Documentary remains a strong product for UK companies to license to or co-produce with their Chinese counterparts.

The “Report on Documentary Industry and its Development in China” (2020) was conducted and published by the Documentary Research Centre at Beijing Normal University recently. According to this report, in 2019, the total investment in documentary in China was 5 billion RMB (£570 million). There was a 9.4% increase from the previous year although being the lowest rate in the past 10 years. Such a result is due to an unstable box-office performance for theatrical releases of documentary films, the report explains.

The total box-office for documentary theatrical releases in China last year was 149 million RMB (£17 million). It was the lowest since 2016. Among all, there were 19 local films which gained 53.19 million RMB box-office (£6 million). There were also 5 imported foreign documentary films released at cinemas in 2019, with a total box-office of 95.84 million RMB (£10 million). The top performing film was MAYDAY LIFE TOUR (50.22 million RMB/£5.7 million box-office), the second was FREE SOLO (36.41 million RMB/£4 million, which was distributed via the National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas network). The best documentary box-office all time in the country was BORN IN CHINA (2016), a co-production between Shanghai’s SMG and Disneynature. Among the top ten in terms of box-office performance, there was also EARTH: ONE AMAZING DAY (2017), which was co-produced by SMG and BBC Studios. Cinemas might not be the best option to release documentary films in China at this stage (though foreign contents seem to do better than domestic ones), as most audiences are commonly used to consume the genre from TV and streaming platforms. However, I continue to be optimistic about its future market potential. In particular there are new forces emerging, such as Elemeet. This relatively new company has launched its own on-demand-cinema platform to distribute documentary films specifically, with over 300 cinema partners across the country. A more comprehensive introduction to Elemeet will follow in due course.

Streaming platforms in China continue to import a great amount of documentary from around the world, in particular from BBC Studios. Tencent currently has the largest library of BBC documentary content in the country (745 titles). In addition, major platforms have also invested in their own original productions. In 2019, Youku produced 260 hours worth of documentary content, which is 35% of their total products. Tencent produced 23 documentary films, 1/3 of their annual new online releases. Bilibili produced and released 16 documentary films online, 55.6 hours in total, while iQiyi also produced/co-produced 15 films.

In regard to this growing interest and appetite for documentary content in China, I recommend UK production companies to establish partnerships with streaming platforms via two specific strategies. First, to license content directly to these platforms and second, to co-produce documentary content (series, short or feature). The latter strategy was exemplified by a deal/collaboration between BBC Studios and Migu announced last year.

One of the themes which has not been properly produced or co-produced, is a documentary series about Chinese students’ life in the UK. We are interested in working with any company from each side on a potential production development, to provide tailored artistic and market research.

We have also created a list of documentary co-production ideas which will be publicised on this website soon.