Hollywood seeks 'domestic' label

Updated: 2013-03-01 12:36

By Zhang Qidong (China Daily)

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Hollywood seeks 'domestic' label

A camera crew films actor Daniel Henney in a chase scene for Shanghai Calling. Gao Yiping / For China Daily

US movie companies are seeking partners in China to co-produce films so they can get around the restriction on the number of imported movies each year, reports Zhang Qidong from San Francisco.

Shanghai Calling. But nobody was answering.

That was the situation American screenwriter and director Daniel Hsia found himself in as he tried to find a producer to make a co-production in China of his film Shanghai Calling so it could qualify as a "domestic film" and bypass the Chinese restriction of only 34 imported movies being released in China every year.

Enter co-production veteran Janet Yang, who served as Steven Spielberg's eyes and ears in China for the filming of Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros 1987), and also represented major Hollywood movie studios as they reintroduced films to China after a two-decade hiatus.

Yang helped secure financing for the movie in the US and China, got talent in both countries to work on the script and film shooting, while engaging China Film Group, China's largest film producer and distributor and the main importer of foreign films, to assist with regulatory matters, distribution and post production.

After three years, Shanghai Calling was released last July in Shanghai and this month in the US.

"America and China's film makers are now like lovers," said Yang. "They are actively dating, getting to know each other, checking each other out, some of them are getting engaged, and some will be married."

What's motivating Hollywood to do co-productions is money. It wants to capture part of China's $2.75 billion box office. A co-production agreement between a US and Chinese film company offers the best opportunity for doing that because it guarantees a movie will be released in China. Co-production also spreads the financial risk and makes available Chinese talent, shooting locations and local production services.

China's 2012 box office of $2.75 billion may seem big, but it represents only an average of 0.3 admissions per capita movie attendance in China, according to China Media Monitor Intelligence. The US box office total for last year was $10.8 billion, according to CNN.

The Chinese domestic film category accounts for 55 percent of China's annual box office on average. To qualify as a co-production and be labeled a domestic film, a movie usually needs at least one Chinese actor, some scenes filmed in China, content somehow related to China, and co-financing and revenue sharing with a qualified local partner.

Movies also must be reviewed by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) , which prohibits violence, pornography and content that may "incite ethnic discrimination or undermine social stability."

"Chinese audiences are flocking to the movies to watch Chinese films, Hollywood fare and co-productions, and appear eager for more," said Kate Bedingfield, Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) spokesperson.

"New cinema screens continue to be added at an average rate of eight screens per day in 2012. The total number of cinema screens in China now stands at more than 14,000, and is expected to more than double by 2015."

Some co-productions have been major box office hits.

Journey to the West achieved the biggest opening day ever in China, grossing 76.85 million yuan ($12.3 million) on Feb 10, the biggest single-day gross for any film released in China, grossing 122 million yuan on Feb 14, and the highest weekly gross for any film released in China with its opening week gross of 583 million yuan. It took the movie only eight days to reach a $100 million box-office take, the shortest time yet by a film to reach that mark.

Journey to the West

Written, produced and directed by famed Hong Kong director Stephen Chow, Journey to the West was jointly financed and co-produced by Chow's Hong Kong based company Bingo Movie Development, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia (VRPA), the Greater China division of Los Angeles-based Village Roadshow Entertainment Group; Edko Films of Hong Kong; and China Vision Media Group of Hong Kong. Huayi Brothers Media Group was the film's co-production partner and distributor in the Chinese mainland.

"Our VRPA team vetted the project concept, provided funding and advised on investment and distribution arrangements," said Ellen Eliasoph, president and CEO of VRPA. "We also assisted with marketing and publicity for the film, and, through our affiliated companies, are handling its marketing and distribution in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand."

Eliasoph, a graduate of Yale University and Yale Law School who speaks fluent Mandarin, became the first Hollywood executive based in China when she established Warner Bros' Beijing office in 1993, importing The Fugitive to China as the first Hollywood revenue-sharing film.

"We choose each of our projects by focusing on factors such as the project concept and the script, as well as the director, producer and main cast, giving great weight to what they have done in the past; and analyzing the project's market potential and likely investment outcome," said Eliasoph, who joined VRPA in 2011 to launch and lead the company's China co-productions.

VRPA's second release, Say Yes!, a Chinese-language remake of the hit 1991 Fuji Television drama 101st Marriage Proposal, opened on Feb 12, 2013, and set a new China record for a romance film screening on Valentine's Day, earning 47 million yuan. The movie was jointly financed and co-produced by VRPA, New Classics Media, Fuji Television Network and Asia Times Cultural Media.

