13 Apr 015: Why China Picks the Wrong Scripts
Cristiano Bortone is the Managing Director of Bridging the Dragon talks about how to deal with Chinese producers with more money than experience and why chasing the market is a bad idea.
Before I introduce today’s guest – I’d like to start out with a motivation quote encourage our listeners to continue on their path to achieving their own green light.
And today’s quote is from… Henry Ford who said, “The whole secret of a successful life is to find out what is one’s destiny to do, and then do it.”
Today’s guest is Cristiano Bortone.
Caryn McCann: After attending USC in 1991 Bortone graduated from New York University in Film and television with an award for special achievements.
In 1998 he founded the Italian production company Orisa Produzioni and in 2015 the Chinese production company Yiyi 翊翊 Pictures. His activity as a producer includes features, documentaries, and television programs both in the art house and commercial area. Among them Maria, He Doesn’t Like It! (2009) that topped the German box office with more than 1.5 million admissions. Bortone was nominated Best Producer in 2006 at the Italian Silver Ribbon film critics’ awards and in 2017 at the David di Donatello Italian film award.
As a director, he directed five feature films. Among them, Red like the Sky (听见天堂)and in 2007 won a David di Donatello and more than 25 other international festivals. His last film Coffee (2016) is the first official co-production between Italy and China. It premiered as Special Event at Venice days, was in competition at the Beijing film festival, was nominated for the China media awards at the Shanghai international film festival, and was recently released in China.
Bortone worked as screenwriter and script editor on several productions, co-authored the manual “How to Make a Short” and taught directing, screenwriting and producing at several international institutions including the Beijing Film Academy.
He has been a consultant of the MEDIA program. He is a member of ACE Producers, and co-founder and Managing Director of the Sino-European producers’ association Bridging the Dragon.
Well, Cristiano, thank you for coming on the show today.
Cristiano Bortone: Very glad to be with you.
Caryn McCann: I told the audience a little bit about you but why don’t you take a minute and tell us more about yourself personally and your business.
Understanding the Chinese Audience
Cristiano Bortone: Well you said basically everything. Nothing much to add. So yeah let’s say multi-phase profile because I’m both on the creative side and I’m a film director, writer, etc. And on the production side with my different adventures – but most importantly I think for this blog – I’m one of the animators and co-founder of Bridging the Dragon which is nowadays a very important platform connecting the European and Chinese film industry.
So, I think this is probably the most interesting element for today’s discussion.
Caryn McCann: Can you tell us briefly what is the purpose of Bridging the Dragon? What does it do? How do people get involved?
Cristiano Bortone: Basically, Bridging the Dragon comes from the awareness that we all have to confront ourselves with his amazing growing market which is China. Many European colleagues and companies are willing to reach out to China. But as we know there is still a lot of challenges in this kind of collaboration.
China, in the beginning, looked at Hollywood as the main partner because of course in their mind Hollywood is a winning model, a commercial model. But now recently Europe is becoming more interesting for the Chinese market because they are diversifying their investment, the problem with the American politics a little bit.
Caryn McCann: (laughs) Right.
Cristiano Bortone: They are pursuing you know, diversification and also interestingly this Chinese society is growing so fast that they are requiring more and more sophisticated products so they look at Europe as a great place to reach out to talents, to locate beautiful locations, great stories and hopefully some soft money. We are becoming more interesting. So, the platform tries to create a special link and knowledge between Chinese and European professionals. That’s the main goal of the Association.
Caryn McCann: Now that sort of answers my first question which is why do you want to enter the China market? Now you mentioned Europe is becoming more interesting to China. Obviously, American politics are an issue. There is soft money in Europe and you have created a special link. But you personally, why do you want to get into the China market?
Cristiano Bortone: Well my store, my history, my personal history link to China is very peculiar because as a young man when I was back studying Chinese in a time where this was considered some kind of an oddity you know. Why do you, who speaks Chinese anyway in the world in 1984 or something?
And so, I have this personal knowledge somehow and then one of my movies Red Like the Sky that you mentioned arrive in China in the mid-2000s. It is now a beloved movie for the Chinese audience. It is a very high score on Douban (a Chinese networking site) etc. So, I started to be invited by several institutions – you mentioned the Beijing Film Academy and so on.
