Popcorn Bag And Movie Ticket On Red Background. Image: iStock
Popcorn Bag And Movie Ticket On Red Background. Image: iStock

Over the last few decades, movies have evolved from being pure entertainment into a medium of modern cultural diplomacy and soft power. By improving cross-cultural communication, cinema facilitates the development of bilateral diplomatic ties and promotes people-to-people links.

The British have entered stark, unfamiliar territory with their efforts to enter China’s booming movie market, which is expected to outperform the US film industry very soon. Though they are a bit behind Hollywood when it comes to box-office profits, moviemakers from the UK are finally attempting Sino-British film co-productions.

The idea may have started with the clinching of  a British-Chinese co-production deal during a trade visit in 2013 by the UK’s then-prime minister David Cameron, who said at the time, “People have started calling it Chollywood, but really it’s Chinewood. This is a significant step forward for the British film industry, opening the door to a market that is building seven cinema screens a day.”

Over the next few years, the screening of British movies at the annual international film festivals held in Beijing and Shanghai became a regular part of the program. In August 2017 in Beijing, the first Sino-British film, a documentary co-produced by the BBC and the Shanghai Media Group (SMG),  Earth: One Amazing Daywhich featured Jackie Chan and Robert Redford narrating in Mandarin and English, respectively, premiered. While doing moderately well, British movies have failed to make a lasting impact; however, at last year’s festival in Shanghai, Loving Vincent (2017)  won the Best Animation Award.

At this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, the British movies fell into two categories: general submissions by British film companies and a special collaboration between the British Council and the festival management to screen a section called  Britain x Women x Literature Films. Of the two general submission movies screened, the documentary film Back to Berlin was well received.

Finally, it was Northern Ireland that took the first step in co-producing a proper feature film. It is being executed by UK-based Zephyr films, China-based Dimension films, and SMG. Optimistic producer Chris Curling said, “Now that we have shown that the treaty can be successfully used, I hope that it will pave the way for more and more Chinese and British movies working together.”

British cinema is still waiting for a real breakthrough in this massive market of regular cinema-goers.

But up till now, Chinese cinemagoers have shown a preference for Bollywood movies over blockbuster mega-budget Hollywood movies. Maybe the average Chinese audience can relate more easily to Asian culture and values than Western ones. Consequently, amid this highly competitive scenario, British cinema is still waiting for a real breakthrough in this massive market of regular cinema-goers.

Collaborating in filmmaking with other regions such as Hong Kong since the 90s decade, China already has agreements with more than 10 countries by now so it is no stranger to co-productions. It is the UK that will have to undertake more market research to learn what the Chinese audience prefers. Counting as co-productions, movies made under the Film Co-Production Agreement formalized in April 2014 have been given advantages and special facilities.

Bypassing the quota system in place for foreign movies in China, Sino-British co-productions have also accessed national benefits in the UK such as the Film Tax Relief and BFI Film Fund, Britain’s largest public film fund, providing easy passage to local audiences. Trying out television media as well, in 2016, a Television Co-Production Agreement was inked and the British media organization Pact regularly facilitated conferences and UK exports of television shows grew.

Exploring new avenues, a three-year deal was inked in May between Tencent and the BBC department exploring further collaboration in games, AI, stage productions and live broadcasts. Giving some results, there have been popular co-productions like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, while a program called The C4 Show has done quite well on a video channel.

Nevertheless, if British movies really want to make it big they would have to make it to Chinese video on demand  (VOD) platforms as well; only this factor could boost their popularity among the Chinese audience and familiarize them with British history and culture. Building a niche for British content in the Chinese VOD market has made the BBC  a top exporter.

Summing it up, capturing the Chinese market has proved an uphill task for the British. But despite all the drawbacks, the British Council and the British Film Institute are not giving up yet and have been holding special screening events for British movies across China to build up the film export volume from Britain to China.

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst.
Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue
Twitter @sabena_siddiqi