Cannes: Challenges Still Keep Content From Traveling to and From China

Rebecca Davis

Challenges still remain when it comes to buying, distributing and producing content that can travel between China and the West, attendees of a panel organized by the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival on the sidelines of Cannes said.

Cai Gongming, president of Road Pictures, has hit box office gold in China with Cannes art-house titles such as Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum,” which debuted at the end of April and has made more than $42 million so far. But he says titles from the festival that will work in the Middle Kingdom are few and far between.

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“I’d say that 90% of films at Cannes are not suitable for China, because Chinese audiences can’t understand their type of emotional expression, or things that are too artistic – films that look like they might as well be a painting,” he said. “Chinese audiences are now more interested in realism, realistic subjects. This is something new. But the films at Cannes are primarily not realist films; most of them are just individual expressions of the director. That doesn’t work in China.”

But viewer tastes in China are rapidly changing now that the internet has made such a plethora of content accessible to them. Social media have also changed the game when it comes to what kind of content has the ability to become a smash hit, pushing unlikely films like “Capernaum” to the fore, Cai said.

He attributed the film’s success to a viral short video on the Douyin platform, China’s version of TikTok. “Distribution is developing very quickly. It’s hard to understand exactly why a single Douyin video can change the life of a film, but that’s what changed the fate of ‘Capernaum’: just a single Douyin video, without which we wouldn’t have its success today,” Cai said. “I myself am not even very sure exactly why this is the case. But the Internet in China is very fast and developed force.”

Isabelle Glachant, UniFrance’s greater China representative, said that box office winners on the mainland are not just from the big U.S. studios anymore. “I think the era of Hollywood films dominating the China market is over. Now there is a real diversity of films doing well at the box office — Indian films, Thai films, Lebanese ones.”

But a problem facing the production and distribution of films that can work both in China and abroad is the drastic difference in audience profile. The vast majority of Chinese viewers are young people ages 18 through 24, but in Europe, audiences are primarily over 40.

“So what do you do? If you have a co-production, do you make a film that a 40-year-old European would like to watch, or one that a 20-year-old Chinese kid wants to watch? It’s not the same. And if it’s a film that Europeans like, who in China’s going to watch it and pay to distribute it?”

Frant Gwo, director of sci-fi smash hit “The Wandering Earth” – one of China’s most successful films at the Western box office so far – agreed that the different audience profiles pose a problem. “If Chinese films want to travel abroad, it’s going to take a very long time,” Gwo said.

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