The mainstream Chinese film industry is exploding, but what about the country's independent films? It's not quite even an "industry" yet, but one former sub-prime mortgage advisor is changing that. Karin Chien, the founder of dGenerate Films, literally hand-carries Chinese independent films out of the country. Then she screens them for audiences in the United States, where there's a high demand for independent Chinese films, and earns a tidy profit in the process. Now she's working up plans for China's first integrated network of directors, producers and film financiers.
Chien, a Los Angelese native and UC Berkeley alum, led one of the country's leading sub-prime advisory firms in New York City, and then later returned to her passion for narrative films—but brought her new-found business acumen to the table by focusing on the under-developed niche market of Chinese independent film. One of the only distributors for independent Chinese films in the United States, dGenerate grew from a demand on all sides; independent Chinese film directors needed an audience and an outlet and film and business professionals in the U.S. wanted access.
Chien quickly found herself in Beijing, getting to know the relatively dispersed scene of independent filmmakers. Soon she had over 50 films telling stories of daily life in China in her hands, but with absolutely no audience.
"I first saw the films of Ou Ning and Cao Fei and fell in love with them," Chien tells Fast Company. The two filmmakers had been invited to show in MOMA in New York City and their friend "randomly approached me after I spoke on a panel."
"I was really blown away by the sophistication and it was something I had never seen out of China," she says. "And I thought, how many more films are there out there like that?"
Hundreds and thousands it turns out. While the mainstream Chinese film industry had been gaining attention—with producers, directors, and visual artists beginning to rival Bollywood in popularity—the voice of independent filmmakers had been all but unheard.
"I let go of the idea, because being a producer was already a 24/7 commitment. But later I was at Sundance and I happened to be on the shuttle with the head of the Tribeca Film Institute, who expressed interest," says Chien. "So I cleared 3 weeks from my schedule and went to Beijing."
That was in 2008, and by then she already had a team put together because so many people had approached Chien, wanting to get involved.
"When we first started we had to catch up with the movement," says Chien. "I'm Chinese American, but to be honest I didn't know anything about China."
Getting the films shipped to the United States proved the trickiest part of the operation. Chinese fimmakers normally have to screen their films and get them approved by government authorities prior to distribution. So Chien ends up hand-carrying them in her suitcase on her way out of China, or her contacts in the mainland take them to Hong Kong to ship from there.
"The majority of our films don't ask for registration or approval, so they cannot be sent via FedEx," says Chien. "These independent films are the only uncensored media coming out of China. And they're just about life. Not just Tianenmen or Tibet."
Sometimes, though, "The filmmakers show the police their films—they come and have tea with them," says Chien. And the authorities realize that they are films about daily struggles in China. But other times, the films focus on more controversial issues such as migrant laborers or the gay and lesbian population.
"These are films made in China by Chinese and that kind of content just does not get out in the U.S. but it does now through our company," which is just the start, says Chien. "I'm a producer, I'm American, and being Chinese American has allowed me to become embraced by the Chinese independent filmmakers that we work with."
The demand in the U.S. is high—Chien's clients include Universities, museums, and other cultural and educational institutions. At times they buy out the entire catalogue of films. And as for the future, Chien has plans to create China's first formalized links between independent directors and producers, as she sees that independent filmmakers lack what filmmakers in the West often rely on: producers who can push the films to a wider audience.
"I'm trained in a way to respond to the needs of the director. And the directors in China feel like orphans. There's noone pushing their films," says Chien.
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