The rebound of the Chinese box office did not benefit French cinema. As in every period of high attendance in theaters, no foreign film has been authorized to be shown during the Lunar New Year holidays, China wanting to promote local productions. But, even in normal times, French films are struggling to find a place on Chinese screens. Of the 543 films released in 2019, 413 were Chinese, 43 came from the United States, 42 from the rest of Asia and … 11 from France.
The number is low compared to the French production but has, in reality, never been so high on a Chinese market allowing only a hundred foreign films each year. Problem, these rare French films have remained almost invisible to the Chinese: with 1.1 million admissions (-55.7% over one year), French cinema has won a market share of… 0.1% in China in 2019, according to UniFrance.
The year 2020, marked by six months of cinemas closed, was no better: behind “Spycies”, a Franco-Chinese animated film directed by Guillaume Ivernel which has totaled 1.4 million admissions, the five other French films (“Mia and the White Lion”, “Cold Blood Legacy: La Mémoire du sang”, “Dans la brume”; “Dalida”; “Nicky Larson et le Parfum de Cupidon”) have accumulated only 229,000 admissions .
“China is more of a growing market than a reality, notes Isabelle Glachant, head of UniFrance in China. So far, China has mainly imported entertainment films for young audiences as we try to promote auteur cinema that takes time and word of mouth. “ When films pass the increasingly stringent censorship quotas and controls, they often struggle to keep up in theaters.
“No film is guaranteed to run for more than a day, the exhibitors deciding on the programming of their theater from day to day”, she continues. The planned release date is often announced at the last minute, limiting promotional operations. It is also difficult to anticipate what will please: if “La Grande Vadrouille” is a cult film in China, recent French comedies have not found their audience. “Everyone standing” and “La Ch’tite Famille” each did not exceed 35,000 admissions.
But UniFrance wants to believe in a better future. “We feel that in the big cities a demand from professionals and the public for a more complex and different cinema is emerging”, says Daniela Elstner, Managing Director of UniFrance. And to see the proof of this maturation of the public (whose average age has risen to 29 years) in the unexpected success of certain foreign films, such as “Capernaum”, the first Lebanese film distributed in China (12 million admissions) .
No filming in China for Asterix
To support this movement, the French public authorities have pushed for the creation of a network of art galleries. For the first time in 2019, two French films (“Until the Guard”, “Maria by Callas”) benefited from it, for a still modest result. In order to access the Chinese market, France is also relying on co-productions. “Wild Goose Lake” by Diao Yinan was a great success.
But Chinese demands are strong: China wants to be visible on screen (with Chinese actors in the cast) and no filming in China is possible without prior examination of the script by censorship. Guillaume Canet’s blockbuster, “Asterix et Obélix: L’Empire du Milieu”, will ultimately be without Chinese producers and without filming in China.