This is the third in a series of posts on China’s film industry. The first post was “Sino-Foreign Film Co-Productions in China.” The second was “Making Films in China. You Talkin’ To Me?

Cinemas are being built in China at unprecedented rates and we are constantly hearing of explosive growth of Chinese box office takings. Needless to say, foreign producers frequently get seduced by these trends and their promise of enrichment and they have a tendency to assume that a slice of China’s box office receipts will magically flow to investors outside of China.

Unfortunately, this usually does not happen even when the film pops in China.

Why is it so hard for foreign co-producers to get paid? There are three main reasons:

1. There are no trusted intermediaries for film in China. Collection agents, escrow account holders, trustees and the like simply do not exist here in China. The foundations of international film finance are not in place. In itself, that makes you wonder how completion guarantors can underwrite Sino-foreign co-productions.

2. You need to rely on your Chinese co-producer to collect the box office and pay your share to you outside of China. Good luck with that.

3. Even if you are lucky and your Chinese co-producer has some vague intention of paying you, they cannot pay you unless they can show the Chinese tax authorities that income tax has been paid on the gross receipts and that the withholding tax on their payment to you will be deducted. Even then, they will still need SAFE (State Administration of Foreign Exchange) approval before being able to send money overseas. The vast majority of Chinese businesses will not want to do business this way.

Even in the developed world, taxation of international films is one of the most difficult areas of taxation. For China, this situation is compounded by many orders of magnitude due to a new tax code, a non-convertible currency is not convertible and SAFE involvement from the time the money enters China to when it leaves.

In previous posts (here and here) we looked at the basic framework of rules governing foreign film production in China, as applied by the China Film Co-Production Corporation (CFCC).  As it is illegal for foreigners to independently produce films in China, a Sino-foreign co-production is required and the CFCC provides a standard co-production contract.

The CFCC contract deals effectively with Chinese approval of the production process and content and censorship of the film, but it does not deal at all with the more important issues of taxation and distribution of proceeds. The regulations and the form contracts are silent on the role of distributors; they mention no role for distributors in financing. In fact, there is no explicit provision for the role of any parties other than the co-producers. There is no mention of banks, completion guarantors, distributors, sub-distributors, or collection agents. There also is no general treatment of overseas financing and rights. Participation in the project by such entities is not prohibited; it is simply ignored.

In the CFCC contract, it is assumed the foreigners have the money and that all will be paid for “up front,” with no participation by the financing players and with little or no consideration to how and when payment will be made to the foreign financiers. On the other hand, the documents and rules are extremely flexible and are not encumbered with many of the restrictive rules that apply to joint ventures and WFOEs.

The CFCC contract clearly provides that all proceeds are collected and processed by the co-production partners. There is a bank account controlled by both sides and careful accounting controls are put in place. The Chinese side is not put in complete control of things. In essence, the co-production partnership is its own collection agent manager. At least in theory, this can work because there are only two parties: the two producers.

The problem that we have seen with this arrangement is that there is no mechanism in China for the partial or primary funding of a film project by distributors. The assumption is that all of the advance funding comes from or through the foreign producer, with no direct involvement from third parties. The structure is therefore designed so that money and other benefits flow into China, but proceeds and other benefits will not escape from China. For producers not worried about Chinese box office, so long as the physical film escapes from China, the proceeds and other benefits issue is typically not of vital importance.

In our experience, foreign producers who want to get paid are usually better off allowing their Chinese co-producers to take China distribution rights in return for an up-front payment because the back-end off the receipts is usually just a mirage.

  • Thanks for the insightful article, I’m really enjoying this series on film co-productions.
    I did have a couple of questions regarding things mentioned in the piece. First, why is going through SAFE so undesirable for Chinese businesses? Second, the article makes it seem as though many Chinese businesses have a tendency to renege on agreements regarding profit sharing. Is this something that is particular to the film business, or is it also indicative of how things go in other industries as well (and if so which industries)?
    Thanks, I look forward to reading subsequent posts on this topic!

  • Mike Z.

    I did not realize that Mathew had now joined your law firm, but there he is on your website. Good for you.

  • Janet

    Thank you for writing these articles on China’s film industry! They are very helpful and I really enjoyed reading this series. Please continue writing on this topic as it is very insightful and of much help!

  • A.T. Halmay

    I’ve stated in one of these blogs that doing co-production with China is for the insane. On second thought, there could be a way if that would be feasible for a well heeled Chinese co-producer who can function independently. Basically the Chinese co-producer would function as a co-funder. He would get creative input and would be executing other functions of co-producers but the entire production would take place outside of China, the agreement would be done under Western laws and he would have to buy the exclusive China distribution rights to deal with on his own with his government in whatever manner he wishes. If, say, the funding and co-production would be done on a 50-50 basis, whatever projected revenue agreed on in advance for China could be deferred until such time as global receipts begin to come in, the portion appropriated to China could be taken out of American or European receipts by the Western partners. In other words, the Chinese co-producer functions primarily as an investor and spares the Western co-producer the headaches and aggravation of having to deal with the Beijing version of Alibaba and the 40 thieves.