Australia reels in China movie industry

Jackie Chan and Ouyang Nana promoting Bleeding Steel, a Chinese- Australian production partly shot at the Sydney Opera House last year. China is among 12 countries to have co-production agreements with Australia. 
Jackie Chan and Ouyang Nana promoting Bleeding Steel, a Chinese- Australian production partly shot at the Sydney Opera House last year. China is among 12 countries to have co-production agreements with Australia. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Last August, workers and tourists in Sydney's city centre were surprised to see film star Jackie Chan climbing up the Opera House before launching into hand-to-hand combat with a woman armed with a knife in each hand.

The dramatic scene was being shot for Bleeding Steel, billed as the most expensive Chinese movie to be filmed in Australia.

The futuristic thriller, a Chinese- Australian production, was filmed in Sydney for 32 days, Taiwan for 40 days and Beijing for 41 days. It was co-produced by China's Heyi Pictures, which is part of Alibaba, the online sales firm, and by Village Roadshow Pictures Asia. The film came amid a growing push by Australia to attract mainland productions as China's box office booms.

China allows only 34 foreign films to be released domestically each year. The quota, which aims to limit external cultural influence and protect the local film industry, has prompted a growing number of Chinese movies to be shot overseas to satisfy demand for foreign-based movies. Co-produced movies can avoid the official quota but must have elements such as Chinese characters or locations and must gain approval from China's censors.

The head of screen business at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, Mr David Court, said Australian producers were increasingly focusing on China.

"There are a lot of producers who want to engage with China," he told The Straits Times. "All the signs are good. We have an industry that is very used to working with foreign crews and producers."

Besides the Jackie Chan movie, a gangster film set in 1930s Shanghai called Dogfight was partly shot last year in Victoria state. Eighty-one Chinese crew members were flown in for the 30 days of shooting.

Then there was Nest, a Chinese- Australian science-fiction 3D movie shot in Queensland. The film, about a group of scientists attacked by man-eating funnel-web spiders, brought about A$10 million (S$10.8 million) to the local economy.

China is among only 12 countries to have co-production agreements with Australia. The others include Singapore, Britain, France and South Korea. The deals allow films to be recognised as co-productions, which means they attract advantages such as government subsidies and tax rebates in both nations.

The tax rebates offset the total production costs for films made in Australia or with significant Australian content.

The Australian producer of Bleeding Steel, Mr Paul Currie, said government rebates, the closeness to China, local technical skills and availability of interpreters make Australia an attractive location for Chinese filmmakers.

"The Chinese audience is saying, 'OK, we've seen all that before, what are some fresh, new locations?' and that's fabulous for Australia," he told The Australian Financial Review earlier this month.

Australia has a long history of offering rebates to attract foreign producers. A 16.5 per cent rebate is available for big-budget foreign productions but this can be increased on an ad hoc basis for specific films. The rebates go to films with budgets higher than A$15 million. Extra incentives have been used to attract blockbusters such as films from the Star Wars, Avengers and Pirates Of The Caribbean series.

Despite the growing interest, industry experts note that other countries have been joining the rush to cash in on the Chinese film boom.

Mr Mario Andreacchio, who directed the first official Australian- Chinese co-production in 2011, The Dragon Pearl, said the window for co-productions with China "is closing fast because there is startlingly so much increasing competition".

"Not only from the countries banging much harder than we are on the China door, but also from the increasing number of quality movies from the Chinese filmmakers themselves," he told Australia's Screen Blog website last year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Australia reels in China movie industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe