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True North Far East is dedicated to chronicling Canada-China relations and the surprising ways the two countries are influencing each other

China's surprising connections to Canada's film industry

China's surprising connections to Canada's film industry

From mainstream movies to documentaries and independent films, cinematic collaboration between China and Canada is on the rise.

Just the Basics

  • Canada has positioned itself as a leading co-production locale, with Canadian filmmakers increasingly looking to China for funding and collaboration opportunities

  • There is a growing Chinese presence in the Canadian film and television sector, both in mainstream and independent cinema catering to both domestic and Chinese audiences

  • Chinese government restrictions on foreign talent and money combined with revenue sharing and censorship disputes present real hurdles to Canadian produced content

It’s 1990 and Donald Sutherland has a problem. His latest project, Bethune - a biopic about Canadian doctor Norman Bethune’s forays in China during the 1930s has been beset with problems and roundly panned by critics at Cannes. The first co-production between China and Canada, filming has been beset with strife; between the Canadian and Chinese film crews in Beijing, as well as between director Phillip Borsos, screenwriter Ted Allen and Sutherland himself. Then there is the added pressure that this is Canada’s hitherto most expensive film, with a budget of $20 million ($32 million in 2019 dollars) half of which was provided by Telefilm and the CBC - a mountain of money that has nevertheless run out sooner than planned. Moreover, any cachet the film was seeking to cash in on by shooting in China (and offering a rare glimpse of a country rarely seen on North American screens) was lost when Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun both premiered in 1987, stealing Bethune’s thunder.

Strife on set seems to have poisoned the well for Bethune even before release: the film turned out to be an expensive flop. A revered household name in China, Norman Bethune’s time as a doctor for the Chinese Red Army had already been the subject of several Chinese productions, and Canada hoped to weave the Bethune story into its engagement efforts with China and further coax Beijing out of its isolation. Consequently, Bethune’s failure was hardly a glowing endorsement of Canada-China co-production efforts, yet in the years since Bethune’s unfortunate fate, there has developed a robust and surprising web of connections between China, Chinese filmmakers and Canada.

The Canadian film industry is increasingly targeting China as the country’s TV and film market is growing rapidly; “the Chinese film market is going to be the largest film market in short order. They’re building about twenty-five screen a day,” explains Charles Rivkin, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America. By 2016, China had already surpassed the United States in the number of cinema screens, with ticket sales standing at $7.9 billion in 2017 (compared to $11.1 billion for the U.S and Canada). The Chinese cinema market surpassed North America for the first time in Q1 2018, in part due to the United States and Canada dealing with a twenty-two year low in takings, amid declining audiences due to the rise of streaming and on-demand services.

As Hollywood looks to cater to the Chinese market, Canada is reaping the benefits as it has positioned itself as a leading film and television production centre. Canada was the first country to sign a co-production treaty with China, giving Ottawa a first-mover advantage, helping establish Canada as a key co-production partner. Canadian expertise paired with favourable exchange rates and government incentives has seen a boom in foreign co-productions in recent years, with over 700 co-produced films between 2005 and 2015. Overall, the Canadian film and television industry supported 179,000 full time jobs and contributed $12.8 billion to Canada’s GDP during the 2017/18 fiscal year. British Columbia has surpassed Ontario to become Canada’s leading film and TV production province, with the sector growing forty-percent in 2016/17 compared to the previous year. A substantial portion of this growth has been due to co-production of American (and increasingly other nations) films.

Canadian government in lock-step with industry as both head to China

While the number of Sino-Canadian co-productions is small, connections between the two countries is growing, as seen in the proliferation of joint film events and cooperation agreements. In 2012, the Whistler Film Festival held the inaugural China-Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition, conceived as an effort to kick-start more co-productions between Canada and China. This was followed by the signing of a co-production treaty in 2016, replacing the first such treaty signed between the two countries in 1997. In order for a film to be considered a Sino-Canadian co-production, either country must contribute no less than fifteen percent and no more than eighty-five percent of a film’s funding. The treaty also allows producers in both nations to access national film subsidy programs in either nation. 

