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Monday, March 20, 2017, 15:16

Together on the big screen

By ANTHONY WARREN in Hong Kong

More coproductions from China will be key to the future of the global film industry, but the process can be far from smooth

Together on the big screen
Zhou Li (sixth from right), publisher and editor-in-chief of China Daily Asia Pacific and panelists at the Sino-Foreign Coproduced Films Summit of the China Daily Asia Leadership Roundtable. (Photos by Roy Liu / CHINA DAILY Asia Weekly)
Of the 10 highest grossing movies on the Chinese mainland last year, eight were coproductions with other regions.

For China, joint productions are widely seen as a way to draw upon talent, technology, and help in telling the China story. For the West, those same joint productions are a means of tapping a market of 1.3 billion people — the film industry’s second-largest market by box office receipts.

But as collaboration grows between Hollywood and China, what are the opportunities and what are the challenges?

Coproduced movies are paving the future of the film industry, said Zhou Li, publisher and editor-in-chief at China Daily Asia Pacific and editorial board member of China Daily Group. He was speaking on March 16 at the Sino-Foreign Coproduced Films Summit, a China Daily Asia Leadership Roundtable which brought together filmmakers, producers and industry investors and was held during the Hong Kong International Film & TV Market (Filmart) at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Last year, joint Chinese mainland and Hong Kong comedy The Mermaid “became the highest grossing Chinese film of all time”, Zhou said. Yet the Sino-Hollywood action-fantasy movie The Great Wall found itself unable to claw back either profits or plaudits.

“China has already entered coproduction with 14 countries and regions,” said Zhou. “It seems to me (that) when these cultures join forces, it is going to be a happy day for cinema.”

With Filmart hosting over 800 exhibitors from more than 30 regions, it is evident how important the market for movies has become in China, said Raymond Yip, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.

“Among those 800 exhibitors, we have 200 from the Chinese mainland,” he said.

Chen Yiqi, chairman of Hong Kong film production and distribution corporation Sil-Metropole Organisation, said Chinese films must play catch-up, simply because the United States has been making films for so long and its technology is more advanced.

One way is for Hong Kong to act as the bridge for China and the West to collaborate.

For Teddy Chen, a Hong Kong film director known for the likes of 2009’s award-winning Bodyguards and Assassins, such coproduction is nothing new.

His first joint work was in the early 2000s, and he believes that ties since then between the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan have reached a point of total integration.

“(At first) I had to think about how I should divide characters between Hong Kong and mainland actors,” the director said. “Eventually I realized it didn’t matter, so long as audiences like it.”

Entertainment research service, marketing and investment firm EntGroup is one example of the new wave of multi-area companies investing heavily in the entertainment industry. For Amy Liu, a partner at the company, “the opportunities are great, the investments large, but the returns are rarely what are expected”.

Compared to last year, for example, more coproductions have been proposed, and more developed, yet fewer have actually made it onto screens, she said. Some of this is down to censorship. In other cases it is due to financial problems or cultural issues.

For film producer and distributor Ann An, chairman of Desen International Media, these are the sorts of headaches that can mean the collapse of deals.

An has worked successfully with many Hong Kong and Taiwan companies, but attempts to team up with European and US companies have been far less successful.

Joint financing is one issue. American coproducers want to work with the Hollywood model and costs are simply too high for the Chinese side.

An cited one coproduction she backed out of for that reason. “There are few successes in coproductions. Many incur losses because we do not understand Hollywood. We think we’re investing a lot (of money) but to Hollywood it’s just peanuts,” she said.

Ya Ning, senior vice-president of iQIYI, an online video platform that also produces its own television shows and movies, made the point that while Chinese audiences are “very accustomed to watching American movies”, American audiences do not like watching Chinese movies with subtitles. And they refuse to watch them dubbed.

“I think we might do better with cartoons,” Ya said.

Indeed, animated hits have figured among the few highly successful coproductions. One case study is Kung Fu Panda 3, made by a team of American and Chinese designers, scriptwriters and actors.

Together on the big screen
The roundtable discussion, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, was attended by filmmakers, producers and industry investors.

Dagan Potter is production lead for Oriental Dreamworks, the Shanghai-based department of the wider Dreamworks company, which made Kung Fu Panda 3.

For him, the film’s success (its China box office was more than US$149 million) was in the investment of time and effort to make sure things rang true. “If we’re a bit off in architecture or a garment, it won’t be noticed in Europe,” he said. “But it will be noticed in China.”

In collaborative work, cultural similarities, not differences, must be looked for, Potter explained.

Panelist William Pfeiffer concurred. By relying on underlying themes and emotions rather than specifics, as well as “a good story and the right elements in it, (a film) can go around the world”, he said.

Pfeiffer’s company Globalgate Entertainment takes intellectual property, scripts and ideas from partner movie companies and helps remake or sell them in other markets.

He helped produce the Oscar winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which he said “was more successful in the US than China, because (China) hadn’t evolved to where it is today”. One reason was that the script, though written by Chinese, had its structure worked on by American screenwriters.

Another famous Hong Kong movie, Infernal Affairs, was also tightened by foreign screenwriters. It was sold and remade in America as The Departed, which won four Oscars, including for best adapted screenplay.

“These things are not unusual anymore,” said Pfeiffer. “Globalization is an inevitable factor, and a positive factor, in the entertainment industry.”

CT Yip, executive director of Media Asia Group Holdings, agreed. “If you look at other markets, like mobile phones, mainland Chinese buyers don’t care about whether it’s made in the US,” he said.

William Feng, head of Greater China and vice-president of Asia Pacific for the Motion Picture Association, said that in the past eight years, film takings in China have almost doubled, but in the US they have fallen some 3 percent.

When it comes to coproductions, success in China does not enamor American audiences. The Great Wall had an all-star Chinese and American cast and made about US$170 million in China. It took less than US$20 million in the US.

“The Great Wall is a lesson for everybody,” said Feng. “But the market desperately needs more like this.”

 
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