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Fundamental Films’ Mark Gao Talks New Strategy For Buying, Producing & Co-Productions: “China Market Is Just Looking For Something New”

EXCLUSIVE: Fundamental Films chairman Mark Gao and his CEO Ivy Hua are in Cannes to reconnect with the international industry as part of the Shanghai-based company’s return to international acquisitions and production.

One of the biggest and longest-established Chinese buyers before the pandemic, Fundamental is also an investor in Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp and has a long-standing output deal to release the French studio’s films in China – it will soon release Weekend In Taipei, directed by George Huang and starring Luke Evans and Gwei Lun-mei. It also was also recently signed by UTA for representation across production, distribution and investment opportunities.

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Chinese buyers have been a rare sight on the Croisette in recent years, a consequence of travel restrictions during the pandemic and a slowdown in censorship approvals, but now the borders are wide open, and Gao thinks the time is right to step back into the international market.

“We’re really thinking about where we can find something new and different – our market was starting to change even before the pandemic,” Gao tells Deadline. “The Chinese audience is really young and very much influenced by social media. They just want to see something completely new and that they consider cool.”

China’s box office is on track to be bigger than North America this year and local films have been pulling in blockbuster business. But while a slew of Hollywood and independent titles has been released over the past year, very little has clicked. When asked if Chinese audiences have lost interest in foreign films, Gao says the problem is more likely to be with the films, rather than the audience.

“I really believe that if you have a strong story and back it up with good marketing – the audience will be interested,” Gao says. “Young Chinese audiences are online all the time and can find out about everything. They won’t go to the theatre to see something they feel they’ve seen before.”

Gao adds that this new generation isn’t familiar with many of the stars that used to drive the international film market, pointing out that the biggest audience segment attending cinemas now were only pre-teens at the beginning of the pandemic. “If you mention this or that big actor to them, they have no clue.”

At the same time, Chinese movies have hugely improved their production standards over the past few years, with seven films so far this year grossing more than $100m. While Gao believes there’s room for both local and international films in the massive China market, he also wants to get more involved in production of Chinese films and bringing those stories to the world.

International co-production is another focus for the company – Fundamental co-produced several films with EuropaCorp including The Transporter series and Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets – and is looking to restart that business.

“If you look at EuropaCorp – it’s a very French company, but they figured out how to make films for international audiences,” says Gao. “When Fundamental invested in EuropaCorp we were thinking the next step would be to have a similar production model out of China. We’re a very Chinese company but we can also introduce Chinese stories and culture to the world.”

Hua elaborates that there are no restrictions on the the kind of movies that Fundamental wants to produce, acquire or invest in – but they’re looking for strong, commercial titles rather than arthouse fare.

On the production side, the company is already quite far advanced on developing a slate of feature-length projects. “We’re working on stories with a Chinese background and elements – we want ensure that Chinese culture is well delivered and represented,” she explains. “There are lots of great Chinese movies that are consumed by local Chinese audiences but they’re not travelling, and we want to find the best way to introduce them to international audiences.”

UTA’s partnership with Fundamental involves providing strategic support in expanding its activities across film production and distribution, as well as identifying global IP, new business and technology investment opportunities.

Gao says he’s keen to learn more about AI and other new technologies impacting the film business, and through Fundamental’s private equity arm, has already invested in a few Chinese start-ups using new technology to improve marketing strategies: “We just want to make sure we understand how technology is transforming our industry. Most of the tech investments we make support our core film business in some way.”

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