China Market – how to understand the Chinese Audience
So, I started going to China a few years ago. And you know with this personal knowledge etc. I realized at the early stage that this market has a lot of potentials. And that led eventually to the creation of my own company which is a wholly foreign-owned production company. And so, that’s the beginning of my link to China. Which is very personal. As it happens in life in filmmaking it starts with a very personal interest somehow or connection.
Caryn McCann: (laughs) Well you are definitely the Italian connection.
Cristiano Bortone: (laughs) The Italian Connection. That’s right.
Caryn McCann: Now I know there are no two days are the same in this business. But can you briefly describe two or three main tasks you do on a quote typical day? Either as a producer or as Bridging the Dragon.
Cristiano Bortone: As you mentioned – yeah that’s the problem. That’s the problem because I wear many hats. So, I would say I am the most multitasking person because I’m running three major headquarters. One of my companies in Rome. One is in Berlin. I live in Berlin where Bridging the Dragon is based, and one in Beijing where my other headquarter is based.
So, I juggle between different time zones and different tasks, between production and my more creative work. The Association became now like a Pandora Box. Now, whenever we approach China – that’s why it’s so exciting because it’s like I say it’s a Pandora Box. You open the lid and then there is a world inside. So, through the association now basically we are connected and in connection with most of our European members. It’s a member-based association so that people ask for membership.
But most of these are very interesting European companies and sales agents and also on the other side the Chinese companies. So, we are a crossroads of people, projects, financiers, and also festivals. We are official partners with the Cannes and Berlin Film Festival. So, in the middle of these crossroads which is also very exciting.
Caryn McCann: You said three cities – Beijing was it – Beijing, Berlin and what was the other one?
Cristiano Bortone: Rome. The original.
Caryn McCann: Bridging the Dragon is in all three of those?
Cristiano Bortone: No. Bridging the Dragon is based in Berlin and Beijing and my original company is based in Rome and my Chinese company also is based in Beijing.
Caryn McCann: Wow.
Cristiano Bortone: It sounds exciting but in fact, it’s just a lot of headaches.
Caryn McCann: (laughs) So you constantly have to be communicating either you’re in production on something or you’re developing something or you’re doing something at of festival.
European project lab
Cristiano Bortone: That’s right. We just finished our big activity at the Berlin Film Festival in Berlinale. We had a major seminar and our yearly project labs you know European project lab. And we coordinated the meetings between Chinese officials and the German film authorities trying to connect two industries. And then we are right into Beijing Film Festival next month right now.
Caryn McCann: That sort of leads into my next question. You mentioned the lab and how you introduce Chinese to Europeans. How do you find your business partners? And how do you suggest the listeners find a Chinese business partner?
Cristiano Bortone: One of the intuitions of Bridging the Dragon which is quite banal is that movies are made is like falling in love right? You have to find the right people. There is no rule but what fits each other right? So, this sounds very simple and very banal but in fact, it is the key to what we try to do – match-make the right people with the right people.
Official Missions to China – try to understand the Chinese audience
So, what happens most often is that European – I’m speaking for the European side, of course, you may have a larger audience in the States. But for what concerns Europe there are official missions to China. People go on a week tour, they meet some studios, they meet some executives. They meet somebody that they don’t know, they exchange business cards. Then they come back home and they forget these weird names and they don’t know how to follow up because what’s missing is the spark that that ignites the fire.
And the spark is the personal knowledge and the personal connection. So basically, what we really try to do is to get people close to each other through for example residential events like our yearly lab where we put people for four days. We put them in a beautiful hotel somewhere nice and these great selected people like a soccer team, they are forced to be together for some time and get to know each other, drink a beer, smoke a cigar exchange content but mostly build personal bonding relationships.
And then that is what it’s important in order to follow up to find the right partners like to find the right loved ones somehow.
Caryn McCann: Right. Good analogy. So, you obviously – you’re the Italian connection. You have a great reputation. You’ve also got Bridging the Dragon. You’ve got this yearly lab and you’re also going to these film markets to meet Chinese partners. And so, the next one you’re going to is Beijing?
