Business Opportunities in the China Film Market

  • Film Location Tourism
  • Merchandising
  • Literary Agency
  • Talent Management

I. Film Location Tourism

Chinese films’ overseas location scout has repeatedly proved to be a continuous drive for Chinese tourists to visit those film locations. Director Feng Xiaogang’s IF YOU ARE THE ONE was one of the first such cases in recent years, making Japan’s Hokkaido a popular tourist destination among Chinese youth in 2008. In 2012, the local comic road movie LOST IN THAILAND (by Xu Zheng) saw an train of Chinese tourists going to Thailand – 3 times more during the Spring Festival than a year before. In these 2 years, over 50 Chinese movies were partly shot in France, Singapore, Nepal, and The United Arab Emirates, etc.

FINDING MR. RIGHT (by Xue Xiaolu), another classic example was mostly shot in Vancouver, though its Chinese name means When Beijing meets Seattle – since Vancouver is close to Seattle and could offer various production facilities. The film enjoyed Canada’s tax rebate.

Paris has been a lasting location for Chinese films, from the recent PARIS HOLIDAY to THE NIGHTINGALE, China’s pick for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Oscars in 2014. Also, Film France offered Jackie Chan information when he was making CZ12 and wanted to shoot in a castle.

In FIVE MINUTES TO TOMORROW, Mauritius offered the whole crew free local accommodation during the shooting.

Veteran producer Jiao Aimin expressed that the tax rebate was an important factor that SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOW (by Xu Jinglei) was shot in Prague. The film was originally set in Paris, but then the cost would be too high. At the time, the Czech Tourism Office and Czech Embassy offered great help in location scout and policy guidance, so the film was relocated to Prague. A significant rise of Chinese tourist going to Prague has then been witnessed after the film’s release – this also includes screenwriters and other filmmakers.

Internet has broadened the Chinese youth’s horizon – if there is enough budget, most would like to go out and see the foreign countries personally – during a working holiday, a gap year or a study trip; if no budget, to go to the cinema and watch a picturesque film is not a bad temporary alternative.

A love story that takes place in an exotic place, sometimes, is more likely to win more at the box office. Working titles like A Fairy Tale in New York, A Chinese Girl in Manhattan, Vancouver Diary, Welcome to San Francisco, My Big Fat British Wedding, Love in Havana, Love in Milano, Love in Brussels, I left My Heart in Aegean Sea, My Big Fat Australian Wedding have appeared on the Chinese production list after the above mentioned successful foreign location scout. It is expected that local costumes, delicacy and religious elements will be featured in these films, which would partially satisfy the youth’s wanderlust, or plant a seed to inspire their future travels.

Above all, Southeast Asia is a handy option – it is close to China, with sunny beaches and relatively cheaper prices of production. Director Chen Sicheng set his sophomore film DETECTIVE CHINATOWN totally in Thailand, hoping to create a Chinese franchise of detective movies. Director Eva Jin explained what she chose Penang as the overseas location for her comic picture ONE NIGHT SURPRISE: I love Malaysian culture and there are a lot of Chinese people living there. Penang is a photogenic place with a number of beautiful locations and fresco.

Meanwhile, after President Xi Jinping’s official visit to India in September 2014, it is noticed that a number of comic road movies have been registered for production. New Zealand is a similar case.

Foreign film commissions can consider inviting Chinese producers and screenwriters to visit their cities, which could inspire a lot more story ideas – a win-win in the long run.

II. Merchandising

Piracy is likely to be the most severe problem in China’s film merchandising business. But if the production company can be in talks with merchandising developers sooner, and once China’s IP law is renewed, the potential profit is inconceivable.

Stuffed toys

Take the summer hit MONKEY KING: HERO IS BACK for example, the producer did not expect the film could get over 200 million at the box office, so not much merchandising was developed. Though in order to promote the film, 60,000 slim stuffed Monkey King was made, but mainly to give away at screenings or in online lottery. But then, they quickly signed a contract with Alibaba’s Taobao: within hours, deals worthy 11.8 million RMB were made.

However, MONSTER HUNT did not think that much before the film’s release. The film has become China’s highest-grossing film this summer, but there was no legal merchandising, since the production company was quite focused on the film itself. So the awkward situation arose when the film crew went on roadshows, some audience would bring unauthorized Wuba for the creators to sign.

