CANNES/NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Anti-French feeling in China caused by recent Olympic flame protests is having a knock-on effect for Gallic exporters hoping to place product behind the great wall of Chinese censors.
Paul Delbecq, co-chief of Beijing-based distributor Domo Media had the misfortune to bring out the Liam Neeson movie “Taken,” the only French movie so far released this year in China, on April 7. Days beforehand, officials were forced to extinguish the flame and carry it by bus when pro-Tibet protesters in the French capital tried to seize it.
He expected the film to gross more than $3 million at the box office, but the picture has so far earned less than $2 million in Shanghai and Beijing, despite an unusually large platform of 200 prints. Delbecq attributes the lackluster performance directly to the ripple of rejection for all things French.
“Groups of Chinese nationalists went to theaters to say it should be taken off screens,” Delbecq said. “So I’ve suffered from this, but it’s not life and death. 2008 will be tough, but I think 2009 will be okay again once the Olympic Games have gone by,” he said. The movie rolls out in the rest of China this month.
The pro-Tibet protests targeting the passage of the Olympic flame ahead of this summer’s Beijing games took place in London, San Francisco and elsewhere. But only the Paris debacle gained wide coverage in China, because a wheel-chair bound Chinese athlete was caught up in the fray. The 28-year-old Paralympic fencer Jin Jing has since become a national heroine after numerous TV appearances to recount her efforts to defend the torch. Jin has since been invited back to France by President Nicolas Sarkozy in a gesture to restore relations.
As recently as last week there were protests outside French-owned Carrefour supermarkets in China. Delbecq said he’d shift his focus over to U.S. or U.K. action/adventure titles until the row blows over.
“The flame’s passage in Paris was lamentable,” said Jean-Louis Bironne, CEO Europe of Champs Lis International, a Chinese distributor specializing in Western movies, notably French. “I think there’ll be a period of coolness, but I think the ancestral good relationships between France and China will be reestablished very soon,” he added.
The Chinese market is still small for the handful of Gallic films released there every year, but it is growing. There were close to 3 million admissions in China for French movies in 2006 — a peak — but last year was more representative, with 1.2 million ticket sales.
French film promotional body Unifrance also faced problems with its annual film festival in China’s biggest cities last month.
“Organizing our Panorama was very difficult this year,” said Christine Pernin, head of Unifrance in Beijing. Some of the 10 French directors invited felt uncomfortable about going to China after the Paris flame incidents. “We had frank talks with directors about their feelings,” Pernin said.
At the festival opening April 11, Pathe chief Jerome Seydoux introduced “Asterix at the Olympic Games,” a live-action feature based on the popular Gallic comic character starring French icons Alain Delon and Gerard Depardieu. The opening was a hit and Chinese rights to “Asterix” were quickly sold to De Quan, an affiliate of Singapore’s ERG, and the film was submitted to China’s censors in hope of a pre-Olympics release.
The fest’s first weekend went well, with audiences in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Wuhan responding favorably to the light French fare and to the question and answer sessions, Pernin said. But then the anti-Carrefour protests sprang up, festival attendance dropped off sharply and some tickets were returned.
Cinema operators, under government pressure to keep the peace, insisted the Q&As be moderated. “Meetings after each screening were cut short. We were ushered from one room to another. They were worried about Chinese talking to French people directly,” she said.
The anti-French mood also has taken its toll on Gallic television exports. The long-running negotiations to bring the popular game show “Fort Boyard” to Chinese screens were broken off as a direct consequence of the Olympic spat. Adventure Line Prods., which makes the show on a sea fort off France’s Atlantic coast, declined comment, no doubt in the hope of renewing talks once relationships improve. But since the show involves flying in competitors and presenters from each country that acquires the format, the French flavor of the show is not something that could have been masked to Chinese audiences.
There are, however, strong signals in Cannes that bilateral relations in the movie industry will quickly rise above any popular protests. The Marche du Film opening night party was co-sponsored by Chinese network CCTV and Champs Lis.
Other Franco-Chinese players were playing down any effects of the anti-French boycott.
“I think it will pass quickly,” said Jean-Louis de Rauglaudre, director of Tang Media, an exporter of French film to China, which recently released action comedy “Taxi 4” in the territory with success. “We’re not anticipating any negative effects. We have other releases coming up and are carrying on with business as usual.”