The first Sino-Italian coproduction tastes of ‘Coffee’

The Huffington Post – Oct 28, 2016
Independent cinema is increasingly a matter of international cooperation both in terms of production and distribution.

The Chinese market, in particular, is booming and becoming more and more attractive. The case of ‘Coffee’, the first official coproduction between Italy and China and currently playing in Italian cinemas, is emblematic. The film tells three stories, one of which is set just in China, united by the taste of coffee precisely.

The film’s director, Cristiano Bortone tells us that ‘Coffee’ “was presented for the first time at the Fest in Hong Kong and then to the pitching at the Beijing festival” which helped gaining support of institutions and Chinese partners, despite having to overcome “the gauntlet of Chinese censorship that has put into question the beginning many sensitive elements” of history. From there he started a path of three years looking for lenders, instinctively suspicious of a European product, crew and cast, “which in China is a dramatic sight challenge the amount of the film and the scarcity of talent.” Not an easy path, but according to the director “the film benefits from the complexity and richness of this background through which he was born.”

American education, then Europe with its production company Orisa Productions, a David di Donatello award for ‘Red Like the Sky’, which has also made him known to the public in China, now the first Italian-Chinese coproduction Official Bortone, who speaks Mandarin and calls himself a stranger to the “fabric of our home cinema and in his circles” and a “citizen of the world”, so as to establish both its production company in China, Yiyi Pictures, and Bridging the Dragon, the association of Sino-European producers of which today is Vice Chairman, and through which he met Clément Magar, General Manager of Go Global, the new venture of IM Global China devoted to maximizing the exposure of Chinese films in the international festivals circuit and the presence of international films in the Chinese non-commercial circuit, who is overseeing the promotion of the film in China since its first release at the Venice Film Festival.

Recalling that by 2020 China will overtake the United States in terms of box office, Clément also explains that “the box office is still absorbed by Hollywood and Chinese blockbusters, but indie films have been drawing more and more exposure over the past three years with the theatrical release of several arthouse films like ‘Black Coal’, ‘The Coffin in the Mountain’, ‘Kaili Blues’, ‘Crosscurrent’ “, picked up by local distributors and with significant results at the box-office because of their performance in the international festival circuit. According to Clément, the Chinese public is maturing and wants a wider offer: “This new trend, plus the creation of a new arthouse film circuit in China and the gradual opening of the Chinese film market – consequence of WTO free-trade agreements – will give new opportunities to European indie films in China.

Bortone, however, states that it is increasingly difficult to deal with sales agents and foreign distributions and understand what the market is seeking because “there are too many movies, too many distribution channels, the market has exploded and prices collapsed” and therefore “participation to main festivals is crucial to gain visibility”. However, such festivals, according to Bortone “remain dramatically anachronistic in their defense of elitist styles and distant from the public’s desire”, but they still “invite the usual American stars to the gala openings just to survive” thus they are “strongly responsible for the crisis of quality cinema.”

It is not easy in fact for distribution and sales companies to sustain their operations and finance their overheads. With a little of sarcasm, Bortone says that “the ideal situation is to purchase a fantastic cross-over, artistic but suitable for a wide audience, which aims to the Oscars, but has a low budget, with a stellar cast, which has style but is marketable to television as well.”

Regarding the state of the worldwide independent film industry, we then heard Alessandro Masi, International Sales & Distribution professional. Born in Italy, where he led to profitability one of the first VOD businesses in Europe, he is now based in Los Angeles and was recently involved with leading companies such as Sierra/Affinity, foreign sales agent for the recent winner feature of the Rome Film Fest as well as Sundance and Cannes hit, ‘Captain Fantastic’, and also for the 2015 Oscar winner feature, ‘Spotlight’, and FremantleMedia, which has produced with HBO, Sky and Canal Plus and sold globally in more than 80 countries the new series from Oscar winner Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, ‘The Young Pope’. He is also an established presence in the film markets circuit – next at the American Film Market in Santa Monica – with his firm FlexyMovies™, devoted to develop and implement worldwide sales and distribution strategies.

Masi confirms that “gaining access to fresh equity capital and developing consumer markets – particularly China – is important for major studios but it is also becoming crucial for independents, which nevertheless cannot leave a thoughtful festival strategy aside if they want to stand out in the absence of highly bankable talent of wide global acclaim. In 2015 the Chinese box office surged by 49% to $6.78 billion and they built 40% new screens – now about 32,000, so their theatrical market is growing massively but it is still very hard to break into because of the quota system. However, the non-commercial and festival circuits are also very attractive, together with the VOD landscape, dominated by the so-called BAT (Baidu-iQiyi, Alibaba-TBO, Tencent-HollywoodVIP), although also subject to limitations such as 70% local content and (softer) censorship.”

As a closing remark, Masi claims that “there is still room for substantial growth in terms of exports, due also to their greater openness to welcome foreign product, however the Chinese market is now mature for major investments in local productions, co-productions that can travel worldwide, as well as joint ventures and stable distribution partnerships. All in all, China is a great opportunity for independent cinema.”