Filmmakers discuss secret to global success at Sino-Foreign Film Co-Production Forum
How can a film become globally successful? How can co-productions win the hearts of target market audiences without resorting to the addition of awkwardly inserted local “elements” that end up backfiring at the box office?
Film industry insiders and veteran filmmakers from around the globe sat down on Monday at the 8th Beijing International Film Festival’s Sino-Foreign Film Co-Production Forum to discuss these very questions.
Naturally, the subject of adapting films to the Chinese market was a major topic of discussion. Currently the world’s second largest film market, China has become an attractive market that overseas filmmakers have been striving to enter. However, the incorporation of “Chinese elements” into foreign films or co-productions with China hasn’t seemed to work as studios have hoped, judging from the performance of recent flicks such as The Great Wall and Pacific Rim: Uprising.
“The gold rush started about five years ago. We took Hollywood scripts and changed them to fit in Chinese characters in co-productions or we simply put Chinese actors in a foreign movie, and surely it doesn’t work,” said Hollywood director Renny Harlin, who has spent the last four years working in China, at Monday’s forum.
“Though the story doesn’t have to be about a Chinese story or mythology, it has to be about themes that Chinese resonate with,” noted Harlin. The US director is now working on Operation Somali, a Chinese military action flick that is expected to debut later this year.
Key to success
So is there a formula for success when it comes winning the Chinese market and those elsewhere? Probably not.
“We always expect to ensure continued success and make money on films, but we don’t have a typical formula,” said Steven O’Dell, president of International Theatrical Distribution for Sony Pictures, at the forum.
“We have seen so many changes in the way our audiences react and China is a great example,” O’Dell noted, going on to point out that the recent huge success that Indian films Dangal and Secret Superstar have had in China is something unimaginable for other markets around the world.
The success of Indian films in China isn’t something that has happened overnight.
“Secret Superstar’s big opening in China happened because Dangal created the demand for Aamir [Khan] and for that kind of film,” said O’Dell.
“And we have to go back to P.K. and Three Idiots to see the demand for Indian films, which has grown here [in China] and is now growing around the world.”
But what exactly are the key elements that a globally successful film should have? “A good story” was the answer that five of the six speakers gave at the forum.
“As the famous Chinese director Wong Kar-wai said at the opening ceremony of the Beijing International Film Festival yesterday, a good film is a film made by dedicated people,” said Johannes Rexin, vice president of the European Producers Club, at the forum.
“Filmmaking is about human stories, however we make it.”
Presenting these stories, however, can be a challenge.
“The language barrier is an important aspect that we should take notice of and storytelling is always important, especially in big-budget productions,” Russian director Fedor Bondarchuk said, weighing in on the conversation.
Also, some speakers suggested that the success of Pixar’s Mexican Day of the Dead film Coco indicates that animated films have the best potential to become a major future trend for international co-productions.
“There is a great opportunity for animations and animators around the world to tell a story using foreign information that has never been told before,” said Hollywood director Rob Minkoff, best known for his Lion King and Stuart Little films, at the event.
Talking about co-productions, James Wang, CEO of China’s Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, mentioned The Foreigner as a recent example of how to do them right. The 2017 Sino-British coproduction starring Jacky Chan and Pierce Brosnan did well financially both in China and the US.
“To ensure global success, I suggest that overseas filmmakers cooperate with Chinese partners not only during the creative process, but also when it comes to marketing and distribution,” Wang said. To ensure the quality of Sinoforeign co-productions, especially those featuring a Chinese story, overseas filmmakers should try to collaborate with their Chinese counterparts to bring out “the authenticity of the story,” said Minkoff, who previously worked on the Sino-US co-production The
Forbidden Kingdom a decade ago. Though the number of globally successful Sino-foreign co-productions hasn’t increased dramatically over the past two decades, Wang noted that “the biggest changes that we can see have taken place within the Chinese film market itself. As such the situation now is completely different from what it was 20 years ago.”
With China now one of the most important markets in the world, overseas filmmakers should take the time to consider what kind of films cater to the Chinese market and seek out opportunities for cooperation with Chinese filmmakers, he said.
O’Dell, on the other hand, suggested that Chinese films should follow in the footsteps of Coco by telling local stories that can also appeal to worldwide audiences on an emotional level if they want to see global success.
“Coco is a story about Mexican mythology, but that didn’t matter as its success was born from the emotional chord it struck [with audiences],” he noted.
From left: Filmmakers Fedor Bondarchuk, Renny Harlin and Rob Minkoff attend the Sino-Foreign Film Co-production Forum in Beijing on Monday.