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The China connection

The Australia-China screen relationship is deepening in features, children’s programming and documentaries. Let's look into why.

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The good news for Australian screen producers is that Chinese studios and networks have never been more willing to engage with the West in co-productions, co-financing and other forms of collaboration.

Moreover, the economic slowdown in China is not likely to impact Chinese players’ appetite for international joint ventures or the sizable pool of funds available for screen investment, according to Chinese and Australians who have been building East-West bridges.

The not-so-good news for Australians who are keen to form ties with China:  Competition for Chinese collaborations and financing probably has never been more intense, with a steady procession of US, Canadian, European and Asian companies knocking on doors in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere.

“For the Chinese industry to survive it must look beyond its borders to the world market,” says Arclight Films’ Gary Hamilton, who is producing director Kimble Rendall’s 3D horror/thriller The Nest, which stars Li Bingbing, Kellen Lutz and Kelsey Grammer.  The Chinese partner is Loongs United Investment Company Ltd., which distributed Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the Jason Statham starrer Redemption in China.

Xavier Samuel stars in <em>Bait 3D</em> Xavier Samuel stars in Bait 3D

“While China is the fastest growing and most vibrant market, local Chinese films rarely penetrate the international market,” observes Hamilton, whose Bait 3D was a co-pro with Singapore and had a very successful release in China. “The greatest chance of wide international releases lies in partnering with Western companies to create powerful and solid international co-productions with China.

“China has always been open to collaboration with Australia across myriad industries and this expansion of the entertainment sector is an organic development, en masse.  In addition to our long collaborative history, we offer great financial incentives that allow films to cover the majority of their budgets from Australia and China, putting less pressure on the international marketplace, thus providing producers more creative freedom. “

Geng Ling, CEO of China Film Assist Co and Executive Director, Soundfirm Beijing, both established in 2003, says, “There is much stronger support now from the Chinese side for co-productions. There are about 100 co-productions every year but most are with Taiwan and Hong Kong. Technology has really advanced in China, resulting in a much better quality in their films. And Australia has a very good reputation there.”

China produces 700-800 films a year but no more than 300 secure theatrical release in that market. Hence it’s imperative for Chinese and international producers to have distribution deals in place at the outset. China Film Assist is partnered with major Chinese distributor Beijing Dadi Film Ltd in a ¥ 50 million ($A10.8 million) fund launched in 2012 to produce commercial Chinese films.

Geng Ling’s firm is collaborating with Opal Films International, a joint venture between Pauline Chan’s Darkroom Films and Deidre Kitcher, on My Extraordinary Wedding. The Mandarin-language cross-cultural comedy has received its Chinese film permit and Australian provisional certificate and is in the final stages of casting.

Screen Australia’s Enterprise Industry program is backing Chinalight, a new division of Arclight Films International which will use the funds to co-develop, co-finance and co-produce Australian-Chinese feature films, including workshops.

Some projects developed by Chinalight could be funded by the Aurora Alliance Films, a co-venture between Arclight and the giant Huace Group whose mandate is to develop, finance and produce a slate of high concept international co-productions. The first titles have secured Hollywood directors and are expected to be announced soon.

Richard Harris, Screen Australia Head of Business and Audience, says, “While the rest of the world looks on jealously at China’s burgeoning box office and tries to work out how they can tap into that, it’s clear that China sees itself playing on the world stage. I think China recognises that our films, for the size of our industry and country, can perform pretty well internationally. There is a mutual benefit to working together.”

One of the most prolific co-producers is Michael Tear, CEO of WildBear Entertainment, whose credits include The Story of Australia for CCTV9, A Tale of Two Cities for Beijing TV and Forever Young for CCTV2, which reached an audience of 275 million in China.

