China's film studios dream of making movies the world will want to see

Rich in cash and resources, China's film studios are on a mission to conquer the movie universe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 6:29am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 November, 2013, 7:46am

Investment capital? They're loaded.

Film studios? They are promising to build the world's fanciest.

And as for movie stars, few are more dazzling than Li Bingbing, who was an honoured guest at last week's annual US-China Film Summit.

But China's ambitious new film entrepreneurs, dozens of whom gathered in Los Angeles for the summit meeting, the American Film Market and other events, are still searching for something that has largely eluded them: a homemade global hit.

"We have 5,000 years of history. We have lots of stories," said Yang Buting, the chairman of the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association, who spoke on a panel at the gathering.

But, Yang added, "to create movies that are universally appealing, that is an issue for us."

China's domestic box office is now the world's second-largest, behind the United States, with an expected US$3.5 billion in sales this year. The growing market has been pursued aggressively, and with considerable success, by Hollywood, whose studios - to capture a Chinese audience for films like Iron Man 3 or Pacific Rim - have worked with Chinese partners, added Chinese subplots and bent over backwards to satisfy China's watchful censors.

A perhaps tougher struggle confronts Chinese film executives who dream of making movies that will be seen not just at home, but also by a measurable number of viewers in the United States and elsewhere.

"We lack international experience, in general," says Yu Dong, the chief executive of China's Bona Film Group, which is about 20 per cent owned by 21st Century Fox.

Yu, speaking in an interview, referred to a growing group of film companies that are smaller than the giant, state-owned China Film Group, but share ambitions to play on the world stage.

"Every producer I've met has told me they want to reach the world audience," says Rob Cain, a film consultant who is working with Chinese companies that hope to crack the global market, despite robust growth at home.

In China, ticket sales have risen about 35 per cent annually. And they show no sign of letting up. The number of cinema screens, which has been growing at a similar rate and promises to reach about 18,000 this year, continues its expansion into smaller markets. China's domestic box office has recently tilted toward Chinese films rather than foreign imports.

The urge to export movies, Cain says, has much to do with the Chinese government's promotion of "soft power"- the ability to project influence through nonmilitary means, including, of course, the film business.

"If you're trying to score points with the Communist Party and the central government, you want to support their soft-power agenda, to help spread the culture," he says in an interview.

Wang Jianlin, chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, staged a remarkable show of such strength in September, when he hosted Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood luminaries at his company's celebration of a planned studio and entertainment complex in the beach city of Qingdao. Called the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, Wanda's proposed development is projected to cost as much as US$8.2 billion, and would match or surpass the capacity of studios in the United States.

Yet nothing would speak louder than a globe-spanning hit.

In the United States, the best-selling Chinese-language film to date remains Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which took about US$128 million in North American ticket sales after its release by Sony Pictures Classics in 2000. Since then, some international blockbusters have had Chinese backers, co-stars and settings, but they've mostly been Hollywood products with a Chinese veneer.

China's emerging film companies are proposing to reverse that equation, finding Chinese stories with global appeal and just enough American content or backing to attract viewers who have grown used to Hollywood-style movies.

As Yu puts it, any Chinese film with international ambitions must be rooted in what he calls, "an American way of looking at China".

His own company's best bet, Yu says, is a planned action thriller, called Moscow Mission, about six Chinese police officers who tackle crime on the Beijing-to-Moscow train.

"There will be a lot of English dialogue, but with a Chinese story," he says.

Still, the difficulty of marketing such hybrids was underscored last weekend by the modest performance of Man of Tai Chi, a Chinese-American co-production starring Keanu Reeves.

The film, with dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, sold few tickets when it was released by Radius-TWC on a few US screens. It was nonetheless featured as a model Chinese-American co-production in a forum presentation at Universal Studios by Chinese officials and filmmakers, as well as Christopher Dodd, the chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America.

An enduring challenge for Chinese filmmakers who want to go global is their own government's tight control of film content through a rigorous censorship apparatus.

"We want to see positive Chinese images," Zhang Xun, president of the China Film Co-Production Corp., told those assembled at the film conference.

To underscore her point, Zhang ticked off "hot spots" to be avoided, including excessive violence and horror, scenes that might offend third countries and potentially volatile religious references.

Some executives have concluded that the fantasy or historical adventure genres, which largely sidestep those concerns, are likely to spawn the next real Chinese global blockbuster.

Zhang Zhao, the chief executive of Le Vision Pictures, said his company was developing what it hoped would be a universal hit, based on the classic Chinese novel Water Margin, about outlaws and spirits during the Song dynasty, 1,000 years ago.

Zhang says he believes the global breakthrough for China would come "very soon", although he earlier warned peers in a panel discussion: "I don't think Chinese films can travel the world all that well."

But Yu, of the Bona Film Group, contends that to conquer the movie universe, it is really only necessary to prevail in two places, the US and China.

"If we are able to play a part in these two markets, we pretty much control a majority of the world," he says.


Box Office Hits

The 10 highest-grossing domestic films in China

1. Lost in Thailand (2012)

2. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013)

3. Chinese Zodiac (2012)

4. Let the Bullets Fly (2010)

5. Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012)

6. Aftershock (2010)

7. Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011)

8. The Flowers of War (2011)

9. If You Are The One 2 (2010)

10. Beginning of the Great Revival (2011)

Source: IMDB