Cannes 2023 Recap Part Two: China’s Return, Saudi Funding, South Asian Diaspora Dynamics
Part Two of Streamlined’s Cannes 2023 recap looks at China’s return to international markets, funding for arthouse content in the Middle East and the growing power of the South Asian diaspora audience in the US and Canada.
4. China Is Back..Sort Of
One territory that wasn’t buying for either theatrical or streaming at this year’s Cannes, but then was never really expected to, is the latest returnee to the international party – mainland China. Tough censorship and a slowly recovering and domestically focused box office was always going to keep Chinese buyers cautious, even if this was their first in-person Cannes market for three years. A few deals trickled through – China’s Hugoeast bought French drama Ama Gloria, which premiered as the opening film of Critics Week, and BlueMedia Times took Korean drama Next Sohee, which closed Critics Week last year.
But while Chinese distributors are travelling again and testing the waters, they’re not yet acquiring films in a big way. In the Cannes Marche’s Spotlight Asia panel, European sales agents talked about how they’ve found Chinese companies are interested in renewing deals for titles that have already been licensed, rather than buying new films.
China is also slowly returning to Cannes as a seller and while some big Chinese studios (Huayi Brothers, Wanda Media) didn’t make the trip, Distribution Workshop was back selling Bona Film Group titles, including Jackie Chan action adventure A Legend. Meanwhile, China’s arthouse distributors were also out in force, including Rediance, which was doing a roaring trade on Anthony Chen’s Un Certain Regard title The Breaking Ice (see links below), and Parallax Films, which was closing deals on Qiao Sixue’s The Cord Of Life, produced by Cao Yu and Yao Chen’s Bad Rabbit Pictures.
Speakers at Bridging The Dragon’s annual Cannes event said that China is open for collaboration and box office is starting to recover, but local producers are more narrowly focused than ever on comedies and patriotic blockbusters. Surely all the more need for some international input and diversity to liven up the market?
5. The Money Is In The Middle East
Saudi Arabia was practically spraying money at the international film industry during this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In addition to Red Sea Film Foundation’s backing of opening film Jeanne du Barry, along with several Arabic-language titles screening in official selection at the festival, Saudi’s Cultural Development Fund announced an investment programme with a budget of $80m and a separate film fund worth $100m. Saudi’s Ithra Film Production also announced the launch of a fund. Details of these new initiatives remain scant but there’s no doubt the money is there to follow through. Meanwhile, Saudi’s 40% cash rebate for productions that shoot in the Kingdom, and use its crew and talent, is already getting a thorough workout from US and European films.
Saudi was also making a noise at Cannes last year, and without going into the politics or being cynical about the new dumb money on the block (which Streamlined has touched on previously), I’m focusing for now on how this finance is helping to get Arab and African independent films made. Red Sea International Film Festival and its various funding programmes were involved in Competition titles Four Daughters, from Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania, and Banel & Adama, from Senegalese filmmaker Ramata-Toulaye Sy; Critics Week title Inshallah A Boy, which won the Gan Foundation Award for Distribution; and Un Certain Regard winners Hounds, The Mother Of All Lies, Goodbye Julia and Omen.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Dubai and Abu Dhabi ended their funding programmes some time ago, but Qatar’s Doha Film Institute (DFI) has also become a major funder of indie arthouse content both in the region, and much farther beyond. DFI was involved in financing Cannes-selected titles About Dry Grasses, Club Zero, Serbia’s Lost Country, Malaysia’s Tiger Stripes and Mongolia’s If Only I Could Hibernate. Cannes titles backed by DFI from the Middle East and Africa included Banel & Adama, Inshallah A Boy, Hounds, The Mother Of All Lies, I Promise You Paradise, Deserts and Omar La Fraise.
While representation of Arab and African cinema is increasing in Cannes, it’s difficult to imagine that happening without Saudi and Qatar. And some of the filmmakers I spoke to from Asia’s smaller film-producing nations, in particular Malaysia and Mongolia, described the DFI as an essential piece of the funding jigsaw puzzle.
6. South Asian Diaspora Dynamics
At the Cannes Investors Circle, a new initiative launched by Cannes Marche, Brazil-born media consultant Elisa Alvares observed that the Latino audience in the US has a gross domestic product (GDP) bigger than Canada’s and several times the size of Latin America. At the same time, talent from East Asia in English-language films and series has become a thing thanks to New York-based A24. And while content such as Everything Everywhere All At Once, Past Lives and Beef is aiming for an audience far wider than Korean Americans or Chinese Americans, support from those communities in North America surely helps.
Now may be the time to consider the potential of the South Asian audience in the US and Canada, one of the highest spending consumer segments on the continent. Long renowned as a big market for Bollywood, Tollywood and other mainstream Indian films, South Asians in North America have traditionally been regarded as conservative and not interested in indie or arthouse fare from India, Pakistan or any other South Asian countries. But their kids are all grown up now and much less concerned about geographical, political, religious and/or sexual borders.
There’s also a new generation of young producers working across North America and South Asia, including Apoorva Charan, whose credits include last year’s Pakistani Un Certain Regard Jury Prize Winner Joyland; Shant Joshi, who exec produced this year’s Pakistani Directors Fortnight title In Flames; and Apoorva Bakshi, who is producing a slate of Indian and Pakistani films and series, including animated feature The Glassworker.
India had two features in Cannes selection this year – Anurag Kashyap’s corrupt cop thriller Kennedy screened Out Of Competition and Kanu Behl’s Agra, an intense study of sexual repression in India’s crowded urban spaces, premiered in Directors Fortnight. The two films were backed by Zee Studios and Saregama Films respectively, two supporters of festival-friendly films, but with the country’s current censorship issues, there are times when it feels like hardly anyone is taking a risk on ground-breaking content in India.
So that’s where producers with a foot in both North America and South Asia might come in handy. Less encumbered by the political and censorship roadblocks of India and Pakistan, they may stand a better chance of reaching this evolving North American diaspora and an international audience. Their efforts are also being supported through promotional initiatives such as South Asian House at North American film festivals SXSW and Tribeca, and cultural collective Product Of Culture, which co-organised a panel on South Asian cinema going global in Cannes. As speakers including Kashyap, Joshi and In Flames director Zarrar Kahn observed on the Cannes panel, the South Asian diaspora could be a space to watch.
And that’s all for this edition of Streamlined. Now Cannes is well and truly over, this is the last newsletter until the autumn festival season fires up in August. As always, a huge thanks to Streamlined’s subscribers and all the people who shared their thoughts, insights and screening links to make this newsletter possible.
CANNES SALES DEALS IN THE TRADES:
Below is a recap of sales announcements reported by the trades in Cannes for content originating in regions outside of the Americas and Europe (in alphabetical order). It’s by no means a comprehensive list as not all sales deals are reported and the trades have a limited number of foot soldiers focusing on these regions. Hopefully one day we’ll see their numbers increase..
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