Other joint venues have been created in recent years including the Golden Maple Film Festival in Richmond, B.C which focuses on the promotion of Chinese culture. Then there is the annual Canada-China International Film Festival (CCIFF) in Montreal, the latest edition of which is planned for September 2019. Begun in 2016 and supported by the National Film Board of Canada, Telefilm Canada and Quebec’s Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), the CCIFF also screened six Canadian films at the China National Film Museum as part of activities during National Canadian Film Day. In April 2019, National Canada Film Day celebrations featured the first China-Canada co-production - Iron Road - a film set in the 1880s during the transcontinental railway boom documenting the contribution of Chinese immigrant workers.

Close on the heels of these developments in 2016, former heritage minister Mélanie Joly travelled to China in January 2017, the first overseas trip by a Canadian heritage minister in twelve years. Joly returned to China in April 2018, leading Canada’s first creative industry trade mission to China. With representatives from almost sixty Canadian firms in tow, Joly oversaw the signing of deals worth $125 million, including various co-production commitments. 

Producers working with China have been supportive of this increased government support, as strong public-private sector ties are needed to ensure that Canadian co-production partners are not overwhelmed by China’s economies of scale, as the PRC’s cultural sector was estimated at C$525 billion in 2015. Touching on this issue, Jordan Paterson of Vancouver-based RareEarth Media, notes that “if it’s left completely in the hands of the producers, there will be some successes, but very few.” 

Ample federal and provincial support for foreign co-production and the expertise of the Canadian creative sector has seen “several Canadian companies [having] success both exporting to and collaborating with Chinese producers,” explains a report by the Canadian Media Producers Association (CMPA). Despite rocky relations between Beijing and Ottawa, the CMPA is confident that Sino-Canadian collaboration will remain fruitful, with the CMPA itself planning to lead an international trade mission to China in March 2020.

Canada has been keen to further capitalize on Chinese interest in filming in Canada, as the Great White North is viewed as an exotic shooting locale for Chinese filmmakers. “The Chinese like travelogue comedies, [and] fish-out-of-water road movies, so they can see what’s around in the world [that] they can go to,” explains Colin Geddes, who has run the Midnight Madness sidebar at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) for the past twenty years. Canada’s bounty of picturesque vistas, urban centres and natural wonders provides film makers with ample backdrops for filming.

Canadian content still faces serious obstacles accessing Chinese viewers

Nevertheless, Canadian filmmakers working with China have faced some problems, mostly as a result of Chinese government regulations and the knock-on effects of Beijing’s economic policies. Specifically, “there’s questions of quotas limiting the number of foreign films, less control of your own release and certain topics being off-limits for story-telling,” explains Karen Thorne-Stone, CEO and president of the Ontario Media Development Corporation.

Chinese foreign films quotas mean that only 34 non-Chinese films are permitted for domestic release each year. This makes gaining access to the Chinese movie-going public extremely difficult, not to mention competitive. Consequently, many Canadian films are muscled out of the way by Hollywood blockbusters such as the Transformer series or films from the Marvel cinematic universe. A further issue is that only twenty-five percent of box-office takings from films screened in China go to the studios; a group of Hollywood studios is currently lobbying for a forty-five percent share. 

Volume of Canadian foreign location and service production by type (millions of dollars)

Source: Association of Provincial Funding Agencies | Totals may not sum due to rounding

While this state of affairs hampers wholly Canadian made productions, co-productions with Chinese partners allow for a work around, allowing the Canadian film industry to benefit from co-productions with Chinese producers, as well as work on American films allowing Canadian creators to piggyback off of Hollywood’s ability to access the Chinese market. Take Deadpool 2 for example, starring Canadian Ryan Reynolds, and was shot in B.C. Thanks to the decision to also release a PG-13 edit of the film, Deadpool was able to appease Chinese censors and premiere in China, a boon for the film’s substantial Canadian contingent. 