Cristiano Bortone: The next one is in Beijing where we’re going to launch, we usually do every year a big matchmaking party where we gather all our connections. We select them, we try to put them together in one evening. And we will launch this year a new initiative which is called Bridging the Dragon Professional Talents. This will be like an agency under the umbrella of the Association which will promote a lineup of outstanding European below-the-line talents for the Chinese market.
And then the next appointment would be in Beijing where together with the market with the CNC (Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image Animée) every year we organize a panel discussion.
This year will be about distributing western films in China and vice versa. So, the challenges and what’s changing in the landscape of distribution to and from China. And then we do company meeting afternoon events. We select 30 international companies and 30 Chinese companies. And we match male them in one afternoon.
Caryn McCann: And that’s at the Beijing Film Festival?
Cristiano Bortone: No. No. The Cannes Film Festival.
Caryn McCann: Okay. Well, you’ve done a lot of films. You’ve got these great companies, this great platform. Tell us about an obstacle you encountered on a past project and how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
The language barrier isn’t the main challenge
Cristiano Bortone: Well you know working making films in China is very challenging still. And the language is not the main challenge as people may think. The main challenge is that the different procedures, the different ways of working, and the profound cultural difference.
And also, I have to say the fact that a lot of Chinese professionals are very professionally young. They may have a lot of financial resources but they are very young in terms of their insight into the process of making a movie. So, this I would say is the number one challenge to deal with colleagues that you know they are confident because they are they have many resources. But at the end of the day, they are not so knowledgeable because it’s just a short time you know.
We people like for example myself, I started making movies in the ’90s. So, it’s more than 25 years since I’ve done that. I’ve gone through changes through different problems and challenges and whatever. Obviously, this has an impact on the overall understanding of what makes making a film is about more than somebody that started professionally five years ago. That’s a little bit difficult.
And then, of course, the second challenge is somehow what everybody is concerned about which is censorship and the approach to content and sensitive issues, sensitive elements in our content which require from my personal experience a lot of patience and determination. I make a joke. Sometimes I will say working with China is like a drinking competition. You have to decide who needs to be the first one that crashes and stands up from the table and says that’s enough and I drank too much. You don’t want to be the first one. You want to be there until the end. The other counterpart dies first. It requires a lot of patience.
Caryn McCann: Okay you mentioned two past obstacles. One for example maybe the Chinese you mentioned are kind of young at perhaps production services or film production. How did you solve that instant that one problem?
Cristiano Bortone: It’s just unsolvable. You know making movies it’s always a challenge. No matter what I mean it’s not that making movies in Italy or in America or some in Africa is less challenging. So, it’s just the question of how flexible you are.
And it is interesting because as an Italian, we Italians are known to be very flexible because our life, our history made us – our capacity of endurance is very high because we used to adjust solutions all the time. So maybe that’s part of the game. I mean we have to be very flexible and sometimes a little bit more modest.
Because it is true that we may have more experience. But it is also true that we just have our way of doing things and sometimes our way of doing things may not be the way of doing things. Maybe there is somebody else who has another way. So, if we want to work with that other we have to learn how to adjust ourselves on both sides. it’s dialogue. It’s bridging with–Bridging the Dragon.
Caryn McCann: Oh, an excellent name for your platform! Now you did mention two current problems – the Chinese companies with perhaps a lack of producing experience and obviously, the censorship problems. Are those two problems – those two – if you could magically solve them – would they be it or would you solve something differently?
Cristiano Bortone: Well there are other challenges as well. So, we mentioned the first two. But there might be a few other challenges. One of them is that how to get through the star system in China. Of course, because to make movies in China you do need stars. Stars are extremely expensive and mostly extremely hard to get because there is not enough – too many movies, too high demand, and not enough stars. So, that’s one major challenge for us. Which has a solution though. If the movie has an international appeal it will be easier to get Chinese stars. Chinese stars want to get abroad so that’s something which is worth always remembering.
Another challenge is definitely the financial challenge. How to trust your partners? How to find partners that are reliable? How to get the money out of China? How to get the revenues out of China? This is a whole area where the best advice I would say is that we always have to work within China. You always want to work with A but also B, C, D until the Z plan. Because you can never be guaranteed that A plan will go through.
