Currently, the number of annual production of Chinese films has reached about 1,000. About 10% of them – that is, nearly 100 films – have been filmed for children, including live-action children’s films and animation films. The production of Chinese films has been developing rapidly for over ten years, but there are not many children’s films for audiences to see. Now, there are 250 million adolescent audiences in China. They need more excellent children’s films. From April 13 to 14, 2019, the “2019 China-Netherlands Children’s Film Industry Exchange Activities”, co-hosted by the China Children’s Film Association, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in China and the Netherlands Film Fund, was successfully held, during which more than 100 filmmakers from China and Netherlands jointly discussed the making and co-production of children’s films. Filmmakers of the two countries have fully exchanged their experience in creating and marketing children’s films. According to the different cultures and national conditions of the two countries, they have conducted in-depth discussions on the co-production of children’s films.
Production Experience and Co-production Outlook for the Children’s Films of the Netherlands
Ms. Doreen Boonekamp – CEO of Netherlands Film Fund
In our opinion, the quality and content of children’s films is a topic worth discussing. I fully agree with my Chinese colleagues that we should share our knowledge of film production and work together to find ways to cooperate and produce children’s films. The history of children’s films production in the Netherlands is very long, and we have been working hard to produce good quality children’s films. Based on the same goal, we should discuss what is good for children and what is popular with children. We also need to be clearly aware that pragmatic goals, including long-term goals and vision goals, should be set to achieve these goals through major milestones.
First of all, I would like to introduce the overall situation of the Netherlands. The Netherlands Film Fund has a long history of supporting children’s films production. These figures will be very small compared with those of China. But our country has a population of only 17 million people. 25% of the films we have produced are children’s films, accounting for 50% of films screened by cinema lines. We want to provide children with various types of films, not only live-action films, but also art films, which are different from those shown in traditional cinemas. We have also launched animation, simulation, live-action and other different types of children’s films.
Why do we attach great importance to children’s films? Because we think it is very important to tell children the story of the Netherlands and only children and family films can inherit our traditions extensively. We see a lot of good films in our daily lives, and we have been promoting tradition (we have been promoting the development of children and family films since the 1990s). We have helped the industry train a lot of experts to ensure they can produce excellent films. Our films have different series of themes and we have produced a number of serial films. The topics we are discussing are quite varied. Such films involve all aspects of the themes, which is different from the entertainment films they often watch. Not only this type of film but also animated films are beginning to emerge and can be mixed. For example, the film MY GIRAFFE is of a mix-and-match type and many films use different techniques.
The Netherlands Film Fund (NFF) is a national foundation. The Government of the Netherlands has provided it with a budget to stimulate the production of children’s films. Notably, the government has provided funds for the foundation in development, script-writing, pre-production and production processes. Different from private funds, government funds will provide funds to attract the market and more companies to participate in the investment. In many European countries, such as the Netherlands, there is no difference in the budgets between general films and children’s films. The NFF aims to invest and budget for a script. We are very fortunate to have government support. Since our domestic market is relatively small, if we want to consider funds for development, we must first write scripts. If we have a good script, it is easy to secure the investment, and vice versa. I think this is very important. For private investors, they may have different considerations. For instance, this is an innovative investment, an investment for the future audience. For such investors, economic returns may be the focus of their consideration. If you want to get profit from it, you need a different perspective and you need a variety of platforms, such as TV and so on.
There are some policy themes that have also started since the 1990s. They are mainly films adapted from literary works. We need some high-quality original content, so we need special professionals to support the development of these content films. Just let the playwrights and producers work with the NFF to produce high-quality children’s films. On this basis, we have gotten better performance in cinemas and also we can participate in more international film festivals and perform better. We have participated in fabulous activities, in which Dutch films also performed well. Recently, Dutch films have even been awarded with prizes. Serial film themes have slowly begun to enter the international market, receiving more and more attention and recognition.
First of all, we should pay attention to the content of our own country. Last year, we began to integrate with the international market to gain more international popularity, especially in children’s films. We hope to further develop in the international arena, and we are also exploring the possibility of further cooperation with China. As a member of the film industry, we are constantly propelling the development of children’s films. 90% of the film funds are for Dutch-related content, and 10% are for international content. Our script content and production are of high quality. We hope to get more support from the international production field and be able to further promote the film development of the Netherlands. We hope that we can promote the development of international children’s films and better integrate talents at home and abroad.
We have seen the importance of international co-production. In view of the achievements we have made recently, we have started to promote more cooperative projects with Children’s Film Festival and other relevant institutions to better promote the development of the content of children’s films, especially the development of documentaries. We also hope that these films can reach more audiences. In addition to the above projects, we have many new projects, which will always be co-produced internationally.
