After three long years of being cut off from the rest of the world due to pandemic travel restrictions, China’s film industry will be out in force at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
As China’s strict zero-Covid requirements were only lifted at the beginning of this year, not many Chinese film execs attended Berlin Film Festival in February, although larger numbers made it to Hong Kong Filmart in March. Although accreditations were still being processed at the time of writing, around 250 professionals from China and Hong Kong are expected to attend Cannes Marche du Film (May 16-24), compared to just 55 in 2022.
But that number is still way below the Marche’s record of 620 Chinese professionals in 2019. Flight prices between China and Europe are still prohibitively high, and many execs contacted by Deadline said they were still waiting to see if their visa applications would be processed in time. Most of China’s larger film studios are sending junior sales and/or acquisition execs to Cannes to explore international business. But the big bosses are more preoccupied with rebuilding their industry back at home.
While China has had some big local hits this year – Zhang Yimou’s Full River Red grossed $655M over Chinese New Year – many other films are not doing so well, and it will take time to recover from the production stoppages, cinema closures and sclerotic censorship processes of the pandemic years. Box office is still anemic outside of key holiday periods, and consumers seem to be spending their new-found freedom on travel rather than cinema visits.
“It’s difficult to find a single producer who didn’t have a film shut down or some other kind of disruption during the pandemic,” says Meng Xie, founder of sales outfit Rediance, which is handling Un Certain regard title The Breaking Ice in Cannes. “That has made investment unstable for both independent and mainstream films. So while we’re starting to see recovery, it will take time for the market to return to pre-pandemic levels.”
But Meng also points to the return of Chinese indie cinema to the international film festival circuit, which should give a boost to international sales. Last year, Cannes only had a few short films from China in selection, but features started to reappear at this year’s Berlin, and three will premiere in Cannes – Anthony Chen’s The Breaking Ice and Wei Shunjun’s Only The River Flows (sold by MK2 Films) in Un Certain Regard, and Geng Zihan’s A Song Sung Blue (Totem Films) in Directors Fortnight.
It’s understood that all three films have cleared China’s censorship process, so there’s unlikely to be any last minute withdrawals “due to technical reasons” as has happened at festivals in the past. Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing has two films in selection – Youth (Pyramide International) in Competition and Man In Black (Asian Shadows) in Special Screenings. However, both films have European funding and are not claiming Chinese nationality.
Chinese Buyers Head To Cannes
But what of the large numbers of Chinese buyers that once thronged the Croisette? Some of them will be back in Cannes this year, but their numbers are greatly reduced. Although China was one of the first box office territories to recover in the early days of the pandemic, it slipped back again in 2022 as the country battled the Omicron variant of Covid. The first four months of this year have also been sluggish. As of May 7, 2023, China box office had reached $2.9BN, up nearly 36% on the same point in 2022, but still down 20% on the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
China’s film censorship process also slowed down significantly during the pandemic. Chinese distributors who acquire independent foreign films (i.e. outside of the revenue-sharing quota for U.S. studio titles) say they’ve had to wait up to ten months for a title to clear censorship, then face another wait to get confirmation on the release date.
Not surprisingly, some buyers went to the wall during this period, while others segued into producing local films and web series. Some have been inactive for the past few years but are coming to Cannes to see if it’s worth stepping back into the market. Some never went away and have been conducting business online for the past three years. Among buyers active in pre-pandemic years who are are still exploring the market are Leomus, Joy Pictures, JL Vision, Hishow Entertainment, Road Pictures, Fundamental Films and Infotainment China Media.
Wendy Reeds, EVP of Lionsgate International Sales, says she recently met several Chinese buyers at Hong Kong Filmart and has 14 further meetings lined up for Cannes: “After a quiet period during Covid, which every country went through, China is recovering and looking to acquire films from the West, as well as from Asia,” says Reeds, who is a long-time China expert. “Distributors are looking for films and we’ve noticed more titles are getting released in China. But to be clear, they’re looking for commercial, big box office movies.”
