Depending on how you are informed, Australia’s two-track/two-speed economy has been widely reported to have stalled for the moment as China decides to moderate growth and distribute its wealth – a middle class boom could just be the result Australia looks out for. In 2011, Mining and mining related services made up about 20% of its $1.3 trillion GDP and helped fuel the Australian dollar’s rise (Check out official data here at the Australian Bureau of Statistics) and wider socio-economic growth. While it has been a huge catalyst for growth in the past decade, there are opportunities for Australia elsewhere that have less to do with digging up finite sources, allowing for a more synergistic friendship based on the exchange of ideas and culture.
Casino mogul Packer to a business audience – ”The biggest opportunity is China… In 2000, China had about 10 million overseas trips a year. In 2010, that was up to 50 million overseas trips a year. And in 2020, it’s forecast to be 100 million overseas trips a year. And Chinese tourism is changing the world.”
And in human movement alone, it has changed Australia to a degree visible in all the capitals – beyond the tourists, you will find at least one if not more Chinese-speaking sales staff in the luxury stores. Chinese tourists were the biggest spenders in 2010 despite having less of them here than the Americans.
Here is an interesting read on how the future of the 106 year-old Australian movie industry could lie in a multibillion-dollar Chinese market. In the wider context by producing cultural capital for the Chinese, this could grow into a useful muscle in Australian public diplomacy toolbox to build bridges where others make walls. This will be in a space where first, sees the third largest box office in the world, and second – a foreign films quota that only recently increased from 20 to 34 a year. Of course, Chinese funding would suggest some manner of Chinese intervention through script and production and a 25% cap of takings that the film can take out of the country , but as this article finds out – so far to no major detriment to the overarching artistic narrative.
Naturally enough, that meant it had to be submitted to the Chinese censors for approval – at script stage. The shark having no views on the desirability or otherwise of democracy, there were no problems there. Karl Quinn, 2012
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Sinking our teeth into China
by Karl Quinn
Source – The Age, published October 25, 2012
The future for Australian movies may well lie in the multibillion-dollar Chinese market.
IN LESS than two weeks, the shark-in-a-shop film Bait has become the most successful Australian movie ever released in China. Like the sharks themselves, nobody saw it coming, but the success of the 3D horror-comedy points to the potential rewards that await Australian filmmakers in the world’s fastest-growing movie market.
The number of cinema screens in China has exploded from just 1500 in 2002 to more than 10,000 today. New screens are being added at the rate of more than eight a day. In 2011, the Chinese box office grew by 35 per cent to $2 billion, making it the third largest market in the world, behind only the US and Japan (Australia was ranked ninth). Some analysts predict China’s box office could top $3 billion this year, an astonishing 50 per cent increase year-on-year.
It is in that context that Bait’s success demands some serious attention. Is it a freak of nature, a random and unpredictable hit, never to be repeated? Or is it perhaps a pointer, a sign that the great white hope of the Australian film industry just might lie in China?
Since its October 11 release on 1700 screens in China, the Gold Coast-shot Bait 3D – a silly-scary film about a group of tsunami survivors being terrorised by white pointers in a flooded supermarket – has taken more than $20 million. That’s more than any other Australian film released in that country, including the James Cameron-backed Sanctum ($10.5 million), George Miller’s dancing penguins sequel Happy Feet 2 ($6 million) and the first official Australia-China co-production, the children’s movie Dragon Pearl ($7 million).
”We estimate it will end up taking about $25 million,” says Gary Hamilton, one of the film’s producers and, through his company Arclight Films, its international sales agent. That’s an astonishing result for a movie that has been written off as ”a flop” in its home territory, where it has taken a mere $1 million.
In the US, the film was given the faint praise of a ”day and date” release, going out on DVD, video-on-demand and in a handful of cinemas on the same day (a strategy increasingly utilised by distributors of ”risky” movies because it allows them to maximise their marketing spend by clustering it all in one brief window). But elsewhere – in territories as diverse as Russia, Italy and Malaysia – it has been successful enough that its producers believe it is on track for a worldwide take of around $45 million.
Even so, China is something else. ”I think we’ve all been taken by surprise at how popular it has been,” Hamilton says. ”I think that success owes something to the fact that not many movies like this have been released in China before – movies like Jaws and even Poseidon Adventure haven’t really been seen by most people there.”
In fact, relatively few Western films have been seen there at all (other than on bootleg DVDs, that is). But that is slowly changing.
In February, the Chinese government officially increased the quota of foreign films allowed into the country from 20 to 34 a year. According to Chris Oliver, senior manager of state and industry partnerships at Screen Australia and a 30-year veteran of the Chinese market, the true number, including co-productions, has lifted ”from about 40-45 per year to about 60”.
In lifting the quota, the Chinese government stipulated that all of the 14 additional foreign films had to be in 3D or an IMAX-equivalent format. ”The timing for Bait was perfect,” Oliver says.
But the film’s success in China isn’t down to blind luck alone. The producers of Bait worked at it, and in some respects they did so in ways that other filmmakers might find instructive – and, perhaps, a little hard to swallow.
The film is an official Australia-Singapore co-production, but about $5 million of its $25 million budget came from Chinese sources.
Naturally enough, that meant it had to be submitted to the Chinese censors for approval – at script stage. The shark having no views on the desirability or otherwise of democracy, there were no problems there.
Gary Hamilton’s wife, Ying Ye – who is of mainland Chinese background – was crucial in raising the Chinese money. She runs a company called Eastern Light, which has for about six years distributed Chinese-language films to markets outside China, and the relationships she has forged in that business helped attract Chinese investment, all of it private. ”That helped us get the inside track,” Hamilton says.
