Connect with us


Berlin: Is China’s Film Sector Opening Its Doors to the World Again?



As China’s post-pandemic reopening gathers steam, film executives in Beijing are feeling cautiously optimistic for the first time in years. Local audiences have cast off their masks and returned to the multiplex, regulators are signaling a relaxing of control, and film professionals are finally traveling freely again to re-engage with international festivals and markets.

Beijing industry players warn, however, that the current recovery is likely to benefit China’s big commercial tentpoles and Hollywood studio movies first — and that any rebound for the country’s nascent indie import business could take time.

On the international front, China’s reengagement with the global film community at large is readily apparent at the year’s first major film festival, the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, where six Chinese features will premiere — including two in competition (Liu Jian’s animated film Art College 1984 and Zhang Lu’s drama The Shadowless Tower) — along with one Chinese series (iQIYI’s Why Try to Change Me Now, by Dalei Zhang, winner of the 2021 Berlin Silver Bear for short films). Festival regulars believe it to be Berlin’s largest selection of Chinese films to date.

“So many releases were put on hold last year because of the lockdowns, there is a big backlog of quality films ready for release in 2023,” says Meng Xie, founder of Rediance, a Beijing-based indie producer and international sales outfit, which has two features in Berlin’s Encounters section this year, Chinese filmmaker Wu Lang’s Absence and Belgian director Bas Devos’ Here. “The door has opened and we’re really excited to be heading back to Berlin for the first time since 2020,” he adds. “Everything seems to be moving in a positive direction.”

Broader signs of a potential comeback for the Chinese film industry are abundant almost everywhere.

After Beijing abruptly dismantled its draconian “COVID zero” pandemic control measures in late 2022, consumer activity plummeted as an enormous wave of COVID infection swept the country. But by the time the country’s Lunar New Year holiday began on Jan. 22, it was clear that the Chinese people were ready to put caution aside and join the rest of the world in resuming their normal lives. Over the weeklong family holiday period, total ticket sales at Chinese cinemas topped $1 billion (RMB 6.8 billion), the second-biggest holiday haul on record and a 12 percent climb from 2022. The two top holiday releases are on a trajectory to earn over half a billion dollars a piece — Zhang Yimou’s period mystery Full River Red with $650 million (RMB 4.41 billion) and Frank Guo’s sci-fi sequel The Wandering Earth 2 at $560 million (RMB 3.85 billion).

The Hollywood studios, meanwhile, have reason to be enthusiastic, too. During 2022, the release of major US movies slowed to a trickle amid an uptick in nationalist sentiment and Communist Party suppression surrounding the 20th National Congress, China’s all-important political event where president Xi Jinping was anointed to a norm-busting third term. Just two American movies made it into China’s top 10 list in 2022 — Avatar: The Way Of Water with just shy of $248 million and Jurassic World Dominion at $232.5 million — while the number of non-Chinese films released in the country slid 48 percent, year on year, to just 57 titles. Regulators also maintained a two-year de facto ban on all Disney/Marvel movie releases, leaving hits like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Thor: Love and Thunder on the shelf, costing Disney tens of millions in lost potential revenue. Other big-budget US films, such as Paramount’s Top Gun: Maverick and Warner Bros.’ Black Adamalso were passed over.

Already, 2023 is looking brighter for the studios. In mid-January, China’s Film Bureau lifted its Marvel ban by giving Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania release dates — Feb. 7 for the former, Feb. 17 for the latter. Warner Bros. Discovery’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods was then set for release on March 17, while a few smaller international titles have also nabbed dates, like Florian Zeller’s 2022 drama The Son, set for Feb. 24.

Beijing’s softening stance on film regulation mirrors the country’s recent about-face in other areas of the economy — most significantly, the unwinding of pandemic-era crackdowns on the enormous tech and real estate sectors. The policy pivot has coincided with an administrative shakeup at the Film Bureau, as well.