With the success of its two film releases in the same week, VRPA captured the lion's share of the Chinese New Year holiday box office, peaking at 85 percent on Valentine's Day, and becoming the first foreign co-producer to have the No 1 and No 2 films at China's box office at the same time.

Eager to gain access to Chinese consumers, some of Hollywood's biggest names - including Dream Works Animations and Twentieth Century Fox parent News Corp - are making deals with local partners.

Dream Works announced a joint venture last year with three government-backed companies in China: China Media Capital, Shanghai Alliance Investment, and Shanghai Media Group (SMG).

The joint venture will make Shanghai's western bank of the Huangpu River a new cultural district with theaters, clubs, and a studio that will be home of Oriental Dream Works, where co-production movies will be produced.

In May 2012, Twentieth Century Fox parent News Corp acquired a 19.9 percent stake in Beijing-based Bona Film Group, after Bona's 2011 3-D release Flying Swords of Dragon Gate took in $68.9 million in China, ranking ahead of Harry Potter and the Deathly Harrows (part 2) that year.

Fox teamed up with Huayi Brothers, China's leading non-state sector film group, for several films including the 2011 release Snow Flower & the Secret Fan, which was co-produced in China by Wendi Deng, the China-born wife of Rupert Murdoch, founder, chairman and CEO of News Corp.

While some Hollywood studios are doing co-productions, the film industry also saw Wanda, China's largest enterprise investor, spend $2.6 billion in 2012 to acquire AMC theatres in the US. The new ownership means American audiences will have more chances to see movies made by Chinese producers in AMC theatres.

While involved in co-productions, Chinese producers and directors are also seeking Hollywood's help to duplicate the success of big-budget US films.

Lost in Thailand, a slapstick, low budget comedy, became China's highest-grossing home-made movie in December, drawing 32 million people to theatres.

The film came very close to China's all-time box office record set by Avatar ($204 million in 2010, according to Box Office Mojo). Its US opening-week box office gross in February 2013 was only $57,397, according to IMDB, the Internet Movie Database of information on films, television programs and video games.

"Comedy does not travel well across cultures; what is funny to a Chinese audience is not necessarily going to be funny to a Western audience," said Stanley Rosen, director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California.

Rosen, a specialist in Chinese politics and Chinese films, said subtitled films don't do well in the US, making up perhaps 1 percent of the market, and are seen as "art" films by distributors, even if they are broad comedies like Lost in Thailand.

"They can't compete for screen time at the multiplexes with the 'big films'. Films like these won't have much of a budget for prints, advertising and marketing," said Clayton Dube, president of USC's US-China Institute (USCI).

Dube attributes the compromised box office to the weak distribution of Chinese movies in the U.S.

"Keeping the movie in theatres longer, choosing a better US release time, screening it on college campuses to get some positive buzz going about the film, and then releasing it more widely all factor into the success of a foreign movie in the US," he said.

Having produced two documentary films, Dube is a co-producer himself heading the USCI team.

"For the Chinese partners, they appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with some of the best storytellers anywhere," Dube said. "In some cases, they also hope for the US partner to strengthen their abilities to penetrate markets outside of China."

Ang Lee

Among a handful of Chinese movies that have been successful in the US was Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which made $128 million; another one Zhang Yimou's Hero at $55 million, said Rosen.

Bill Guttentag, a lecturer of film and television at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, said stars, directors and producers all matter for a successful film.

A two-time Oscar-winning feature film and documentary writer-producer-director, Guttentag wrote and directed Nanking, a theatrical documentary which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and Knife Fight, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and was released in January 2013.

"Jackie Chan, for instance, is popular in the US and popular in China as well. A film led by him would attract potential box office," he said.

China has a group of accomplished directors, cinematographers and a lot of talent capable of making "gorgeous films," said Guttentag. Among his favorite Chinese directors is Ang Lee, 59, who just received his second Academy Award in the best director category for Life of Pi. The film's box office tally stands at $113.5 million.

Yang, who grew up on New York's Long Island and studied Asian studies and Mandarin at Brown University, said being bi-lingual and bi-cultural help her understand the US and Chinese markets as a movie producer.

"Some Chinese directors want to make international movies, but they have not spent enough time internationally," she said. "It's about sensibility. It takes an international person to make an international movie."

Contact the writer atkellyzhang@chinadailyusa.com

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