Similar problems face Canadian television productions, as China Radio & Television Administration guidelines mean streaming services are limited to a thirty-percent foreign content quota in order to prevent a “negative influence on viewers.” Moreover, China completely outlaws foreign TV shows during primetime (7-10pm), and foreign talent can account for no more than one-fifth of total production staff (including directors, writers and actors). TV shows are also prohibited from having a foreigner as the lead actor or actress, nor can a show’s director and writer both be foreigners. These rules make it next to impossible for domestic Canadian content to enter the Chinese market, but thanks to co-production ties with China, Canadian producers can collect some revenue from China. This is especially important now that television shows comprise a higher percentage of Canadian co-productions than films.

It should be remembered that these restrictions do limit the extent of Canadian media exports to China, nor should Canadian producers be overly reliant on Chinese funding to realize their myriad projects, something which the industry has already learned the hard way. A trendy sector for many Chinese investors, investment in foreign films came under greater scrutiny following Beijing’s clampdown on overseas capital spending in 2017, as the Chinese government sought to reduce capital flight, particularly from investments in real estate, film and sports.  Some companies have been disguising capital flight as foreign investment, while others have used high-profile entertainment purchases as a short-term strategy to boost stock prices. 

China’s clampdown in mid-2017 left some Canadian producers scrambling to find alternative funding streams. “We’ve met with producers who had Chinese equity commitments in the eight figures and now they have to figure out whether they will be able to get that money out of China, or [whether] not to make their films,” explains Jason Moring of Double Dutch International, a Canadian media industry sales company.

Canada-China co-productions began to take off in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as witnessed by films such as Bethune and Rumble in the Bronx (1994) starring Jackie Chan which was actually filmed in Vancouver. Alongside cooperation on Hollywood movies such as the 2014 Nicolas Cage feature, Outcast - many co-productions touch on themes common to both Canada and China, such as the 2013 break-out success Finding Mr. Right, which went on to become China’s ninth highest grossing film of all time. The moderately budgeted rom-com centres around Wen Jiajia who becomes pregnant with her boyfriend’s child, who happens to be a corrupt Beijing businessman who is already married. Wen moves to Seattle to have the child in an illegal birthing centre due to legal issues in China, and she eventually meets former doctor turned cab driver Hao Zhi and the two gradually form a relationship.

With a plethora of film worthy vistas, British Columbia in general and Vancouver in particular have become top destination for foreign co-productions with Hollywood and beyond.

In touching on issues such as birth tourism and wealth disparity, the film strikes a chord with both Canadian (especially B.C residents) and Chinese viewers. The fact that the film was shot in Canada is thanks to the efforts of producer Shan Tam. Born in Hong Kong and based in Vancouver since 1989, Tam, runs independent production company Holiday Pictures as well as Maple Ridge Films which specializes in foreign productions that shoot in B.C. Tam’s relationship with Hong Kong’s EDKO Films (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) coupled with generous tax credits from the B.C provincial government convinced producer Matthew Tang to choose Vancouver over Seattle. The success of the film also saw Richmond, B.C twins Monica and Jessica Song become media darlings in China when they visited the country for the premiere. The twins were spotted after appearing on a talent show on Richmond-based Chinese language broadcaster, Fairchild Television.

The growing cohort of Chinese-Canadian filmmakers

Alongside the growing presence of mainstream China-Canada co-productions, there is a growing community of Chinese and Chinese-Canadian documentary and independent filmmakers, especially in Montreal. The lack of subject matter restrictions and the very supportive environment for independent film in Quebec (and nationally) are cited as huge boons by Chinese filmmakers. For instance, in 1993, Toronto-born director Keith Lock directed Small Pleasures - the first Chinese-Canadian feature film made by a Chinese-Canadian. The movie details the experiences of two Chinese women studying in Toronto and their experiences of the West during the Tiananmen Square protests. The following year saw the release of Double Happiness, by Chinese-Canadian director Mina Shum. Starring Canada’s Sandra Oh, the film follows Oh’s character as she tries to assert herself against her traditional Chinese-Canadian family.

More recent productions include a raft of films backed by Montreal-based Eyesteel Films and GreenGround Productions. Founded by Concordia grad Aonan Yang and two fellow students, GreenGround Productions and post-production company Cineground Media have been avid supporters of Chinese filmmakers in Montreal, such as Yung Chang, whose 2008 film, Up the Yangtze - looked at two Chinese teenagers whose lives are changed by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest power station.

