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Beijing-based distribution outfit Road Pictures shook up the booming Chinese market over the past two years by finding major box office success with foreign art house movies, despite the enduring domination of Chinese blockbusters and Hollywood flicks in the territory. The company followed up the success of releasing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters ($14.1 million gross) by propelling Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated Capernaum to a stunning $54M in China last year, a result that dwarfed numbers in every other territory.
The company was looking to build on that success with a 2020 slate featuring Noah Baumbach’s Netflix movie Marriage Story, which had been due for release in China on February 28 but was paused because of coronavirus, as well as Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, Marco Bellocchio’s The Traitor, and Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life.
We caught up with Road Pictures founder Cai Gongming to get a sense of the mood on the ground in China. Our first conversation took place just after China had tentatively reopened some 500 cinemas as the spread of the virus had begun to be controled, and then we spoke again after Deadline broke the news that the government had abruptly re-shut all theaters. Before the re-shuttering, the industry plan was to rerelease classic titles to help attract audiences back to cinemas as they opened their doors, including Road Pictures’ Capernaum.
DEADLINE: Tell us about your personal experience during the coronavirus.
CAI GONGMING: Cinemas in China have been shut since the outbreak of the coronavirus at the end of January, there haven’t been any releases since then. Our film Marriage Story was originally planned to be released on February 28 but we had to cancel; a new release date hasn’t been set yet. Since the coronavirus epidemic seemed to be under better control, theaters were planning to re-open over the coming weeks — some had already re-opened in areas that are less impacted by the epidemic. We thought everything was re-opening, and the virus was contained, and we would gradually step by step return to normal life.
DEADLINE: And then cinemas re-shut abruptly across the country, on orders from the national film bureau, after local authorities had begun to say they could re-open. What is the latest message from the government?
GONGMING: The president of China gave a speech in which he said that, to keep the virus contained, we have to continue to fight it. He said there cannot be social gatherings, and if people want to watch movies they have to do that online.
DEADLINE: And there’s no time frame for re-opening?
GONGMING: No. This was an announcement for areas like cinemas and sport events, they have to remain closed. We have to continue fighting the virus with strong measures.
DEADLINE: Are they still planning the releases of classic titles when cinemas re-open?
GONGMING: The plan was to show classic movies with the re-opening of cinemas, our film Capernaum was selected by the regulation office. It was uncertain how many Chinese audiences would come to theaters to watch these films in the first weeks due to the concerns over the virus. But now the re-opening has stopped, this plan is not valid anymore. I can imagine they might move to do an online thing.
DEADLINE: It’s a period of great uncertainty.
GONGMING: The development of the Chinese film industry and film market in the next months or this year is still uncertain. This uncertainty will make the lives of the distributors, production companies and exhibitors very difficult because of the pilling up of old unreleased films on one side, and the lack of new films on the other.
DEADLINE: What’s happening with your slate?
GONGMING: As well as Marriage Story, we have Japanese animation Hello World, A Hidden Life, The Traitor, and Pain and Glory. But we don’t know when we can release these films. We have also acquired some new films for this year, and for next year. We will reveal the titles at an appropriate time.
DEADLINE: You’ve told me you were searching for new channels of distribution, potentially online. Any update on that?
GONGMING: We’re in discussions. There will be more updates in the coming weeks.
DEADLINE: You’ve established a strong library of titles. Have you been able to do sales on those films to streamers at this time, and has that helped the company survive?
GONGMING: Yes, we have a good library of films we bought in the past. That’s why we don’t need so much cashflow. The streamers need more content. We don’t know when cinemas will be re-opened, so generally I think there will be a trend of people watching more movies online, and more movies going directly online. What happens after the virus is contained and the cinemas are open, whether we see that trend continue, that nobody knows.
DEADLINE: How many employees do you have and is the company under threat at all?
GONGMING: We have more than 50 employees. I think we will be able to get through this virus, but it also depends what the industry does worldwide. I think we will change a lot but I think we are in a good place to survive. It is also difficult for us, we are fighting to find new ways to do business. We have to adjust to the situation. There are no guarantees.
DEADLINE: Any update on when production might restart in China?
GONGMING: A few productions are happening now, but more in preparation phases. I think people are using this time to develop new content. Shooting TV will happen sooner than film, I think.
DEADLINE: You attended Berlin Film Festival back in February despite a large amount of the Asian delegation dropping out. What was that experience like for you?
GONGMING: We were one of the very few Chinese companies who attended Berlin. I felt like I was the flag holder of the whole Chinese film industry. But I was happy to share my insights into the situation of the film business in China with colleagues from other countries.
DEADLINE: How big a blow is it that Cannes has been postponed? You distributed Shoplifters and Capernaum after those films premiered in Cannes, presumably it’s an important event for you?
GONGMING: Cannes is a key event for Road Pictures. The postponement of Cannes will definitely have a big impact on our business this year and next year. We believe that we could still acquire films that could potentially be selected by and play at Cannes. But whether it can be in the official competition, or even win an award, is very essential for the success of China release. So we hope that Cannes can overcome various difficulties and still happen this year. Whether Venice or Toronto can happen as planned is in question.