No matter how many contracts you have, how many lawyers you have – it just might happen that you don’t get what you are expecting to get at any point. So, you need absolutely to always have safety nets and B-C-D plans so if things get rough you know immediately how to switch to another channel and then readjust the synchronization.
And then other challenges, of course, the creative elements and that falls into maybe in some of the categories that we said so the discussion about scripts – that’s very complicated. Because if you’re dealing with people producers and partners that sometimes don’t know themselves what is a good script. They think this script sucks but in fact, maybe it’s great or maybe the other way around just because they don’t read. I mean you know reading scripts is a very special skill.
Not everybody knows what translates into great movies. So probably if Steven Spielberg reads the script is different than his appreciation is probably very different than some Chinese investor that last year was into the shoe business and now investing a hundred million dollars into movies. so, this is a major challenge. There is no solution to that. Just a lot of patience.
Caryn McCann: well that’s it that’s a good answer. Speaking of scripts – what sort of future projects are you looking for? Film, TV, genre, budget range? And what do you think the Chinese studios are looking for?
Cristiano Bortone: First of all, I would like to say to our audience which is probably a Western audience, that the most heard sentence that that is said in China to foreigners is you don’t understand the Chinese audience. This is a fascinating sentence that we keep on hearing always – like constantly – you don’t understand the Chinese audience. But the very problem is that nobody understands the Chinese audience, not even the Chinese. So, I always make a joke. to look for it.
Understanding the Chinese audience
Like when I started going to China a few years ago I wanted to make Chinese romantic comedies set in Rome. And then at the time, I was told ‘you don’t understand Chinese audience’ – and now is the male that decides not the women. So, is there some Kung Fu in your movie? Like no – it’s a romantic comedy you know – Romeo and Juliet, Italy Romance. “No, No, No. You need kung fu. You don’t understand the Chinese audience.”
Then after two years, there was a boom of romantic comedies in China. So, everybody would go with Kung Fu action film and people would tell you – “No, no, no. Do you have a romantic comedy?
And then it was a time of fantasy movie after Monster Hunt and everybody was into fantasy and then sci-fi. Then this year we had the big Wolf Warrior. Everybody was into action-propaganda movies. And then Feng Xiaogang‘s big 芳华 Fānghuá -Youth came and everybody said “Oh my god. We have to make epic dramas because the public wants it.” And then the Revenge of the Ex-file arrived and was a huge success. And now everybody’s like now it’s time for romantic movies.
Basically, the Chinese don’t get the point – that in a sane and developed film market there is space for every kind of movie because everyone will always want to fall in love and everybody wants to take their kids to the movies every man wants to see some shooting. So, there is space for everybody as long as the movies are good. So, when a movie flops sometimes it’s not because romantic comedies in Chinese are over but just because their films suck.
And it’s easy – the audience is becoming more demanding. They need to make better movies. So, if you answer your question – so I’m trying now with my colleagues and I try to push people to develop every kind of movie as long as they’re good. So, in my slate now I have a romantic comedy which we will shoot most likely this summer.
It’s set in Italy. A Chinese romance set in the most beautiful city in the world. Then we are developing a high concept and family film from a big international IP character. And then we are developing a moving drama by a very famous Chinese writer/novelist. So very different films but try to always package the movie to make a good movie whatever genre that is.
Caryn McCann: I know the Chinese studios maybe they’re following the market which is going to be two years too late—
Success has no formula
Cristiano Bortone: Exactly! Exactly. They what statistics, love statistics. They want to find a formula for success. I always make a joke what is the formula for love? There is no formula for it in the most unexpected way. And as a matter of fact, I would suggest to you when you make the statistics of what works on the market, I would suggest one thing. Read the statistics and do another kind of move.
Do you know why? Because when you read the statistics it means that the audience will – by the time you make your movie – will already grow tired of this genre. Going to the movies you want to watch something new which hasn’t been seen before. That’s the secret.
Caryn McCann: Exactly. Now has the Chinese studios – maybe somebody out there wrote the script already – have they said anything to you this year where they said ‘Hey give us a script with sci-fi or action’ or anything like that?
