Trade mission debrief: coproducing with China

Producers returning from Canadian Heritage's recent mission touted the vast opportunities for collaboration, but highlighted the urgent need for a TV copro treaty.
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The market opportunities for Canadian film and TV producers in China have often been seen as more theoretical than realistic, say delegates on Canadian Heritage’s recent cultural industries trade mission. That, though, might be starting to change.

Last week, a group of 60 Canadian companies (including White Pine Pictures, Ballinran Entertainment, Breakthrough Entertainment, Item 7, eOne, Portfolio Entertainment and Rare Earth Media) took part in the trip, which resulted in $125 million in deal-making and facilitated numerous partnerships.

During the five-day trip, companies could organize meetings through the embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai, in addition to setting up meetings independently. They were also briefed on the broader scope of cultural policy in China, which has in recent years sought to implement a new cultural strategy that places more of a focus on developing homegrown IP.

For White Pine president Peter Raymont, the main takeaway from the trip was Chinese companies’ willingness to co-create IP. “Despite what one hears about the tightening up of censorship and restrictions in China, which are real, there’s also a real interest among these [Chinese] independent production companies in international collaboration,” he told Playback Daily.

During the trip, White Pine and Stratford, ON-based Ballinran Entertainment signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with China’s CTV Golden Bridge International Media Group to jointly develop a slate of documentary projects, including a doc on the creation of Cirque du Soleil’s upcoming show.

Raymont said that, due in part to lower labour costs in China, production partners in the country would in most cases not be able to match the levels of Canadian investment on any given project. “Still, if the money they’re putting into a production is a quarter or a third of the total production budget, that’s significant,” he said.

“As it gets harder and harder to raise money for docs in Canada, production companies like mine have to be nimble enough to find other markets for our work,” he noted, adding that the vastness of the Chinese audience is an attractive proposition for Canadian producers. “Tens of millions of people will watch a single documentary in China – it’s another scale altogether.”

In terms of making connections, Portfolio CEO and co-founder Joy Rosen said the mission gave producers an all-important foot in the door in a market that can be difficult to penetrate, with Chinese and Canadian government officials working to facilitate meetings between companies on both sides.

“In most territories in the world, you don’t really rely on your consulate because you can make your own business-to-business connections. But in a country like China, where sometimes it’s hard to even know where to start, they were terrific at helping us get connected with hard-to-find buyers and producers,” said Rosen.

While Portfolio didn’t put pen to paper on any new deals (the company has previously sold properties such as The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! and Doki to the Chinese company iQiYi‘s VOD service), the opportunity to meet with producers and distributors enabled the Toronto company to “make great movement” in finalizing a number of future sales, said Rosen.

“Doing business in China, like in any other territory, is a business of relationships. Anyone who does business there needs to immerse themselves in that market – what their priorities are and what their challenges are. There’s tremendous opportunity if you have the right relationships,” Rosen said, adding that she plans to return later in the year to further strengthen those burgeoning ties.

And while all the producers interviewed for this story touted the synergies and collaborative opportunities in China, one piece is still missing: a Canada/China treaty coproduction for television.

While the copro agreement for film came into effect last year, the TV equivalent expired around a decade ago and has not since been renewed. A new copro treaty for TV is in the works, though nothing has been officially announced as yet and no timelines have been given on when such an agreement might be unveiled.

“It’s absolutely crucial that a TV coproduction agreement comes into effect in the next 12 months,” said Ira Levy, partner, Breakthrough Entertainment, which inked an MOU with China’s Hengxin Shambala Culture Co and New Zealand’s Pukeko Pictures for an animation series based on the book Hungry Bears. The 52-episode project is currently in the final phases of financing, with a Canadian broadcaster set to be announced in the coming months and production to begin shortly after. Levy said that due to the structure of this project, it was able to move forward without a TV coproduction treaty being in place. The time is now though, he noted, to build on the growing partnership between the two countries.

“With the momentum that’s there right now, in terms of partnerships with China, the [coproduction treaty for TV] will help to accelerate that exponentially. It will really help solidify that relationship that we’ve already established,” he said.

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