Every time there is a Disney or Pixar movie, related stuffed toys will be put in the cinema or on Taobao to sell. China’s movie site Mtime must be really optimistic about this business opportunity that it has signed a deal with Disney, Marvel, DC, Universal and other brands to produce authorized merchandising in China. These products will be sold in all Wanda cinemas in the first and second tier cities. Within one month, key rings, iPhone jackets, stickers, pillows, wallets and school bags have been witnessed on the shelf.

Fashion or even tea

JIAN BING MAN cooperated with actor and fashion brand owners Nic Li and Zheng Kai to develop T-shirts. In fact, sportswear like baseball cap, kneecap and socks can also sell. Director Da Peng said every product went through his scrutiny – it had to be a quality design and production, or it would affect the film promotion. He used to authorize other companies to do merchandising, but now began to consider taking the control back, as the market was much huger than he had thought. JB MAN also developed a JB MAN jasmine tea. The director hoped more professional developers could be put in touch and examine more possibilities.


Another movie tie-in is a novel can also be created from the script of a popular movie and published in paperback. Novels can be adapted into movies, and vice versa. In fact, not necessarily a novel, maybe comic books – think of Mad Max or a journal about the behind-the-scenes stories, and even simpler, postcards.

Baby products

Shaun the Sheep, the Movie made a moderate box office in China, but its tie-in baby products were sold really well, from small bags to baby cars. It is the same in China as in anywhere else, that parents will never grudge buying things for their children. It is also a truth understood that a child’s film ticket actually means 3 tickets – parents will always be there. Do you know there is actually a large group of Barbapapa fans in China, who would like to buy more of its tie-ins? Do you know Pipi Longstocking has lots of readers in China? Even Moomins has already been introduced into China.

Piracy prevention

To develop tie-in products is important, but to protect IP and punish the pirate manufacturers is even more important. There is a cinema fair in June: with hundreds of tie-in companies participating, it showcases products based on Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Captain America, Thor, etc. but most are private versions. There is no quick solution: on one hand, to lobby for stricter laws and regulations; on the other hand, to try to find justice by suing the manufacturers.

The Chinese audience has gradually had the habit of movie-going. It is just a matter of time and ingenuity that they begin to buy more movie tie-ins.

III. Literary Agency

Established screenwriters are easier to get a professional literary agent, but it is more difficult for younger writers. Several problems in China’s screenwriting business include: most write without getting an advance payment; some can not get a credit in the end; powerful actors are apt to change the story and lines to their own good; and the payment is hardly cleared by the due date.

As producers and studios receive more and more unsolicited scripts each year, it is necessary for the screenwriter to have an agent to follow up on subsidiary rights, payments, and loose ends. As the China market is expanding so rapidly these years, an agent can alleviate the writer’s pain and discomfort in negotiating with different parties.

Young screenwriter Chen Shu (Brotherhood of Blades, Speed Angels) expressed that new writers can have the chance to participate in more professional projects with the help of an agent or agency.

Zhang Ji, winner of the Best Screenwriter Award at the 34th Hong Kong Film Awards for writing Dearest, said at a screenwriters’ forum that his agent would help him to draw up contracts, with one term to leave the project if any actor would interfere with the script, thanks to his accumulated reputation.

As to inexperienced writers, they do not have that many options. So it is a delight to see that the industry’s leading players, besides creating their own splendid stories, have begun to represent budding writers. Zhou Zhiyong (American Dreams in China, Crazy Stone) is one of these leaders: he runs a screenwriters’ workshop on Sundays to bridge established writers with younger talents. His company has signed a variety of writers – given talent, their hunger for fame and fortune will be satisfied. Being one of Zhou’s disciples is already a success among fellow writers – no production company would dare to bully him or her in financial or other terms.

Shu Huan (Lost In ThailandLost In Hong Kong) chooses to expand his team by partnering with more writers. With a team of over a dozen screenwriters, he tries to build an efficient incubator for commercial projects. Su Biao, writer of the recent local blockbuster Jian Bing Man has Shu to thank as a script consultant.

The line between fiction and script is quite blurred in China – more and more fiction writers are turning themselves into screenwriters or even directors. Guo Jingming has formed his “gang” of writers: he represents over 70 writers focused on genres like romance, fantasy and science fiction, etc. These writers were selected based on very specific market segmentation. At least 10 of them have had their books adapted into scripts – the movies have either soon to release or to begin shooting. Stanley Chan, winner of the top Chinese sci-fi award, once stated that Guo has been a fundamental figure in promoting local sci-fi writers’ industry influence and income.