In early 2018, Beijing instituted a major reorganization of China’s government structure. Among various changes, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the regulatory body that had overseen the country’s media and entertainment industries for a generation, was abolished. Such functions were absorbed by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party, also known as the Propaganda Department. The change meant that film regulation — everything from film censorship to import policy and the setting of release dates — was moved from a government apparatus that operated with some measure of insulation from politics to the party structure directly responsible for disseminating CCP ideology and propaganda. At the same time, Wang Xiaohui, executive vice minister of the Propaganda Department and a career bureaucrat with no film industry background, took over as director of the National Film Bureau. Industry players both inside and outside of China noted a predictable increase in censorship difficulties in the aftermath of the restructuring, as well as regular episodes of administrative dysfunction.

Last year, however, Wang was moved to a more senior position as Party Secretary of Sichuan Provence, and Mao Yu, a career film regulator was appointed as the new head of the Film Bureau. Well-connected film executives have privately cheered the change, knowing that they’ll now be working with someone on the government side who at least has deep knowledge of how the domestic film sector functions. Mao, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, spent years working in SAPPRFT before its dissolution and was formerly the vice chairman of China Film Corporation, the country’s dominant state studio.

China’s pandemic exit brought other changes to film regulation, too. The release dates for international films have always been set by the Film Bureau, but domestic Chinese studios traditionally enjoyed the freedom to set their own release dates — a major advantage for marketing and strategic planning. During the pandemic, however, regulators withdrew this privilege, forcing even local film companies to wait at the mercy of the government to find out when their films would open, with the permission to release often coming as little as two or three weeks in advance, severely crimping marketing efforts.

At the start of 2023, the Film Bureau began allowing Chinese studios to set their own release dates again — yet another encouraging sign, insiders say. Importers and distributors of small and mid-budget international films — considered one of the hardest areas of the film business in China, thanks to all of the factors that have made indie distribution a punishing game the world over, plus major local regulatory disadvantages — must Await their release dates from the authorities. Not surprisingly, this slice of China’s film market, always a fickle and unpredictable one, is expected to take longer to recover.

Thus, although Chinese delegations will be in Berlin in force at this year’s festival, participation among Chinese buyers at the festival’s parallel European Film Market is expected to remain relatively thin. The import business is so challenging in China that many companies operating in the area simply went out of business during the long three years of the pandemic, local film figures say.

“We don’t expect to do big business with the Chinese at Berlin’s European Film Market,” says Miyuki Takamatsu, co-founder of Japanese sales outfit Free Stone Productions. “This year will be more about reconnecting and rebuilding relationships.”

But the Chinese buyers who do make the trip in 2023 will benefit from abundant choice.

“My team will be in Berlin and we’re actually really excited about the potential,” says Cindy Mi Lin, CEO of Beijing-based distributor Infotainment China Media. Lin says there are a great many US and international titles with China potential still available, simply because the market of the past three years was so challenging that no Chinese companies were buying rights. “We expect to see a lot of completed films and to acquire a few great ones for the second half of the year,” she adds.

Beijing-based indie distributor Road Pictures has one of the most impressive track records for releasing festival titles in China. Prior to the pandemic, the company achieved some breakout successes with prestige films, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winner. Shoplifterswhich earned $15 million in China, and Nadine Labaki’s Lebanese shoestring drama Capernaum, which brought in an astonishing $58 million in the country. Road Pictures is sitting out EFM this year — but only because the company’s team is busy in Beijing working on the marketing campaign for the Berlin competition title. Suzume from Japanese anime maestro Makoto Shinkai. Road Pictures will release the film, which it acquired from Sony’s Crunchyroll last year, on March 24.

Says Gongming Cai, Road’s CEO: “It’s going to take a little time for everything to bounce back, but by the time of Cannes in May, we should see Chinese film buyers and sellers being very active in international markets again.”

Check the latest Hollywood news here.