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Still from "The Sorcerer and the White Snake" starring Jet Li and Shengyi Huang.

Telefilm Canada and the Whistler Film Festival Society (WFFS) are establishing a coproduction initiative with the state-run China Film Group that would see Canadian and Chinese filmmakers collaborate on projects for at least the next three years. While, to start, the deal would lead to only a handful of films, WFFS officials behind it say this is an important step in improving ties with the lucrative Chinese market at a time when Western filmmakers are looking east for opportunities.

"The whole world wants to do business with China," says Jane Milner, director of WFFS's China Canada Gateway for Film.

Details of the China Canada Script Competition have yet to be fully worked out – and China Film Group has not yet finalized the deal? – but a call for submissions is expected mid-year in 2012. The plan in discussion would see China Film Group send about three production companies or studios to the Whistler Film Festival's industry summit starting next year, to hear pitches from about 12 Canadian screenwriter/producer teams. The Chinese studios would then choose scripts they would like to develop. Development money and other resources would follow. Ultimately, the hope is that the films would be released both in China and internationally.

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"This is going to be a generalization, but there isn't a film festival on the planet that doesn't have some programming around China," says Milner, who is also director of development for the WFSS. "They'll have receptions where you can network or they'll have a panel, or they might have a screening or two. Certainly we're doing all of that as well, but the big difference for us is we're not just having a glass of wine. We're creating a platform from which producers can make real deals, can actually end up making a film, a Canada-China coproduction."

The China Canada Gateway project would see the Chinese get exposure to Canadian filmmaking expertise – screenwriting, visual effects and post-production in particular. Canadians, meanwhile, would get their films made (Milner foresees budgets of around $5-million at this point) – and gain access to the huge Chinese market which currently allows only about 20 foreign films into its theatres each year (the World Trade Organization has ruled that the quota be dropped).

"The Chinese market has been growing rapidly, lots of capital is flowing and everyone is looking for good projects," Tiger Hu told The Globe and Mail through an interpreter. A Chinese filmmaker who splits his time between Beijing and Richmond, B.C., Hu was executive producer on the Canada-China co-production Iron Road and works closely with China Film Group. He is helping to design the competition.

China's film industry is booming in terms of film production, box-office revenue (up almost 65 per cent last year to $1.5 billion) and even theatre construction. There are predictions China's box office will surpass that of the U.S. in the next decade. Big Hollywood players such as Legendary Pictures and Relativity Media (and, according to reports, DreamWorks) are establishing partnerships with China.

Canada, exploring opportunities with growing economies in the East, wants in too. Canada already has a coproduction treaty for film in place with China, but there's a feeling that much could come out of increased co-ventures (whether they fall within the bounds of the treaty or not). Canada has traditionally looked south for service industry opportunities and to Europe for co-production initiatives, but the East now beckons. The Ontario Media Development Corporation recently sent a delegation to India to shore up ties between the two industries, and some filmmakers see huge opportunities in China.

"China will become in five to 10 years the largest single source of financing for independent films in the world," predicts Harry Sutherland, a member of WFFS's board and co-founder of Ilustrato Pictures, which is on the verge of closing a number of deals with Chinese partners.

Sutherland, chair of the China Canada Gateway for Film, has been instrumental in negotiating the initiative. The Vancouver-based filmmaker has been travelling to China for six years, cultivating relationships.

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"It's a very, very, very difficult world to get into, China," Sutherland said at the WFFS this week.

But also, he believes, very, very important. "As the focus shifts, as the amount of actual business and film business done ... in China grows anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent a year, the opportunity is huge. And I think people are starting to see that it's much more important for us to focus on Asia [than the West]and I think that focus is happening on a business level, it's happening at a government level, and at Whistler next year it'll start happening on a filmmaking level."

Last spring, Sutherland met several times with Telefilm executive director Carolle Brabant about WFFS's China Canada Gateway proposal. "It's a very interesting project," Brabant said in Whistler this week. "We like to see initiative from the private sector."

Telefilm came on board as a founding sponsor and provided $25,000 seed money, enough to send Milner and Sutherland to Beijing in August. Things went well enough that China Film Group agreed to send a representative to Whistler this week. They spent Saturday behind closed doors talking and on Sunday, at the festival's closing awards brunch, the efforts were made public.

Of course, making art with (and for) China is fraught and some filmmakers may see this as making a deal with the devil. But Milner dismissed concerns around censorship.

"They're not looking for political commentary. They're looking for love stories and action flicks. They're looking for genre stuff. And they're looking for box office. They're trying to grow a successful business. They're not looking for deep cultural statements."

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They're also looking to improe the quality of their films.

"There is some concern or even anxiety within the Chinese film industry that China is kind of punching below its weight," says Christopher Rea, assistant professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. "[The thinking is:]We have a lot of this human capital – directors, actors, a long acting tradition. Why aren't our films more popular globally? Or even domestically?"

"The Chinese are driven by [their desire for]access to the international market," says Milner. "They want to be the best in the world. They want to be better at Hollywood than Hollywood is."

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