In 2017, the box office revenue of children’s films in the Netherlands was USD 270 million, with a market share of 11.2%. In the past, the market share was a little higher. Currently we have been faced with some pressure in terms of box office revenue for two reasons: More and more films have been shown in cinemas and the competition among children’s films has been very fierce. In the Dutch film market, children’s films, accounting for about 25%, have a good foundation. There are many audiences, about 50% of whom will go to the cinema to see such films. Our policy for children’s family films is price reduction. For a family to see a film, they all have to pay for tickets. Lowering ticket prices is also an incentive to attract more families to go to cinema to see films. Since our number is relatively small, it fails to represent half of the box office revenue.
The co-production of China and the Netherlands will certainly promote the exchange of experience between each other. Both of us have our own advantages and strength, which is conducive to the production of children’s films, the improvement of film quality and the promotion of cooperation between the two sides. One of the purposes of co-operation is to win more funds. Win-win alliances can help us attract more talents and funds. We hope to establish a co-production framework, including the selection of actors, editing, production, etc., and there are already very well-established professional teams in the European market. Through our cooperation, we can explore more possibilities in terms of creation, which is one of our goals.
The Market and Creation of Chinese Children’s Films
Mr. Xu Jianhai, Manager of China Film Co., Ltd., Production Branch
China Film Co., Ltd. has multiple children’s films created and filmed every year. In 2019, we will release no fewer than three films, and next month we will have a film on the big screen to meet the audiences.
What exactly are children’s films? This issue has been debated in China for a long time, and there is no exact definition today. Personally, I think under the name children’s films, there are at least three meanings. First, the films with children as the protagonists but the audiences may not be necessarily children. Second, films that children like to see are the ones with children as the main audience. In such films, the protagonists are not necessarily children. Third, for films with children or children’s favorite animals as protagonists, we call them “family reunion” films, or “small hand holding big hand” films. That is, children can follow their parents and parents can accompany their children to the cinema to see the films.
In China, the possibility of underage children entering cinemas alone is very small, or it is very difficult for them to do so. Therefore, we should have more films to attract parents and children to enter the cinema together. The market for Chinese children’s films is huge. However, in China’s current situation, it is still difficult to prop up the increasingly high production costs by relying only on the box office market comprised of children. Therefore, we hope that more films will attract children and their parents.
The types of children’s films are very rich, including comedy, adventure, science fiction, and long-story animation. These rich types provide a very broad space for creating and shooting children’s films. However, under the current situation, how do we make more films that can win audiences and get returns in the market? I think this is a question that Chinese filmmakers and creators need to ponder and study seriously.
How to make high-quality children’s films or how to make films that children like? In the process of creation and filming, I personally feel that we must pay special attention to the fact that children cannot be viewed from an adult perspective. We can’t take a supercilious attitude. Instead, we need to get closer to children, understand them, and see the world and the stories from their mind and perspective.
In some of the films I saw, although many children’s stories have been written in children’s films and there are many stories with children as the main characters, I don’t think we have really approached the world of children. To put it in another way, as we used to say, we made many films, many of which are the ones children do not like to see or the ones adults do not like to see and children do not understand, leading to the fact that there is no chance for many films already produced to enter the market. In the creation of children’s films in the future, this is an issue that needs to be addressed with special attention.
In China’s current situation, the production cost of children’s films is usually not too high, but low budget should not be the reason for the poor quality. After all, quality is largely not directly related to the budget. I think it is a matter of attitude. That is, it is a question whether we have treated film creation in a very sincere, responsible and serious manner. We cannot use the low budget to cover up the problems in the script and the film-shooting quality.
We often make mistakes in children’s films and other types of films as well. I summarize them as “paying attention to major aspects while neglecting minor aspects”. We only focus on some major aspects. For example, we spend money on superstars, big scenes, and the production of special effects. However, we have not done well in many small details. We have not done enough, either, leading to the phenomenon of the cask effect (the law of cask effect is how much water a cask able to hold depends on the shortest plank), ultimately leading to the poor quality of films. In terms of children’s films, we need to pay special attention to quality.
There are more than 200 million children in China, and the consumer market is particularly huge, including toys, games, clothes, food, and extracurricular training. There is a saying in China that “children’s money is the easiest to make”. But it is not work in films. Instead, it is not easy to make money from producing children’s films. Many practitioners know that it is very difficult for children’s films to enter the market and obtain market returns. I think we need to study this market seriously. Among the people seeing films in the cinema, we need to turn seeing children’s films into their rigid demands. It really takes us time and energy to study. China’s children’s films should also have their own development ideas. We need to explore the children’s film market at all levels, such as the creation, production, publicity, distribution, and marketing. The budget for children’s films is relatively low, because the market is not big, which is similar to the relationship between eggs and chickens. However, we need to do well in quality. After all, without quality, there will be no market.
Experience and Misunderstanding of Chinese and Foreign Co-produced Children’s Films
Mr. Huang Jun, Director of Children’s Film Studio and Vice Chairman of China Children’s Film Association
Regarding the co-production of children’s films, first of all, we need to ask why we need to co-produce films. I think there are three reasons as follows. First, resource utilization. Film co-production is nothing more than themes, creators and funds. Compared with the theme of one country, the themes of two countries and several countries are definitely richer. Creators who have made great achievements in different fields of children’s films can be integrated. The most sensitive is funds. Although the investment in children’s films is not very high, the return is not as high as regular commercial films. Therefore, funds are still very important. The first reason to co-produce films is the use of resources.
Second, in order to allow more children to see. A country’s own films are limited in the market of its own country. Regardless of the market size, it is certainly smaller than the multi-national co-production market. As far as I know, the most accurate figure is that there are 255,000 primary and secondary schools in the mainland of China, with a total of nearly 200 million children and adolescents. The population of the Netherlands is about 17 million, which is equivalent to 1/70 of China’s population. For a film made by the Netherlands alone, whether it is exported to Europe or America or not, it is difficult to enter the Chinese market. Only by co-production can a Dutch film enjoy the treatment of Chinese domestic films and realize the value in the market of 200 million children and adolescents in China. For us, we have also expanded the European film market.
Third, the advantage of input-output ratio. The investment will be fixed when a country shoots a children’s film alone. The investment ratio will be smaller if two countries and multiple countries shoot a film, but the market will be bigger. Therefore, the input-output ratio is not the same. It is the advantage obtained from the co-production.
In the second aspect, there used to be many misunderstandings in film co-production. I have contacted many foreign film companies which are asking for co-production with us. As far as I know, when Chinese and foreign companies co-produce films, there will be more or less these problems. First, the goals are inconsistent. They only aim to reduce costs and occupy more markets, leading to the inconsistency in the goals of the two sides. They did not think of the three reasons that I just mentioned. They often fail to reach the consensus. They want to freeload from their counterparts. Second, the cooperation mode design is poor. More often than not, both sides want to freeload from the governments of their counterparts. In fact, they have not figured out how to share the advantages of the governments of both sides. For example, we told domestic enterprises that there was a foreign project wanting to cooperate with us and that the other side might return more than 35% of funds to us. However, we have not studied that there are many conditions for returning the funds. It does not mean that you can obtain a return of RMB 0.35 million from the investment of RMB 1 million in a co-produced film. When it comes to co-operation, they will think of benefits and how much advantages they can take and whether they can get subsidies from the governments of their counterparts. In fact, it’s not that easy. When negotiations go deep, they will find that it is not the case, and then the cooperation will end. Third, they all hope to dominate the cooperation. Both Chinese and foreign companies tend to do so. After designing all aspects of work (including creativity, script, and main creative staff) in advance, they just await their counterparts to complete the investment. All they think about is letting others complete the investment and occupy their market. However, they forget the most important point: common philosophy, common culture and common creativity. It will be difficult for the two sides to cooperate if either of them desires to let the other party provide funds and have a dominant say in the cooperation.
The third aspect is about the difference between the co-production of children’s films and that of commercial films, which I have summarized as follows. First, in comparison with the difference of the adult audiences, that of the audiences of children’s films is smaller. Second, the political ideology and cultural taboos involved in the films are much smaller and the film is more universal. Third, our goal of shooting children’s films is not to make money.
In the end, I would like to share with you the projects we have co-produced with foreign companies. The production of the animated film we co-produced with New Zealand has been completed. The film will be released this year. It is the result of the ideas I just said, reflecting the common creativity of both sides. The goals of the co-production are not to only attract each other’s investment and occupy each other’s market. Instead, there is a common scriptwriter, director and idea, reflecting a common aesthetic ideal of two countries.
This cooperation project reached an agreement when I worked in CFA, with a total investment of about USD 25 million. Its production is completed at State Production Base of China Film Group in Huairou. Many foreign counterparts don’t really trust the animation production of China. In fact, we have done well in this regard. The next one is a project that we have co-produced with Spain. We also highly recognize the production of Spain, and the theme of the dragon is still Chinese.
My team and I have a lot of experience in film co-production with foreign companies. I have already completed many co-production projects. How to promote our cooperation? We have come up with our own ideas and creativities and showed our needs, advantages and resources to them. We should speak frankly and hide nothing. We should not say “let’s negotiate later”. Instead, we should openly talk with each other about restrictions and limitations of our contributions. In order to speed up the cooperation between the two sides, we must announce our creations and ideas and openly talk about our respective demands and what we can’t do to solve the problems we face. That’s what we discussed successfully with Spain and New Zealand, so that we can speed up our cooperation. Don’t hide anything. Even if you hide it till the end, you still have to face it, which is quite similar to the scenario that a couple is being married.