Cristiano Bortone: It’s very hard. This is another challenge I forgot. The challenge of explaining to Chinese executives is that they have a little more creativity. I spoke today with a friend – and this is fascinating. I said ‘I haven’t heard from you where have you been?’ ‘I was in Mumbai.’
‘Mumbai? Why did you go to Mumbai?’
‘Chris you don’t know? We are trying to develop now a film with India. And now it’s the time for India.’
Just because last year there was Dangal so every Chinese is going to India and trying to make another Indian-Chinese movie. So, next year they’ll probably be 300 Indian-Chinese movies.
Caryn McCann: (laughs). You have to be ahead of the market.
Cristiano Bortone: Of course. I said ‘Great. Go to Mumbai on vacation. But don’t do the film in Mumbai. Maybe you want to do the film I don’t know in South America, in Brazil with Samba. Something different.’
Caryn McCann: Or Rome. All roads lead to Rome.
Cristiano Bortone: Or Rome. Rome yes.
Caryn McCann: Now this next question is a little tricky. What question did I not ask you that I should have?
Getting money out of China
Cristiano Bortone: (laughs) So many questions. I don’t know. One question that you didn’t ask me because everybody’s concern is – what’s the best way to get money out of China? Because especially American friends are very interested in this topic. How do we get money out of China?
Caryn McCann: What’s the answer?
Cristiano Bortone: There are three answers. Number one: Sorry if you think the Chinese are stupid and they’re just very rich and wealthy people and you can get a lot of money out of them by fooling them, you’re wrong. Chinese people, 5,000 years as a businessman.
They are very, very clever. Whatever they do, there is to be some kind of interest behind them. It is very complicated to fool them. This means if you have a great movie and they can get benefits from that great. But if you’re trying to sell something cheesy that you cannot sell in the States – then you are going to have a hard time especially now that they learn the lesson.
The Chinese invested, in the beginning, a lot of money in America. By the way, when we think that they lost the money, we don’t know because there are other reasons for a lot of money coming out of China. Maybe some investment, maybe some disguise money whatever that’s also why it stopped. So now they’re more and more cautious. So, it’s all about making them happy, making them rewarded- and this is something tricky.
Need to make money in china
The second answer is to try to strike – this is another answer that I tell everybody especially Europeans now. If you think that they’re going to invest money in your European art-house movie, your movie – the dream of your life – you’re wrong. They will invest money into something that makes money in China. And to tell you the truth, instead of looking sometimes, instead of desperately looking for Chinese money to invest into your movie, I think now the time is coming that you need to invest your money into Chinese movies. So, we want to get a piece of the market where the market which is China. That’s the secret.
So, we need co-production treaties, co-production deals, co-financing deals where we become more courageous and we go and try to set up business in China. And although it’s difficult – try to get apart from a piece of that box because that’s where the market is. Very big numbers. Now some people did it. Some American studios did it. And they are very frustrated sometimes.
But sometimes an independent producer they can do it better if they have patience. Why? Because they’re just smaller and they have more patience and more endurance. So, it’s a big opportunity. Now whether the revenues come out of China – that’s a different issue that still needs to be explored. But I’m very optimistic. I’m very optimistic.
China is becoming not so much anymore the land of copycat, the land of copyright infringement. They are very fearful of lawsuits. It’s becoming a little bit like America because of course the amount of money has increased incredibly. So now we can start being a little more confident and try to be pioneering in this journey which is making good movies for the Chinese market.
Caryn McCann: Well thank you for answering that and giving us that question – how do you get the money out of China. That’s good. Very good. Now the last question is what advice can you give those aspiring to tap into the Chinese market?
Cristiano Bortone: Well I think we already said many things—
Caryn McCann: Just to wrap it up.
Cristiano Bortone: Something that we didn’t say maybe. We said to be patient, to be courageous, be enduring, and one thing we said was don’t stand up from the drinking competition too soon. The one thing also I need to say and this is I always say to the Europeans – we can say the same thing to the Americans you need to be a nerd.
Caryn McCann: A nerd?
