A Chinese charm offensive led by Beijing bureaucrats rolled into the heart of Hollywood this weekend, with prize money and production support for screenwriters, proffers of future TV and movie project backing and a film “panorama” a couple of weeks hence.
The weekend’s key event was a Saturday night panel at the Beverly Hills Hilton, that slightly faded bastion of Hollywood glitz that is home to the Golden Globes and much else, and hosted by Beijing’s Municipal Office of Cultural Assets and Harvardwood, Harvard University’s alumni group focused on the entertainment industry. Panelists included former Motion Picture Academy President Sid Ganis (he’s now honorary chairman of a Chinese production company), East West Bank exec Bennett Pozil (the bank has financed Chinese co-productions such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero for more than a decade), Tony-winning theatrical producer Darren Bagert and film producers Michael Andreen and Christopher Lee.
All five have done business on both sides of the Pacific, and all repeatedly pushed the point that China is now not only the fast-growing No. 2 film market in the world, it is the world’s biggest TV production market and quickly becoming a strong venue for live theater as well. The question is whether any of that can translate beyond China’s borders to broader international markets. The city of Beijing is courting some American help to reach wider audiences.
Panel moderator Rob Cain, a long-time producer in both countries who writes an influential blog on the Chinese film business, said the annualized rate of growth in Chinese box office the past eight years is more than 40 percent, easily double the rate of the second fastest-growing region, the Russian Federation. U.S. box-office growth over the same period has been nearly static, at around 1 percent a year.
“The implications for this are enormous,” Cain said. “China is going to become the dominant film territory in very short order. It’s now 10 percent of the global film business and will probably double the U.S. share of the box office within 10 to 15 years.”
The big man in the room, however, was clearly Zhou Maofei, director of the Beijing Cultural Asset Office, who in lengthy (translated) comments made it clear his city is open for business with Hollywood in a wide variety of ways, including up-front support for projects and production companies.
“The future for collaboration between U.S. and China (film and TV production companies) is great,” Zhou said. “We are looking for co-investments and co-productions.”
Later, Zhou suggested new film-school graduates consider a “bold move,” going to China and establishing their own production company there. Beijing has set aside significant funds in its cultural affairs budget to finance TV and film projects and companies, through subsidies, loans and award money, he said, with the long-term goal of increasing awareness of and openness to Chinese culture. For companies willing to partner and play for the long-term, the opportunities can be huge.
“In this industry, China’s particular strength is still the vast market, the 1.3 billion residents,” Zhou said. “The $20 (each Chinese person spends on average) each year in entertainment is going to grow rapidly.”
But while the director said he and his wife are big fans of Hollywood blockbusters, there’s a largely untapped opportunity to jointly create different kinds of stories, using some of the up-and-coming directors and other talent in China, to create projects that can sell well internationally. Zhou pointed to Lost in Thailand, produced for the equivalent of about $4 million and which has made about $200 million in Chinese box office.
Other panelists said they are working on joint projects that can attract financing, talent and long-term opportunities from both countries’ studios and networks, while navigating between the people who control the green light in each country.
“Working with Chinese film companies and Chinese filmmakers, you can see your stories and your dreams embodied,” said producer Michael Andreen, now director of the Los Angeles office of Beijing-based Le Vision Pictures. “Let’s figure out a story we can do that we can also do in English such that we have a movie that everyone wants to see.”
Among Le Visions’s current projects, Andreen said, is a Chinese film being adapted into an English-language version with an English screenwriter and a German director.
“It’s no different than Clint Eastwood appearing in a film made with an Italian director and funding from all over the place,” Andreen said, referring to the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns of the 1970s.
To help spur American awareness, the city-owned Beijing International Creative Industry Corporation sponsored a competition in the United States for both short and feature-length screenplays set in Beijing, handing out cash prizes and trips to 15 winners. Seven of the 10 short-film winners also had their projects produced.
The grand prize winner, USC grad Galen Tong, spoke at Saturday night’s event. He was awarded a $15,000 prize for his The Monkey King, a project seemingly custom constructed to catch the eye of Chinese authorities still sensitive to the country’s century-long history of foreign incursions before the Communist takeover in the 1950s.
Set in the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th Century, The Monkey King tells the story of a man named Lee whose friend is killed, as it’s termed in a video shown at the event, by “a villainous French military officer” who commands foreign occupiers. Lee joins the Peking Opera and uses the classic Monkey King character as a disguise while he exacts revenge for his friend’s death.
China’s capital isn’t done with its cultural outreach, either. Its next project, hosted by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Radio, Film and TV, will screen seven Chinese films Nov. 1 to Nov. 3 in what’s being called the “Beijing Film Panorama in America.” Naturally, the screenings will be held at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, which is now owned by TCL, a Chinese company.