WildBear is producing for CCTV10 The War That Changed the World (2 x 1 hour), which examines the decades-long conflict between China and Japan culminating in WW2 and the rise of Chairman Mao and the Communist Party. It’s been a fruitful collaboration. Tear says, “We developed the editorial storyline and worked collegiately with the Chinese. Relationships between the Chinese and Australia producers are bigger and better than they have ever been; it just takes a long time to build a relationship and rapport. Everyone wants to do business with China: it is incredibly competitive. The Chinese are great learners and very interested in our way of doing things. China is definitely a long game but I am optimistic about the future. ”

Among the projects in development at WildBear is Colours of China, a five-part documentary looking at the country’s natural wonders planned as a co-production with China, New Zealand’s Making Movies and Germany’s Gebrüder Beetz.

Gary Hamilton is convinced the Chinese stock market gyrations and economic slowdown will not damper its screen sector’s appetite for international partnerships. “If anything, it has stimulated more investment into our industry as returns in traditional asset classes like real estate and mining slow down.  The entertainment industry offers the potential for huge gains and with more glamour and excitement than virtually any other industry,” he says.

<em>The Dragon Pearl</em> The Dragon Pearl

Geng Ling points to the fact that the screen industry is a relatively small part of the vast Chinese economy and that major players such as the Wanda Group, which owns Hoyts, US exhibitor AMC and recently bought a majority stake in Hollywood producer Legendary Entertainment for $US3.5 billion, has shown no signs of slowing down.

Chris Oliver, Screen Australia’s former Senior Manager, State and Industry Partnerships, has been a frequent visitor to China since the mid-1980s. Now an industry consultant, he says, “There are more opportunities now for TV co-financing.  Our TV programs have a great reputation globally, the Chinese know we are straight-shooters and we can bring the producer offset, which is really helpful.  Broadcasters BTV and SMG have standalone documentary channels and OTT (Over the Top) companies like Tencent and Baidu’s iQiyi are looking for programming.”

Ron Saunders was among the first Australians to form co-ventures with China’s CCTV more than 20 years ago, when there was minimal Western interest with China. Now General Manager of Beyond Screen Production Pty Ltd, his most recent collaborations were Hoopla Doopla!, a 52 x 11’ pre-school series, and Quest Friends, a 6×30’ factual series  targeted at 8-12-year-olds, both co-produced for the ABC with CCTV. “I have had very good experiences with Chinese partners,” Ron says. “Co-productions are always hard but you come out of the experience wanting to do more.” Ron notes there is a natural ceiling on children’s projects because the ABC has a limited amount of money and slots.

When AMPCO Studios’ Mario Andreacchio produced The Dragon Pearl with Hengdian World Studios in 2011, the first under the Australian-Chinese film co-production treaty, there were still relatively few hook-ups with the West. Andreacchio observes, “The window for co-productions with China is closing fast because there is startlingly so much  increasing competition, not only from the countries banging much harder than we are on the China door, but also from the increasing number of quality movies from the Chinese filmmakers themselves.

“To be competitive you need set-up capital in much larger sums than we are used to. And then the product needs to be what we are not used to either, and that is commercial market competitive stories.” Andreacchio cautions against trying to make films that straddle the two cultures, pointing to The Dragon Pearl which Chinese distributors viewed as “too Western” and Australian distributors saw as “too Chinese.”

Andreacchio is developing a slate with Beijing-based United Entertainment Partners, which released Chinese hits such as The Monkey King and Saving Mr Wu and is Sony Pictures’ distributor. He can speak first-hand about the patience and importance in finding the best partner.  It took agreements with three Chinese producers on Tying the Knot, a romantic comedy from director Nadia Tass and producer-writer David Parker, before he found one that had the finance, the flexibility and willingness to overcome the co-production hurdles.

David Parker says he has received provisional co-production approval from Screen Australia and the equivalent from China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) and the China Film Co-Production Corporation (CFCC). The latter body has given the producers script notes and shooting is due to start in a few months.

Richard Harris says, “When Ron Saunders and others first went to China smaller players could make greater headway. Now most of the big players and big funds in China really want to play with people who can make things of scale, like Legendary Entertainment.  In Australia companies like Village Roadshow and Animal Logic have an advantage but for smaller players it is more challenging, especially when a long-term engagement is required.”