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Screen Edge 2014: in China

Beijing-based Leland Ling and Steven Seidenberg, of factual production house LIC-Beijing, explored how to use documentary as an entry point to a broader range co-productions, and how the Chinese market for documentary works.

LIC was formed as an agent of Australia’s ABC, but has become China’s biggest documentary company, and the only private company licensed by the Chinese government. Steven Seidenberg is their Executive Producer & Head of Co-production, Leland Ling the CEO. Ling noted that – although the company is privately held – Chinese government agencies had bought into the company in recent years.

Seidenberg offered an explanation of the difference between what western filmmakers might mean by the term “documentary” and what was commonly screened in China. He suggested that, in China, the terms meant “school film” – a piece of content to inform and educate, which had to be pitched to the level of its audience.

Without suggesting any wider implications, he explained that Chinese audiences had limited experience of documentaries – especially ones which encouraged the audience to consider more than one point of view. Despite a more limited definition of documentary, Seidenberg claimed that what was extremely popular (and successful) in China was specialist factual such as nature or science documentaries offering information. International titles are localised not only by being translated but often by having Chinese presenters top and tail, and foreign presenters removed. Hence the celebrity-fronted doco is unlikely to be a great seller into China.

Programmes are screened without commercial breaks, so a commercial hour programme will play for 45 minutes uninterrupted, and then be followed by 15 minutes of PSAs and advertising. While the approaches might appear alien, some aspects of the system would be familiar.

The broadcasters are the gatekeepers and they control access to very substantial audiences. China has 3500+ TV channels. Five years ago there were more channels than cinema screens. Even though the boom in cinema-building over the last few years has changed that statistic, there are a lot of TV slots to programme.

The majority of channels are still regional not national – although they’re all centrally governed. Regional in China is not like regional in New Zealand. Even a “local” station in a tier three city – the Tokoroas or Levins of China, if you will – broadcast to up to 50 million people.

Seidenberg and Ling both believed that there was opportunity – but that China was not necessarily the El Dorado some promoted it as. Yes, there’s money – about US$5,000 per commercial hour for doco product; yes, there are slots to fill – so long as the fare on offer matches expectations.

There are 43,000 media companies in China, of which 150 are documentary-focused. For theatrical, the figures aren’t much more encouraging.

In 2012, 126 applications for theatrical documentaries were approved by government. By the end of the year, three had had theatrical releases. In the last 10 years, no theatrical documentary has made more than US$2.2 million – in a market where the most popular Chinese titles are now earning US$200 million and even “small” local films are earning US$10 million.

Back on the smaller screens, acquisitions form the vast majority of documentary fare shown. There are over 43,000 media companies in China, but only 150 of these are active in documentary. LIC’s co-production output runs to a total of 26 projects. Compare that to national broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV), the biggest media company in China, which has a total of 8 projects – although those include some very high profile titles such as the second series of Life Force, co-produced with NHNZ.

CCTV acquires 900 hours of programming a year. It commissions 30 hours. LIC produces 400-500 hours of programming. Seidenberg says that there are very few people in China who know how to do co-productions, as they’re controlled by the state. So if you’re keen, you’d need to find companies who have international departments.

LIC prefers to be involved in a potential co-production from the very start, but with the attitude that “it’s your baby”.

Sales aren’t worth very much. If you get $5,000/hour, it’s a good price, which also makes co-production more attractive.

The Chinese like big, general subjects, not niche or creative. For example, a German broadcaster was recently greenlit for a television series on the history of the automobile. Seidenberg also explained that it’s common for a series to be very long: last year a 100 part series on the Forbidden City went to air.

Another difference with the Chinese model of television commissioning, is that you can pitch to a channel, and get a slot greenlit, but they don’t provide funding. It’s up to you to raise the money or get sponsorship. It’s hard to find funding for one hour documentary, and it’s also hard to find sponsors because any advertising gets lost in the vast schedules.

Ling noted that – despite the importance of building strong relationships as part of doing business in China – there was little point trying to learn Chinese culture.

“5,000 years of Chinese culture is a bit too time consuming to learn,” he suggested. “The easiest way is to just make it clear what you want.”

Ling also explained that, despite the wish in China to see its content loved and respected by the rest of the world, co-productions are built on pragmatism. Sometimes LIC co-produces by just writing a cheque – but only when they’re 100% sure that they can get their money back in the Chinese domestic market. The allure of the international market isn’t, therefore, a great selling point. Chinese producers know their own market, and make their decisions based on what they expect.

Seidenberg talked about subject matter to avoid: documentaries about religion, for example. except for ancient religions with the emphasis on the historical. Nothing that starts with a T or P – no Tibet, Tianamen, or Prostitutes.

What are the Chinese networks interested in commissioning, then? Well, internal tourism has grown from zero, five years ago, to a massive explosion, where many Chinese are going on camping and hiking trips around their country. So there’s a strong market for programming that shows China to the Chinese.

There is a huge amount of diversity within China, and the cultural differences are massive from one region to another. Because there is so much to learn about themselves, they don’t really know about the rest of the world – and they don’t particularly care.

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