German Films Look for China Opportunities in Hollywood’s Shadow

The fourth Festival of German Cinema opens Friday in Beijing, part of a three-city, 13-day showcase of films produced by German directors and studios.


While most of the heat and light over film imports in China is generated by Hollywood, many other nations make films and want to feel some of its growing box office warmth.

The fourth Festival of German Cinema opens Friday in Beijing, part of a three-city, 13-day showcase of films produced by German directors and studios that will also visit Chengdu and Shenzhen.

China allows 34 foreign films per year to be imported on a revenue-sharing basis, about 80 percent of which are American-produced. Based on box office receipts, it’s Hollywood action or animation that has performed best: except for cameos by New Zealand on The Hobbit: The Battles of the Five Armies, and the United Kingdom on Interstellar, only films from China, Hong Kong, and the United States appear in China’s current list of top 50 all-time, highest-grossing films.

“The audience wants, or the cinemas think that the audience only wants, exploding robots. [Exhibitors] are reluctant to take films that do not demonstrate immediate commercial success,” Anke Redl, China/Southeast Asia representative for German Films in Beijing, told CFI. “German films tend to be very character focused, almost a study of a person. A lot of films we have in the festival are really about personal growth, youth movements, that kind of thing,” she said.

However, the demand for content outside of cinematic release, including online, remains high, creating an opportunity for German films. Colonia, the Festival’s opening film, directed by Oscar winner Florian Gallenberger and starring Emma Watson, has already been sold for online in China.

Although cinematic release is the ultimate goal, other outlets are often more welcoming. “We push on all sides, but with German films, they are taken up with video-on-demand and on television quite a lot,” Redl said. “Our role is a commercial role. we are here to make sure that German films get the best possible platform to be released in China.”

One obstacle for films from Germany has been a general unwillingness by directors to censor their films, with nudity and political themes occasionally standing in the way. This is in contrast to Hollywood productions, including current box office success Doctor Strange, which was criticized for changing Tilda Swinton’s character from a male Tibetan sage to a female Celtic mystic in order to gain China release, a strategy that appears to have worked.

There is also a reluctance to force Chinese themes into a story. However, more organic projects, such as Gallenberger’s 2007 film John Rabe about a German businessman who saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, come more easily. “German filmmakers focus on the artistic process, so that may not be an option. More realistic is finding a story that takes place in both cultures, where you bring both sides together in a way where they can both contribute,” Redl said.

Although revenue-sharing releases remain generally elusive, other options include flat-fee sales and co-productions, which, if they meet established Chinese requirements, are classified as Chinese films for distributions purposes. A Sino-German co-production treaty is still being negotiated, Redl said.