Screening footage for buyers must be one of the most stressful tasks at a film festival. While the majority of the Toronto Film Festival's screenings have some distribution rights up for grabs and face the anxiety of critical response, those movies also have the luxury of celebration: They've been invited to one of the world's great film events. They're in front of an audience. And they're done.
Zhang Yimou's "The Flowers of War" (aka "Heroes of Nanking") had none of those benefits. International sales company FilmNation screened 20 minutes of footage this morning at Varsity Cinemas for a nearly full house comprised almost solely of people who scrutinized the footage with one question in mind: Do I want to buy this movie?
And it's a lot of movie: Starring Christian Bale, it's the largest-budget film production in China's history. (Estimates: $90 million. John Woo's "Red Cliff" epic cost around $80 million and that was broken into two movies.) Still in post, it's slated to premiere in Beijing on December 16.
It will take a while to learn the buyers' answers. But here's a rundown of some elements that will likely help inform their decisions.
* Nanking. Set in 1937 during Japan's invasion of China, "The Flowers of War" is based on bittersweet heroism embedded in events known as the rape of Nanking. There are two dramatic arcs: One focuses on an American mortician (Bale) who arrives planning to bury a priest and winds up impersonating a priest in order to save a convent's schoolchildren. The more harrowing story shows local prostitutes, who also found shelter in the convent, sacrificing themselves by impersonating the schoolchildren that the Japanese soldiers had earmarked as their escorts. Noble? Certainly. But as one buyer said, "I get nervous about reviews that contain the word 'rape.'"
* Zhang Yimou. He's a widely admired filmmaker; he's also shown an impressive performance at the global box office. "Hero" earned $177 million worldwide ($54 million from North America); "House of Flying Daggers" earned $93 million ($11 million in North America.) However, it's unclear if his name can carry the same value across a much larger canvas.
* Christian Bale. He's an Oscar-winner and a superhero. But it's been a long time since he's had to bear the weight of a drama that doesn't benefit from being a global franchise ("Terminator," "Dark Knight") or have the support of other movie stars ("The Fighter," "Public Enemies").
* It's largely in Mandarin. Per the production, "Flowers of War" is approximately 40% English, 60% Mandarin.
* That $90 million budget. Financed solely by producer Zhang Weiping via two Chinese banks (Bank of China and Minsheng Bank), no one's expecting North America to take the lead at the "Flowers of War" box office. However, much will depend on how the ask compares to the budget. And the top-performing Chinese language movie in U.S. history, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," isn't a helpful comp. It earned 60% of its $213 million worldwide gross in North America. And while "The Flowers of War" certainly has action sequences, it doesn't have wire-fu.
"The Flowers of War" will be distributed by New Picture in China. FilmNation is handling all international territories (except for a few Asian territories). North America is represented by Chaoying Deng, David Linde and Stephen Saltzman.