It’s certainly true that cinemas need more product. On a macro level, China’s government has been messaging a “dual circulation” strategy, prioritising domestic consumption while remaining open to international trade. But China’s economy grew by only 3% in 2022 and there’s now a push to re-stimulate growth. On the level of China’s 80,000 plus cinema screens, there are not enough big films to bring audiences back to theatres, despite the recent re-entry of U.S. studio titles and the success of some local films.
But distributors of foreign indie films say they will be ultra-cautious heading into Cannes as consumers have only really been exposed to Chinese content over the past three years; political messaging has been domestically focused, and tastes seem to have changed.
Nathan Hao of Beijing-based distributor Stay Golden Technology says international action films have potential, but it’s still a tough market for both theatrical and streaming. “On the theatrical side, the quota doesn’t look like an issue nowadays, but cinema admissions are not as active as before and marketing companies face challenges in how to sell their films to audiences,” says Hao, who has worked with several Chinese indie distributors over the past decade.
“Distributors have become even more cautious than before the pandemic, and don’t want to try niche titles,” he continues. “VOD platforms are also more cautious and don’t want to pay much for content.”
China only started clearing a larger number of Hollywood studio titles for release in March, when career film regulator Mao Yu was appointed head of the China Film Bureau. Recent releases include The Super Mario Bros Movie, The Woman King and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, while the upcoming slate includes Fast X (May 17), The Little Mermaid (May 26) and Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts (June 9).
Since March, the China Film Bureau has also speeded up clearances for foreign independent titles. But it’s still early days and so far only Japanese animation titles seem to be working. Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume is the top foreign film in China so far this year, grossing $116M, while The First Slam Dunk is on $90M and counting.
Both films were released by Road Pictures, also the China distributor of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, which grossed more than $50M in 2019, back in the golden days of foreign indie distribution in China.
In comparison, the highest-grossing U.S. studio title released so far this year, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, took $39M, although it’s about to be overtaken by Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 3, which opened on May 5.
Cindy Lin of Beijing-based distributor Infotainment China Media, which is gearing up to release To Catch A Killer, directed by Argentina’s Damián Szifrón (who is on this year’s Cannes competition jury), estimates that, aside from Japanese animation, U.S. studio and other foreign films in China so far this year are only grossing around 30% of average box office compared to pre-pandemic days.
She says this is partly a cultural shift. Three years is a long time in the lifespan of a young cinema-goer to not have any exposure to Western movies – “they’re just not on their radar anymore,” says Lin – but she hopes curiosity will return after a few big hits: “We think the market for foreign movies will come back towards the end of this year, although nobody can predict for certain, so we’re looking at line-ups and considering whether we should take the risk to pre-buy for Q4 this year or Q1 next year.”
On the other hand, Lin says there’s a huge interest in acquiring the remake rights to foreign movies to produce Chinese-language adaptations. She points to the recent success of iQiyi’s Hachiko, a Chinese remake of 1987 Japanese movie Hachiko Monogatari (Richard Gere starred in a 2009 U.S. remake), which has grossed $41M and still playing. iQiyi is also working on a Chinese remake of Spanish thriller The Invisible Guest, which was a hit in China and has been remade in multiple languages.
“Remakes require more capital investment, so we have to find a partner to work with, but now almost every big Chinese company is considering remake projects,” says Lin. “While acquisition prices for foreign movies are likely to be much lower than before in Cannes, we predict prices for remake rights will be much higher.”
Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the upcoming line-up of Hollywood releases, to see if they can tempt Chinese cinema-goers back into theatres. China is a fast-moving market and the picture could be completely different by the time the autumn markets – Venice, Toronto and the American Film Market – roll around. “North America and Europe have taken a while for box office to come back, so we’re still optimistic about China,” says Lionsgate’s Reed. “It’s just going to take a few big titles to catch on in terms of bringing audiences back”.