The annual Berlin International Film Festival, also known as the Berlinale has historically been an important Western platform for Chinese films. For the past few years at the festival, a Berlin-based association, Bridging the Dragon and the European Film Market have sponsored events designed to further the cause of European films and co-productions that can gain distribution in China, bringing together Euro-producers and Chinese industry pros for dialogue, project development and community building.
Last week, CFI attended Bridging the Dragon’s third annual Sino-European Production seminar, a lively day of discussion and presentations hosted by showbiz bible Variety’s veteran Asia Hand, Patrick Frater.
Fittingly, the day began with an attempt to parse 2016’s developments at the Chinese box office, in particular its downward trajectory following The Mermaid’s record-smashing run in February, to a year-end total showing just 4% growth over 2015. Bringing up a handful of potential causes, including disappearing ticket subsidies, crackdown on box office fraud, and changes consumer preferences, Frater gave the floor to panelists Shan Dongbing, Founder & President of Donwa Pictures and Wang Yu, CEO of China Film Market, both of whom claimed to see the downturn in a positive light.
To Shan, the Chinese film industry’s rapid expansion reminded him of the country’s powdered milk controversy of the mid-2000s, when government regulation failed to keep pace with an influx of hot money and shady domestic producers jumping head first into the gold rush. For him, Shan, the box office’s leveling represents a healthy development for the film industry, weeding out bit players and helping producers to focus on quality instead of quantity.
A subsequent panel took on on the challenges of casting Chinese actors for co-productions, prompting lively discussion amongst Huayi Brothers Vice President Jerry Ye Ning, veteran casting director, Auyeung Poping, and Jessica Chen, co-founder of the talent agency Easy Entertainment.
Ms. Auyeung, with credits including Netflix’s Marco Polo and the Weinstein Company’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny emphasized that she still has a difficult time finding competent English-speaking actors within China, and often has to cast ethnic Chinese performers from other countries who are fluent in English, but lack Mandarin skills.
Asked by Frater why so many co-productions opt for English dialogue, Ye explained his belief that producers have to choose their main market first, and let the language follow from there. The conversation eventually turned to the importance of social media popularity when casting, a common practice in China that Chen believes is overrated, and leads to superficial choices.
In the afternoon, filmmakers and producers with European-based projects were given the chance to participate in practical workshops led by Chinese filmmakers. Themes included financing, casting, setting up co-productions, and storytelling challenges. As the Director of the European Film Market, Matthijs Wouter Knol, put it, “The Sino-European Production Seminar has become one of the insider tips of the market.”