Tok platforms.
Far from attributing this success to clever marketing, though, Cai Gongming, the Founder of Road Pictures, sees it as more of a sign that the Chinese market is maturing. Expanding upon this, he said: "The Chinese audience is becoming much more sophisticated and more open to stories from other cultures. This, however, doesn't mean that every foreign arthouse film could be a success in China.
"In the case of Capernaum, it had a strong emotional connect with the Chinese audience, while its plot was quite straightforward and easy to follow. As to Shoplifters, it appealed to a more intellectual audience, which was why its box office was smaller. While we want to support such films in future, we need to build China's arthouse market step-by-step over the long term and in a professional way."
Meanwhile, China was not the only emerging territory to opt for a deliberately low profile at this year's festival. After lifting a 38-year ban on cinemas in April 2018, Saudi Arabia was the talk of last year's market, with the newly minted Saudi Film Council hosting a Pavilion as it looked to court the global film industry, while announcing generous cash rebates for international shoots. The Saudi presence was noticeably less visible this year, with the country having been dogged by controversy of late, most notably the involvement of a member of its royal family in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
While several international exhibitors, including AMC, Vox and Cinepolis, are ploughing ahead with plans to build cinemas in the kingdom, the global outcry over the fate of Khashoggi has given other companies pause for thought. The US media giant Endeavor, for instance, recently returned the $400 million investment it had secured from the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund. Understandably, there was no Saudi pavilion at this year's Cannes and it appears that no Hollywood film, to date, has taken advantage of the production incentives offered by its government.
Also relatively quiet this year were Netflix and Amazon, two of the most high-profile global streaming platforms. This, though, was probably more on account of their contentious relationship with the festival rather than any reflection on the state of the market or the quality of the films on offer.
While Netflix acquired two Cannes titles towards the end of the festival – Grand Prix winner Atlantics and Critics Week award-winner I Lost My Body – the company largely stayed off the radar, seemingly still sulking after being told by the Cannes organisers that films not destined for a theatrical release – as is the case with the majority of the streaming services' movie slate – were not eligible for inclusion at the festival. Amazon, a company more open to giving its movies a theatrical release, has attracted less flak from the French film industry, and secured the US rights to Ladj Ly's jury prize winner Les Miserables during the event.
The 2019 Cannes Film Festival took place from 14-25 May at the Palais des Festivals.
Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Cannes