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French cinema shines hopeful spotlight on China

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(GlobalPost/GlobalPost)

Cinema is one of France's greatest cultural exports but one market -- China -- remains largely untapped, and the industry is hoping President Francois Hollande can help pull the curtain back this week.

Hollande arrives for his first state visit to Beijing on Thursday, in the starry trail of recent French visitors including movie directors such as Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Annaud, and actors including Anne Parillaud.

All agree that when it comes to the film market China is now the place to be, with the popularity of cinema soaring and a dozen big screens opening around the country every day.

"China today is like the United States was in 1910," said Pitof, a visual effects specialist who directed "Catwoman" starring Halle Berry, on the sidelines of two international film festivals held in Beijing.

"China has the drive to export its culture to the rest of the world, like the US did a century ago. But I get the feeling that Western culture is slowing down," he said, noting the reliance in Hollywood on sequels and remakes.

Pitof -- who goes by one name -- came to China to make "The Dragon Angel", a family adventure film produced by Frenchman Igor Darbo, who left his job as a project-management consultant in Beijing to get into film production.

Box-office receipts in China jumped 30 percent last year to 17 billion yuan ($2.7 billion), making it the world's second-largest film market behind the US.

And with the appeal of Chinese films failing to maintain the pace, foreign titles took the bulk of the money, scooping up just over half the revenue.

But restrictions in China mean films are subjected to tight censorship, and there is an annual cap of just 34 foreign releases under highly sought-after revenue-sharing deals.

To protect its home-grown movie industry, France also has a quota on foreign releases, but has no qualms about the sort of racy content that regularly hits the cutting-room floor in China.

Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" was pulled from Chinese screens earlier this month, reportedly because of nudity, while scenes from "Cloud Atlas" and James Bond film "Skyfall" were also taken out by censors.

Nevertheless, Besson said every time he visits China he experiences more and more freedom. His company, EuropaCorp, plans to release four feature films a year in China under one of the revenue-sharing deals.

The company's director general, Christophe Lambert, who signed an exclusive distribution and co-production deal with a Chinese partner, Fundamental Films, said it was crucial to get a foot in the market now.

"In 2020 China will be the biggest box office in the world," he said.

"I can't say we're equal with the big American studios -- Fox, Universal, Warner -- but in any case we're not far behind."

The first film from EuropaCorp/Fundamental distributed in China will be French action comedy "Malavita", directed by Besson and starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones.

It will be released in China on September 28, eight days after the United States.

Chinese films now have about 50 percent of market share, while US films take between 40 and 45 percent and the rest of the world is left with the small remainder, according to Isabelle Glachant of UniFrance, an organisation that promotes French cinema.

The body is asking Hollande to bring up this imbalance when the French president meets Chinese leaders during his two-day visit.

Li Lianxia, of Domo Media, a Hong Kong company with experience negotiating rights for French films in China, said although China has begun to accept more non-US foreign films, it is nevertheless "always difficult".

She is now hoping to bring live-action family comedy "On the Trail of the Marsupilami" to China. But with the Chinese audience in mind, the mythical creature of the title has already been renamed, as "Maxiu".

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130423/french-cinema-shines-hopeful-spotlight-china