It's not your typical Australia-China business collaboration, with no iron ore, gourmet food products or health supplements in sight, but an initiative coming out of Perth promises just as deep an economic connection, and an even closer cultural link.
Perth-based digital media production house Legend Media Group is launching a brace of four Chinese-Australian feature-length films, to tap into exponential growth occurring in China’s movie industry.
Chinese box office takings overtook those of the United States for the first time in the first three months of 2018, with $US3.17 billion ($4.28 billion) of sales, compared with $US2.85 billion in the US, according to a report by HSBC Global Research.
HSBC said China had more than 44,000 cinema screens, more than any other country, with developers rolling out an average of 27 new screens each day to cater for the deluge of demand from Chinese filmgoers.
However, international opportunities to capitalise on China’s cinema boom are few and far between, with the industry strictly regulated to protect local production.
Since 1994, a quota has limited the number of overseas films that can be screened at Chinese cinemas, beginning at 10 per year, increasing to 34 per year in 2012.
To bypass the quota, Legend Media, which features prominent Western Australian mining executive Bronwyn Barnes as its chairperson, is pursuing its film projects under a co-production framework.
Joining Ms Barnes at Legend are Yu-Hsiu Camille Chen, writer and director of the 2010 film Little Sparrows, and Darren Cooper, a property industry stalwart who was elected in December as national president of the Urban Development Institute of Australia.
“The idea is, once you’ve delivered a project under the joint venture framework, then it is considered to be both made in China and made in Australia,” Ms Chen said.
“That allows us to also access government subsidies and support in Australia – the Australian government actually set this all up 10 years ago.”
Ms Chen told Australia China Business Review Legend Media’s films would be shot in both WA and in China, in English and in Mandarin, depending on the setting.
“Yes, we are making movies, but really we are in the export market,” Ms Chen said.
“We are exporting our ideas, so the fundamental difference between exporting resources to China versus exporting intellectual property is it requires a deeper understanding of the end users, of our target audience, and that’s ultimately the difference that Legend offers.
“We know how important China is. Most of the focus has been on resources, but when we look at China it is quite important to know where the business opportunities are.
“I always see the buzzword – the emerging middle class – this really is the driver behind all of the Chinese consumption and so on and so forth.
“What most people overlook is not only the emerging middle class, who are hot on travelling, quality produce or aspiring for a foreign lifestyle, part of it is actually consumption of entertainment.”
Ms Chen said she believed there had been a misalignment of drivers over the past decade, with just seven co-production projects launched between Chinese and Australian film producers, and only four making it to market.
“In order for the story to work in China, it needs to appeal more greatly to the Chinese audience,” she said.
“So that is the misalignment. Our concept is very simple – first of all we are targeting a female audience, because women are driving cinema visitation.
“Secondly, we are targeting a mature audience because they are quality driven, and also they have time and money.
“On top of that, we are overlaying it with strong Chinese cultural elements, so we think we’ll hit the sweet spot.”
Co-production also allowed the film projects to come under the auspices of China’s wide-ranging Belt and Road Initiative, Ms Chen said.
“Other than resources and infrastructure, the last focus of Belt and Road is deepening social and cultural exchange,” she said.
“To be absolutely frank, Australia has officially missed out on all of the other Belt and Road opportunities, except the culture piece and that’s exactly where Legend comes in.
“The key is not only you need to get content right, you also need to get your political alignment right, and this is not the strongest suit of most filmmakers.”
Legend Media’s first project – Flow – is expected to go into production in March and take about 12 months before it is released.
Mr Cooper said discussions were continuing with several Chinese co-production partners, with the most advanced talks under way with state-owned Shandong Film Productions Co.
“We are fortunate to be in the position where we have the capacity to fund it ourselves, so we are approaching this first and foremost as a commercial venture.
“The reason we need government support is not for funding, it’s for endorsement, because that carries so much weight in China.”
Mr Cooper said government support in Australia had come in the form of the City of Joondalup, which introduced Legend Media to local government authorities in its sister city Jinan in Shandong Province, where the Chinese production of Flow will take place.
“One of the key things about the project is we are linking two sister cities in Joondalup and Jinan,” Mr Cooper said.
“With each of these movies, there is a fair amount of content that’s going to be shot here and a fair amount that’s going to be shot in China.
“Flow is centred on Perth’s northern beaches, so the City of Joondalup and Edith Cowan University have been great supporters.”
Both Mr Cooper and Ms Chen believe the films will not only produce a commercial return for Legend Media, but also provide flow-on effects, particularly in the WA and Shandong tourism industries.
“It’s marketing, it’s PR, and the fact is, WA is not known to the Chinese middle class.
“The knowledge is minimal, so how do you compete in the market when people don’t even know you exist?
“That’s the reality, but once you have a film, WA is going to be widely circulated and promoted.
“The idea that WA is China-friendly and China-ready is really important.
“The same thing applies to us as a WA entertainment and media company, we are China-ready and China-friendly.”