[How to]: Make an Indie Film in China

Fabien Gaillard's The Mahjong Box (三缺一), is getting a nation-wide release, hitting 6000+ theaters all over the country. This is the Shanghai-based French director’s second feature film. The story follows an American living in Shanghai suffering from depression after losing his Chinese wife. One day, he finds hope in overcoming his loss after meeting a woman that looks just like her. The film is a psychological drama--think Chinese Vertigo.

Fabien Gaillard

Ahead of the film’s release on Friday, we spoke to Gaillard for some guidelines on getting an indie film in China. 

Step 1: Write a Script


There's no movie with no script. You can either write this yourself, with a friend, or hire a screenwriter to do it for you.

"First you have to have a good story that will interest the Chinese market,” says Gaillard, who has lived in China for 12 years, although his first movie Lao Wai, didn't come out until 2010. That’s not for a lack of trying, it’s because he wasn’t ready. 

"I don't feel like I can tell stories about something I don’t know. My films are always about foreigners because my own experience is of foreigners living in China. Not only my life, but foreigners I know gave me inspiration.”

Gaillard eventually sold Lao Wai, a film about a foreigner who must win back his girlfriend that believes he’s cheating on her, to CCTV6.

A movie with commercial appeal (such as romance) is more likely to find investors, and therefore more likely to result in a finished product. But it's important to have an understanding of what your story is about. 

“You can do an art movie, but it has to be with the knowledge of China. That's why it took me five years to make my first movie.”

Learn your source material. Figure out your audience, and write your script. 

Step 2: Find a Production Company


If you want to sell your film in China, you'll need a Chinese production company to back you. They'll take care of getting official approval to shoot the film and pass censorship. This process involves submitting the script to the government (SARFT) and getting a shooting license. Afterwards, when the film is complete, you’ll need to send it back and get a "show license" to sell it within China. 

This process can only be done by a properly licensed production company. This isn’t something you’re going to be able to do by yourself as a foreign director. 

So how do you go about meeting production companies? The same way you meet anyone. Through people. Talk to friends in the film industry and go to networking events. Gaillard says that film festivals in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai are great places to meet like-minded people with the love of filmmaking. Some of those people are going to be creative collaborators, others will be producers.  

It's not hard to make contacts, but if you're brand new to directing, you probably won't find backing. Gaillard started out by making a couple short films and documentaries that he then showed production companies to prove that he was indeed a director capable of filmmaking. 

You’ll need to do the same before someone agrees to spend the effort, time, and money to back your project.

Step 3: Find Investors


Usually a production company will help you cover this step. As a director, it's not generally your job to find the funding. However, if you're first starting out, you will probably need to play a part in getting investment. Often you’ll do this before you find a production company. It’s a lot easier to get someone to help you make your film when you’ve already got the funding for it. 

Gaillard self-funded his early short films. For his first feature film, he covered the budget with a grant from France in addition to his own money. He invested less in his second film and he says he refuses to do it again in the future. Considering the release of The Mahjong Box, he probably won’t have to. But if you don't have a national release on your portfolio, you might want to start saving and applying for grants. 

That being said, there is some good news. Filmmaking is a lot cheaper than it used to be. The Mahjong Box’s production budget was 4 million rmb, but Gaillard’s first film was shot on 400,000rmb, and it is possible to make a feature film for even less. Also there is money flowing into small budget indie films in China right now. 

“Now in China you can make movies with 1 million rmb. Many internet movies are being made this way. There is a trend now doing internet movies and lots of investment can be found to do it,” says Gaillard.

Step 4: Budgeting, Location Scouting, and Getting a Crew


The film’s budget includes script development, gear rental, and crew and cast salaries, with the last one taking up the major chunk of it. Your first film is probably going to be pretty tight financially, so you’ll need to be prudent with your money.

“You always try to save money by reducing the number of filming days. But also you should try to find a good balance because you don’t want to go over your schedule either.”

