As the Shanghai International Film Festival opened its 17th year on Saturday, Shanghai deputy mayor Weng Tiehui declared the festival a tribute to China’s increasing influence on the global film market. This year’s festival is increasingly focused on partnerships with Western creators, highlighting a tension between the commercial opportunities for collaboration and Chinese tastes that are increasingly hungry for homegrown entertainment.
Consider the festival’s opening and closing acts. On Saturday, SIFF audiences were treated to a digitally-restored and colorized 4k version of Xie Fang’s 1964 classic “Stage Sisters.” Produced from a rare original screenplay on the cusp the Cultural Revolution, “Stage Sisters” tells the story of two opera singers struggling to find their place in pre-World War II China. Though the film was briefly banned near the start of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution -- likely for its apparent endorsement of the bourgeois -- “Stage Sisters” for decades has been held up as a shining example of Chinese films' potential for years.
When audiences attend the festival’s closing ceremony on June 22, however, they’ll have the opportunity to catch an entirely different type of film: Michael Bay’s giant robot blockbuster “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” The loud, explosive action film is everything “Stage Sisters” isn’t, but it’s a Chinese movie all the same. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” was shot partially in Shanghai as a co-production between Hollywood’s Paramount Studios and a pair of local Chinese studios, and Paramount reportedly worked hard to make sure it was included prominently in SIFF’s lineup.
Though the Transformers movies have been extremely popular in America and China, the fourth installment of the blockbuster series seems somewhat out of place for a festival with aspirations to be the Cannes of Asia. If the small-scale drama of “Stage Sisters” represents a look back at China’s early film history, “Transformers” is a glimpse at a possible future: flashy, incendiary, and largely American in conception. At SIFF, filmmakers and studios are working to navigate these two visions of the industry, balancing artistic concerns with the financial realities of international collaboration.
There are clear benefits for American studios working directly in China. For starters, while China holds the world’s second largest (and fastest-growing) box office, American studios receive only 25 percent of the ticket gross on imported films, but studios that co-produce in China receive a larger cut of 38 percent. Further, many studios that co-produce films in mainland China can also bypass the government’s strict import quotas, which limit foreign films to 34 each year. For American producers, it makes sense to co-produce a global blockbuster in the world’s second-largest film market, but a co-production isn’t a sure sign of a box office success, or a warm welcome from Chinese audiences.
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On one hand, there's a seemingly endless number of Chinese filmmakers and actors eager to sign up with Hollywood studios, either to co-produce an American franchise like Transformers in China, or to work with a number of joint venture studios like Legendary East and Oriental Dreamworks on more collaborative projects. But as big-budget Hollywood films hit China in increasing numbers, audiences are already growing tired of the glut of sequels and action flicks.
"Chinese moviegoers wants more than car chases, explosions and eye-catching special effects," the state-owned Xinhua news agency declared in an article heralding a "golden period" for low-budget Chinese film.
Box office numbers seem to back that statement up as well. While the Chinese box office increased 27.5 percent from 2012 to 2013, revenue from imported films -- mostly American blockbusters -- grew at a fraction of that rate, only 2.3 percent. Much of the Chinese box office explosion is being driven by homegrown Chinese films like 2013 and 2014’s highest-grossing films “Journey to the West” and “The Monkey King.” American action flicks are still a part of the box office pie, their slice is only getting smaller.
But while American blockbusters are losing some of their cultural capital in China, collaboration with Western creators is only increasing, as announcements from SIFF show. “Transformers: Age of Extinction” is hardly the only American film to receive attention at the festival. Grant’s romantic comedy “The Rewrite” premiered on Sunday, while Kidman’s “Grace of Monaco” received a Saturday screening following its Cannes premiere.
SIFF has also been the launching point for a number of business deals between U.S. and Chinese corporations. Opening day, for instance, saw a partnership between Relativity Media and China’s third-largest television broadcaster, Jiangsu Broadcasting Corp., to develop new content for the Chinese market.
More importantly, features announced at SIFF prove that international collaborations can be more original than sequels to Hollywood franchises.
On Saturday, Chinese director Daniel Lee announced that John Cusack and Adrien Brody would take on starring roles in his upcoming historical action epic “Dragon Blade” alongside Hong Kong star Jackie Chan. The tale of a Roman legion lost in Han Dynasty China, “Dragon Blade” is being produced entirely by Chinese studios, and with a budget of $65 million, it will become the most expensive film ever produced in the Chinese language, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “Dragon Blade” hits Chinese theaters next February, and while American release hasn't been announced, deals have already been closed in South Korea, Taiwan, and several other Asian markets.
In a statement about “Dragon Blade,” Cusack praised China as “the future of world cinema," and his presence in the Chinese film points toward a collaborative artistic future that takes advantage of talent on both sides of the Pacific. It’s no surprise that the ambitious international film was announced at Shanghai.
“SIFF … [is] the only festival in the world that screens the breadth of contemporary mainland cinema,” Stephen Cremin, the publisher of Film Business Asia, explained to the New York Times. “It has regularly embraced new filmmakers from Greater China that haven’t yet participated at regional project markets. And, of course, there's real money in China.”