But obviously, each year, China would witness a crowd of new upcoming writers – the business opportunity is unfathomable.

Tencent, China’s indisputable No. 1 Internet company, has built a flagship literary agency China Reading Limited in January, 2015. Merging SNDA Literature, former largest online literature site, and other similar sites, China Reading Ltd. boasts the nation’s largest number of popular online literature writers, is sure to develop their works into films or/and games. Alibaba has also built a literature branch.

Last year at China Joy, the local Comic Con, adaptation rights of six online literature works were auctioned and the deal was closed at 28 million RMB. Such news is encouraging to online literature writers – in the old days, a top writer could only get 200 million RMB after writing 10 million words. But now even the adaptation rights would pay this much. In the Internet Era, word-of-mouth travels faster and writers are no longer alone, although a true nationwide screenwriters’ guild is still to be found.

IV. Talent Management

China needs more acting talents and its talent management business also has huge potential.

Typecasting: As China’s genre films keep developing, there will be a need for more typecasting. Established images include Amber Kuo as a romantic sweetheart (Au revoir Taipei, Paris Holiday), Yang Zishan as the girl next door (Miss Granny, So Young), Zhou Dongyu as the innocent girl (My Old Classmate, Under the Hawthorn Tree), Liu Yifei as a dreamy fairy (The Condor Heroes, The Story of a Noble Family), Kelly Lin as a sexy mystery (Mad Detective, Sparrow), Jiang Wen as a macho leader (Let The Bullets Fly, Devils on the Doorstep), Ge You as a cynical wisecracker (Personal Tailor, Big Shot’s Funeral), Wang Baoqiang as a comic dumb-bell (A World Without Thieves, Lost in Thailand), Zhang Hanyu as the tough guy (The Taking of Tiger Mountain, The Assembly), Feng Yuanzheng as a psychopath (Ten Minutes Older), Xiao Shenyang as a comic sidekick (The Grandmaster, Jian Bing Man) and so on. However, a new array of actors and actresses who are capable of acting is needed, as China now produces over 600 films per year. There is especially a shortage of young kung fu actors.

The language issue: People still remember at a press conference, Maggie Cheung answered in English, French, Mandarin and Cantonese to questions raised by journalists from different regions. Bilingual or multi-lingual actors and actresses naturally have more options in roles, for instance, Joan Chen, Daniel Wu and Zhu Zhu, etc.

It is noticeable that a wave of talents have rising from Taiwan, including Sandrine Pinna, Rhydian Vaughan, Bea Hayden and Vivian Dawson, all born bilingual, so to speak. Young actor Michael Stephen Kai Sui also has an impressive portfolio. Celebrities’ kids like Noé Liu and Kyana Poppy Downs are likely to act in films after becoming household names in the reality show Dad, Where Are We Going? Their distinctive faces make them stand out.

Actor Jonathan Kos-Read, with a Chinese name Cao Cao, has stayed in China for over a decade and speaks perfect Chinese. As real co-productions increases, foreign talents are likely to take bigger roles. The next decade will witness a growing trend of foreign actors coming to work in China.

Talent agents: The most urgent issue agents face is they need to find younger talents – honestly, not so many current players can act well. They are stars, but in terms of cinematic art, rather than box office alone, they need time to digest their characters, in order to present stunning performances. The thing is, most are keener on making more commercials and attending reality shows – reality show has been an easy income source – some can get over 750,000 USD per day.

Unlike the general practice, Chinese production companies can have their own talent management branch. In the earlier days, a galaxy of movie stars was affiliated with top local private studios. But when they got bigger, they tended to leave the company and built their own company to have more control of their schedule, better options and to maximize profit.

It is remarkable that teen pop band TF Boys have received so much attention that they are invited by different directors to act. From singing to acting, there are also a number of legal cases: Some of China’s present superstars were nurtured by South Korea’s S. M. Entertainment, but chose to breach their contract and came back to China, mainly to act.

Also, it is not unusual to see Chinese actresses use their sister or in-laws to be their agents, somewhat like a family business.

As the China market develops, talent agents need to be more professional and international. Chinese talents want to be featured in Hollywood movies, whilst foreign talents will find this market too big to ignore. To mix and match is only the beginning.



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