Cristiano Bortone: A nerd. You have to study hard. It is not believable and possible that somebody goes one day to read an article, goes one week to the Beijing Film Festival, and pretends to be able to set up a co-production – a film with China. This is not going to happen. You need to study hard. Read every day. You need to get acquainted with and be profoundly knowledgeable about content, people, procedures, and mostly content. And also – very hard for European or maybe an American writer – to come up with a story that works in China.
This is very naïve. ‘Ah, I put up some red lanterns, some kung fu, and then I think this sounds Chinese. I think they would like it.’ That’s not going to work. It is as if a Chinese wants to make an Italian movie – it’s just going to sound ridiculous. So, we’ve been a little more modest.
Caryn McCann: Good point. Good point. Now in conclusion, would you like to share any social media details or website links? How can the audience find you?
Cristiano Bortone: We can go to http://www.bridgingthedragon.com – that’s the association. My personal company if that is interesting I don’t know http://www.orisa.it
Caryn McCann: Of course. Well, Cristiano thank you so much for coming on the show today. I’ve learned a lot and this was really fun.
Cristiano Bortone: Great and I hope this can be beneficial. And I hope your blog grows. Mostly I hope there are more and more connections between us interested in China because the key is creating a net (network).
Caryn McCann: Exactly. Great. Thank you, Cristiano. And we’ll see you at the premiere.
Cristiano Bortone: Thank you.
HOW TO GET MONEY OUT OF CHINA?
As Cristiano said – the Chinese have been doing business deals for 5,000 years and are very clever. They need a reward for their investment. You’ve got to ask yourself – what’s in it for them.
YOUR PROJECT MUST MAKE MONEY IN CHINA
Don’t think your European art-house movie will be a big seller in China. Chinese investors want to make money in their home market.
CONSIDER INVESTING IN CHINESE FILMS
To get a piece of the China market – consider investing in a Chinese film. But as Cristiano mentioned – getting revenue out of China is a different matter. You also have to find trustworthy partners.
LANGUAGE ISN’T THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Cristiano mentioned that a bigger challenge to the language barrier is in dealing with Chinese producers who have financing but no experience. So, what do you do?
FINANCIAL CHALLENGE / TRUSTING PARTNERS
These are big issues. Plus you may be dealing with Chinese producers who 6 months ago may have been manufacturing shoes and not making films. How do you deal with this? As Cristiano said – you need your “A” plan but also “B”, “C”, “D” until “Z” plan as a backup. Things will go wrong and you need to be prepared ahead of time.
DON’T BUY “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE CHINESE AUDIENCE”
Nobody understands the Chinese audience. As Cristiano said – many Chinese producers rely on statics when it comes to picking scripts to produce. “If “Dangal” was a huge hit – then let’s make an Indian-Chinese co-production this year!”This is short-sighted since it could take 2 years to get your film into theaters –by that time – the audiences’ s taste has changed. Better to look at the statistics and buck the trend. Counter-programming. Be different from the pack.
THERE IS ROOM FOR EVERY KIND OF MOVIE
Following on this thought – you can’t copy last month’s successful film. Any film can be successful no matter what genre – if it’s good. Cristiano joked that this is why Chinese films ‘suck’. They chase the market and copy current trends. That doesn’t work. Any genre (not just what was hot last month) can do well if it’s good.
Bridging the Dragon now has a new branch called “Bridging the Dragon Professional Talents” where it hopes to pair talented below-the-line European professionals with the Chinese market. Maybe you can do the same on a small scale. Why not a China-Hollywood mastermind group. If you‘re interested – let’s start one. Contact me on my Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/CHGreenLight/ and let’s see if we can create something.
HOW TO ATTRACT A CHINESE STAR
As Cristiano said – Chinese stars are extremely busy and expensive. How do you compete? Your project must have international appeal otherwise you’re competing with major Chinese studios that have more funding than you. But many (dare I say – most?) Chinese films don’t cross over. You can attract a Chinese star by offering them something most Chinese studios can’t – a global audience.
That’s the show for this week. Thank you again for listening. Please help grow the show by going to iTunes and leave a rating or a review. This will really help spread the word.
And I’ll see you at the premiere. Bye! 再见！(Yī huǐ jiàn)
China Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode # 015
Host: Caryn McCann