Spanish cinema makes a splash in China

The Catalan director Oriol Paulo has had two box office hits in the country, while a co-production agreement has opened the door to the massive Asian market

The characters of the Spanish-Chinese co-production ‘Dragonkeeper.’
The characters of the Spanish-Chinese co-production ‘Dragonkeeper.’

Less than 10 years ago, China was cut off from the rest of the cinematic world. But today the Asian country has become a top market for the international film industry thanks to a growing openness to Hollywood, the approval of a law on the Chinese film industry (that bans content deemed harmful), and a growing number of new cinemas.

Oriol Paulo with Javier Gutiérrez while filming ‘Mirage.’
Oriol Paulo with Javier Gutiérrez while filming ‘Mirage.’

Superhero movies now feature Chinese characters with scenes filmed in cities like Shanghai, while Hollywood bases creative decisions on how they will be received in Asia. In 2018, cinemas in the United States and Canada earned more than €10.5 billion at the box office while those in China made €7.85 billion (54% from national films), according to the American magazine Variety.

As the second-largest market in the world, China has become increasingly attractive to all film industries, including the Spanish one. In 2015, Spain and China signed a cinema co-production agreement, which came into effect last November. Thanks to this agreement, the animation movie Bikes – the first official joint production between Spain and China – was released last week, and production has already begun on the animation Dragonkeeper.

Spanish director Oriol Paulo has also had incredible success in China. In 2017, a thriller directed by the Barcelona-born filmmaker called Contratiempo (released as The Invisible Guest in English) was illegally downloaded one million times in China. The movie was then shown in 7,000 cinemas and ended up earning €20 million at the box office, making it as one of the top 10 highest-grossing foreign films of all time in China, with the exception of Hollywood blockbusters.

What added value do we bring? Our animation, which is far superior to China’s Larry Levene, producer of 'Dragonkeeper'

“I never went after this record and I don’t know why they like my movie, but I do see that Chinese film-goers very quickly get into the game that I put to them,” said Paulo last week, with a smile. The director has just released his third film Durante la tormenta (released in China and the rest of the world as Mirage), which returned to Spanish cinemas a few weeks ago after initially failing at the box office in December – it made just €800,000. But the film was a big success in China. On March 28, it premiered in 24,621 cinemas and made ¥66 million (€8.7 million), making it the seventh highest-grossing film for that weekend. After three weeks, the movie has made more than €15 million, according to Dianping, the largest entertainment recommendation website in China.

Paulo has promoted the film in nine different cities, held 48 screenings and spent three days talking to the press in Beijing. While the Spanish director may not understand what attracts Chinese viewers to his movies, his fans have some idea. “It’s the surprising twists in the story,” explains Zhao Haibo, a 23-year-old student who went to watch Durante la tormenta in a cinema in Dongdaqiao, a commercial district in Beijing. He says he enjoyed watching Contratiempo two years ago and wanted to see Paulo’s follow-up because “it’s in the same style.” “Contratiempo has more surprises. Durante la tormenta is also good, but perhaps the ending is more obvious,” he says. On Dianping, Contratiempo is rated a 8.7 out of 10, based on the votes of more than 45,000 people.

Animation leads the way

Spanish producer Ximo Pérez and director Manuel J. García, supported by the Spanish-Chinese agreement, have created Bikes, an animation which premiered last week in Spain and in 5,000 cinemas in China in August. García first began looking for funding in China in 2011. “If there is a country with bicycles, it’s China, no?” he says.

A still from the animation ‘Bikes.’
A still from the animation ‘Bikes.’

But it was impossible to get funding until Spain and China signed the co-production agreement in 2015. “In March 2016, the Asian production company CVC Group came onto the scene, accepted the proposal and we signed the agreement in the Spanish Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences,” explains Pérez. According to García, they then had to wait a year and a half to have the script approved by the Chinese government.

Bikes is the first of five movies signed under the co-production agreement that are set to be made over the next seven years. The film makes subtle references to China, for instance in the architecture, some of the characters and shop signs, which are written in both Chinese and English. “The movie cost €5 million – 30% of funding comes from China, and 20% from Argentina. The artistic work was almost completely done in Spain,” explains Pérez.“We have to recognize that animation is easier when it come to censorship, I think it is more complicated for other genres.”

But García says it was still difficult to work under the censorship laws, which ban content considered to be against Chinese values. “As soon as they see something strange in the co-production, they retreat,” he says.

In the animation studios of China Film Animation, located 50 kilometers away from Beijing, there is more optimism about the future. This is where Dragonkeeper, the most ambitious animation production of the Spanish-Chinese agreement, is being made. The €20-million production is being directed by Spanish director Ignacio Ferrera, and is set to be released in 2021, first in China and then in Spain

The film is being produced by Daragoia Media, Movistar+ and Atresmedia Cine in Spain, and by the China Film Group, the largest film company in China. The movie is based on six books by Carole Wilkinson and is set in a magical China during the Han dynasty.

Production design of ‘Dragonkeeper.’
Production design of ‘Dragonkeeper.’

Two of the movie’s producers, Manuel Cristóbal and Larry Levene, explain that the artistic production is evenly divided between the Spanish and Chinese team. “And this is a challenge,” explains Levene, who has been working in China since 1996. “The Chinese have an ideographic language, and that’s why their thought process is built by associating images, not words like we do. They read the images, the visuals in cinema are also like having a chat with the viewer. That is why we have worked with great care on the script. We developed an animated storyboard, dubbed in Chinese, and we’ve been debating it for over two years.”

The producers insist that the movie belongs to both China and Spain. “What added value do we bring? Our animation, which is far superior to China’s. They have a huge market. We wanted to bet big for China Film Group, and we did it, and that has made the Chinese government feel that this movie is theirs,” explains Levene. “We hope that Dragonkeeper is relevant to the Chinese public and exotic for the international viewer,” says Cristóbal.

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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