Australian and Chinese producers are planning to make an ambitious list of 14 films together, mostly shot in Australia from Chinese screenplays using Chinese actors, chiefly bankrolled by China, but with substantial technical involvement from the local industry.
Co-operation in filmmaking between Australia and China — which is on the verge of becoming the biggest box-office market — previously has been slow, with just five films shot since the countries signed a co-production treaty 10 years ago. They include the drama 33 Postcards, featuring Guy Pearce and Zhu Lin, and The Dragon Pearl with Sam Neill and Wang Ji.
But the two nations’ filmmakers are starting to collaborate closely in something of a rush after a long process of first assessing each other’s strengths.
Last week key producers and other industry leaders participated in a conference, Red Billion Co-production Film Slate, organised by Sydney Films and held in Beijing’s state guesthouse, Diaoyutai.
The co-production slate features films whose investment budgets are set to total about $400 million.
One of the core advantages of co-productions is that the resulting films do not have to compete to join the much-coveted list of 34 foreign films permitted to be distributed in China annually. They can be screened through China’s routine domestic channels.
Lily Ji provides an example of emerging crossover opportunities. Originally from Yunnan province in China, she completed her foundation year at University of Sydney, then shifted to the National Institute of Dramatic Art and became the academy’s first Chinese graduate, “opening the doors for me to work in both countries”.
Her first film was Transformers 4, shot substantially in Australia, and she is appearing in Pacific Rim: Uprising, the second in a sci-fi series, shot in Australia and China. Now she is keen to extend the range of her work into drama, comedy and love stories.
She says: “Enlarging the co-operation, as announced at this conference, is providing me with more working opportunities. China is becoming the leading market for international filmmaking.”
Producer Mark Lazarus, creative head at Arclight Films, which has offices in Sydney and Beverly Hills, is a producer of Guardians of the Tomb, also known as Nest, a fantasy movie featuring a desert search for a missing scientist and deadly spiders, filmed substantially on the Gold Coast.
“It’s important not to alienate the Chinese market” given its size, he says. To secure the required distribution permits, the film should “not be too bloody, nor too sexy” for mainstream theatrical release, although it may still be sold on the internet. Filmmakers also need to be wary of any “political dimension”.
The certification process in China is “quite friendly”, Lazarus says, although “it takes a bit of time”. He describes the present investment environment for filmmaking as “vibrant, exciting and robust”, adding that it’s becoming “harder and harder to make little movies in Hollywood”.
There are differences between the filmmaking cultures in China and Australia, he says, such as the size of crews and the length of time a shoot may take. “You need to try to nail down everything in advance, so less is left open to interpretation. And you also need to maintain an open conversation with your partners.”
He says working with Chinese partners “has been a wonderful adventure for me personally”.
Todd Fellman is making a co-production called At Last, to be shot in Queensland. It is an art-heist film with a comedy twist: the Chinese couple caught up in the theft have been advised by their doctor to take a relaxing break in Australia if they are to succeed in conceiving a child at last.
Fellman has been involved in co-productions and attempted co-productions in the 10 years of the treaty, and says the two sides have learned what works and what doesn’t organisationally, including the genres that can traverse international boundaries.
While At Last has a Chinese script and actors, “it will have an Australian look and sound design, with an Australian composer. It will deliver an Australian experience to Chinese audiences.”
Richard Harris, head of business and audience at government agency Screen Australia, says his aim is to bring the producers together in a unified manner.
At first, it was believed “there might be Chinese money for Australian films”, but that has proven a less fruitful path than the focus now on making Chinese films primarily for Chinese audiences.
Debra Richards, chief executive of Ausfilm, which connects the international industry with Australian opportunities, says the aim of increasing collaboration is to have Australian films shown in China, too. She says Australian skills in animation, computer-generated imagery and post-production steadily are becoming widely understood. But some Chinese producers are still surprised to learn that major films such as Hacksaw Ridge and The Great Gatsby have Australian expertise behind them.
Independent producer Tim White, of Southern Light Films, says Australia’s “incredible profile” in Hollywood and globally for its acting talent provides an added lure for co-productions. In the past, he says, Australians have tried too hard to produce hybrid films that contain elements that might appeal to both Australian and Chinese audiences. But it is recognised these tend to fall between two cultural stools and appear inauthentic.
The alternative now favoured for co-productions, he says, features “created worlds”, often sci-fi. Comedy tends to be “very specific to cultures” and does not travel so well between them.
Song Weinan, founder and managing director of Sydney Films, aims “to promote the Australian film industry to the Chinese world”, chiefly through providing services that make it easier for Chinese producers and crews to work in Australia. “They need help,” he says, including to access to funding support.
He says some Chinese filmmakers “have fallen in love with the country, its people and its landscapes”, during a visit and have decided to return to work there, “with its unique range of urban and rural settings”.
Chinese film companies also admire the professionalism of Australian crews. “And while the first Chinese perspective is that Australia must be a more expensive place to shoot a film, sometimes that is not the case.”
The key discovery in co-productions, Song says, is “it’s all about the story, not about who is acting or in which culture. That’s why Slumdog Millionaire was such a success everywhere.”
Chinese audiences are looking for something fresh, he says, which Australia can provide. And he believes Aussie road movies are an ideal genre to meet that need.
By Rowan Callick