You can decrease this time by filming in locations with close proximity to each other. And it’s best to use venues that are willing to let you use their spaces for free.

Gear is another major cost, however, Gaillard says that gear rental is approximately 60% cheaper than overseas. Your production company will provide most of your crew, but you'll probably have a personal preference on certain roles such as your director of photography.

For whoever you bring in, you’ll need to consider if you can afford their salaries while they work for you. Often, actors and crew members are willing to take lower salaries for low budget indie films if they are passionate about the project.

Step 5: Choose Your Actors


“To find my leading actors, I followed the advice of a Chinese director friend who told me to do the casting in Beijing where it’s easier to find good actors for dramatic roles. That’s what I did for both of my films”

Shanghai is a major hotspot for commercials, but that’s an entirely different type of acting work. You’re more likely to fill your leading roles with actors trained and working in Beijing, where mainland China’s film industry is based. 

Actors can come through casting agents or through strokes of luck. James Alofs, a well known among Chinese audiences for his appearances on popular variety show A Bright World, is the male lead of The Mahjong Box. Gaillard met him in a Starbucks. 

“Alofs was doing TV shows and entertainment shows as an emcee at the time, but I could see that he was very interested in the film industry and acting in movies.”

They exchanged contacts and one year later Alofs starred in a TV series in the leading role, racking up further acting experience. Afterwards, Gaillard asked him to be the lead on his film. 

Zhuo Tan, the female lead was recommended to Gaillard through a friend at the Beijing Film Academy. The smaller roles were found by a casting agent in Shanghai.

Step 6: Shoot the film


So everything’s ready to go and you can finally start filming. This is the moment you've been waiting for and, and yes if you've done your pre-production properly, it's as great as you dreamt it to be.

“I love the moment when you see your story come to life through the performance of the actors,” says Gaillard.

Your story can still change and adapt while you are shooting. And you might want to let this happen if it plays to the strengths of your team.

“Even if you have a finished script, you can still continue to write your story during the filming process with input from the actors, cinematographer, and other members of your team. Making a film is a collaborative effort. I’m not the kind of director that isn’t open to dialogue with members of the team.”

Step 7: Editing


After you've got all your footage, you'll need to edit it and put it together. This can take significant time. Gaillard's go-to editor back in France wasn't available right away after filming completed, and he had to wait several months before flying to France to work with her. It took him four months to edit plus several more months to add music and do sound editing. 

The film was shot over 35 days at the end of 2014 and he finished editing and completed the film at the end of 2015. 

“Being optimistic, it can take a director 2 years of his life to work on a feature film because it requires time for writing, finding investments, filming, editing, and sound design.”

Step 8: Sell the Film


Your production company will take care of sales. They'll sell the film rights to a distribution company, which in turn sells your movie to TV channels, online platforms, and/or theaters. 

The Mahjong Box got offers from several distribution companies. One of them offered a nation-wide release. It won the rights to the film. 

How revenue is split can depend on the deal. But generally, it is divided amongst the distribution company and the film’s owners, which can be the production company, investors, and creative team. 

Distribution companies typically only purchase the rights for their own country. So after you’ve sold your film rights in China, you can still work out deals for foreign territories. 

What bids you get from distribution companies and how well your film sells can depend a lot on commercial value and market trends. 

“I was unsure I could sell this movie because it was considered too arthouse here. But in Europe it is considered a commercial movie [laughs]. It's very in between, I don’t know, it's my style. For this film and the previous one, I put in some romance but you can also see the [documentary aspects] of people in the street living their real lives in Shanghai.”

“In the end we were lucky and found a distributor. I think it's proof that China is open to more styles of stories. It's a good sign.”

There’s money and demand for indie films in China and the Chinese public’s tastes are diversifying. It’s a good time to be making movies and now you’ve got an idea of how to get started.


There are over 15 theaters showing The Mahjong Box in Shanghai. You can find a trailer and a theater near you here on Gewara.

Photo Credits: On-set photos by Adrien Bernard. Portrait by Xiang Sun.