As Pauline Chan, the producer-director of 33 Postcards, put it at a Screen Producers Association of Australia session on Australia-China co-productions last year: ”The Chinese film business is all about relationships. If your Chinese film partners see it as a long-term relationship that will grow, they will work very hard to protect your interest.”
The contribution of the Chinese investors to Bait‘s budget helped pay for the film’s special effects, and more importantly offered an inroad to the Chinese market. But it came with strings attached.
The investors wanted some new scenes to be shot specifically for Chinese audiences, so director Kimble Rendall headed to Beijing to shoot another 15 minutes of new material – back story, mostly involving the female lead, former Home and Away star Sharni Vinson.
He also filmed a subplot involving a rescue effort by a red-clad Most Glorious Heroes of the Revolution rescue team.
In the end, the Chinese investors wanted only three minutes of the new footage in the final cut.
Naturally, the final cut of the film had to be submitted to the authorities, too. Some of the more lingering bloodletting was toned down, but again the shark’s lack of interest in domestic politics meant it sailed through with little hassle. ”It wasn’t as dramatic as I’d imagined it would be,” Rendall says.
The China-specific material wasn’t the only way the filmmakers catered to a foreign audience’s needs. The casting of Singapore-based ethnic Chinese actors Adrian Pang and Yuwu Qi determined the back story of their characters. Feedback from foreign distributors that the Australian accent doesn’t play too well overseas informed the decision to re-record the dialogue minus the Strine.
”The actors all know how to do that American, or mid-Atlantic, accent anyway so it wasn’t a big deal. But when we had finished we thought we might have gone too far, so we put some Australian accents back in.”
Rendall says tailoring his film for the Chinese market wasn’t a compromise. ”I want to make films for a global audience and China is the fastest-growing market in the world.”
The pace of that growth is even more impressive when you factor in the lower cost of admission to a cinema in China. The Wall Street Journal reported in January that the average ticket price in China in 2010 was $5.30; according to Screen Australia, Australians were paying an average of $12.26 in the same year.
On its opening weekend alone, 1.18 million Chinese bought tickets to see Bait, at an average ticket price of $US6.70. That was the 18th-best opening weekend by any foreign film in China, and the best by any independent foreign film to date.
No wonder, then, that federal government agency Screen Australia has led two delegations to China this year, with film producers such as Emile Sherman (The King’s Speech) and Doug Mitchell of Kennedy Miller Mitchell (Happy Feet, Mad Max) and television producers including Chris Hilton (Jack Irish) sniffing the breeze. As Chris Oliver says, ”The success of first Sanctum and now Bait augurs well for other producers entering the market.”
But some China observers urge caution. Speaking at the same Screen Producers Association session as Pauline Chan late last year, Beijing-based lawyer Matthew Alderton warned that doing business in China is far more complex than most Australian filmmakers anticipate. ”The problem is that people are bedazzled by the figures,” he said. ”They want to be part of an exploding market that they think is liberalising, but nothing could be further from the truth. The market is extremely restricted, for reasons of domestic policy.”
There has been a slight easing since then, but China remains largely a closed shop – and it’s not hard to see why. Despite the low number of foreign films released there, they accounted for two-thirds of the box-office share in the first six months of this year, a result the local industry reportedly found ”rather embarrassing”, according to The New York Times.
GIVEN the restrictions that remain around entry to the world’s fastest-growing movie market, the best option for Australian filmmakers wanting a shot at it is the official co-production. Australia and China have had a treaty in place since 2008, though to date just three features have been made under it.
”There are real opportunities for Australians to make films with China, but you’ve got a better chance if you’re a co-production,” Oliver says. ”China is reaching out to the world. It’s a delicate situation but … it’s becoming a lot easier doing business with them.”
”The market here is enormous, and their tastes are as varied as ours,” says Ron Saunders, general manager of Beyond Screen Productions, down the line from Beijing. ”The real challenge is finding projects that have resonance in both cultures, because we don’t have a lot of history together.”
Bait‘s producers hope the success of their film has thrown open the possibility of making more movies with, and for, China. ”We’re trying to develop a slate of half a dozen movies, including a sequel to Bait that would be shot in Australia and China,” Hamilton says.
”We’re looking to do very commercial movies for China. They’re not very interested in arthouse romance.”
Yet for all the success of Bait, the movie’s Australian producers insist they won’t make a lot of money from China, and not just because the portion of box office receipts a foreign film can take out of the country is capped at 25 per cent. They won’t see a share of the profits for the simple reason they sold the rights to their film outright in return for an upfront distribution fee. ”Never again,” Hamilton says wryly.
”The important thing,” he continues, ”is the opportunity for future projects there. A lot of people talk about doing things in China, but there’s nothing the Chinese like more than box-office success. All the meetings are one thing, but actually having a successful film is the best thing we could do – not just as a company but as a country as well.”
Aussie films in China: 2011 releases and earnings
■ The Dragon Pearl (China/Australia co-pro) – $7 million
■ Beneath Hill 60 – $830,000
■ 33 Postcards – $300,000
■ Sanctum – $10.5 million
2012 releases and earnings
■ Bait 3D – $20m
■ Happy Feet Two – $6m
■ Killer Elite (USA/Australia co-pro) – $5 million
■ The King’s Speech (UK/Australia co-pro) – $1 million
SOURCES: SCREEN AUSTRALIA, CHINAFILMBIZ