A graduate of Concordia University’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Up the Yangtze garnered Chang a slate of awards, including: Taiwan’s Golden Horse Award, best Canadian documentary at the Vancouver Film Festival, best documentary at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and best long documentary at the Genie Awards (now the Canadian Screen Awards), among others. The film was also the Grand Jury nominee for best documentary in the world cinema division at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Chang’s 2012 film China Heavyweight (on boxing legend Moxiang Qi) won him his second Golden Horse Award and premiered in over 200 cinemas in mainland China. The script for Chang’s first feature film - Eggplant - was one of twelve projects in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2015.

“I would say that there are more opportunities now where we can support voices that are different. They are not typical voices like Canadian filmmakers or Quebec filmmakers. [...] audiences are interested in hearing stories from beyond our Canadian backyard. And I think our backyard is much richer now because we are from different backgrounds.”
— Montreal filmmaker, Yung Chang

2008 also saw the premiere of Last Train Home by fellow Montreal filmmaker Lixin Fan. Documenting the struggles and separation faced by China’s 130 million migrant workers and their annual exodus from China’s mega-cities to their home towns, the film won the 2011 Genie Award for best documentary as well as an Emmy for best documentary film.

Other filmmakers of note include long-time Montreal resident and graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Xiaodan He. He’s 2018 film A Touch of Spring became the first film that is not in either English or French to ever be granted funding from Telefilm Canada; a statement to how ingrained Chinese culture has become in Canada’s multicultural identity. The film tells the tale of a recently divorced Chinese-Canadian woman who travels back to China to reconcile with her estranged family. He’s Cairo Calling also won two audience awards and has been screened at over fifty film festivals worldwide.

Then there is Tao Gu, an immigrant from China whose award winning short film The Way of the Sea premiered to critical acclaim in 2010. Gu’s 2017 project Taming the Horse won the Montgolfiere Award at the Nantes Three Continents Festival in France, and swept the 2018 Montreal International Documentary Festival, winning best Canadian film, best short Canadian film and the jury award. Taming the Horse showcases the journey of two young Chinese from the prairies of Inner Mongolia to the six million-plus city of Kunming. Switch out Mongolia for Manitoba and you have the makings of a classically Canadian tale of prairie youth coming to terms with the big city. 

The Bottom Line

Canada is well placed to capitalize on the growing Chinese film and television industry despite Chinese government quotas and regulations regarding foreign productions. Co-productions with Chinese producers allows Canadians firms to win film and television contracts for material catering to the Chinese domestic audience, even if wholly Canadian produced material faces substantial hurdles reaching the Chinese viewing public. Having been the first country to establish a co-production treaty with China has given Canada a first-mover advantage, which combined with Canadian ties to Hollywood and proactive government support, has led to a substantial growth in the Canadian media sector.

The lure of Chinese funding has driven many Canadian media producers to seek more co-productions with China, yet an over-reliance on Beijing in the past has already led to serious repercussions, notably in the wake of the Chinese clampdown on foreign capital outlays in 2017. Concerns about revenue sharing, release schedules, quotas and censorship remain serious ones for Canadian businesses working in China. So far, Canadian firms have had more success in wooing Chinese producers to film in Canada, especially British Columbia. Generous provincial support from B.C and other Canadian provinces has been complemented by greater federal support in recent years, as seen by the series of creative industry trade missions undertaken by the Department of Canadian heritage.

The fruits of these trips (and of overall greater Canadian media promotion) have been many, including plans for a new film about the life of Norman Bethune. Chinese producers are providing eighty-five percent of the films funding, with work on the film coming at a time of deep division between Canada and China. Vancouver-based producer Jordan Paterson is working on the project and explains that “[20th century Chinese] history is part of our national identity in Canada. I’m surrounded by it. I want to tell these stories. And the Bethune project grew really naturally out of that past experience [...] Everyone loves a good idea. And it’s exciting to work on it together [with Chinese producers] to see if you can’t realize that idea.” A film about the friendly and fruitful cooperation between a Canadian hero and China could go far to help ease tensions. Hopefully it does better than Sutherland’s.

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