China’s ambitious new film entrepreneurs, dozens of whom gathered in the Los Angeles area this week 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, NY Times reports.
“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 on Tuesday.
But, Mr. 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 $3.5 billion in sales this year. That growing market has been pursued aggressively, and with considerable success, by Hollywood, whose studios — to capture a mainland audience for films like “Iron Man 3” or “Pacific Rim”— have worked with Chinese partners, added Chinese subplots and bent over backward to satisfy China’s watchful censors.
But 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,” said Yu Dong, the chief executive of China’s Bona Film Group, which is about 20 percent owned by 21st Century Fox.
Mr. Yu 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,” said Rob Cain, a film consultant who is working with Chinese companies that hope to crack the global market, despite robust growth at home.
At home, ticket sales have been rising about 35 percent annually. And they show no sign of letting up, as the number of movie screens, which has been rising at a similar rate and promises to reach about 18,000 this year, continues its expansion into smaller markets. Also, China’s domestic box office has recently tilted toward Chinese films rather than foreign imports.
But the urge to export movies, Mr. Cain said, has much to do with the Chinese government’s promotion of what is often called “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 said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
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.
Styled the “Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis,” Wanda’s proposed development is projected to cost as much as $8.2 billion, and would match or surpass the capacity of studios in the United States.
But 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 had about $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 mostly have been Hollywood products with a Chinese veneer.
In a next wave, China’s emerging film companies are proposing to reverse the equation, by finding Chinese stories with global appeal and just enough American content or backing to attract viewers who have grown comfortable with Hollywood-style movies.
As Mr. Yu puts it, any Chinese film with international ambitions must be rooted what he called “an American way of looking at China.”
His own company’s best bet, Mr. Yu said, 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 said of the film, which is still in the script stage.
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 that starred Keanu Reeves. The film, which has dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese, sold few tickets when it was released on a handful of screens in the United States by Radius-TWC.
An enduring challenge for Chinese filmmakers who want to go global is their own government’s insistence on tight control of film content through a still-rigorous censorship apparatus.
“We want to see positive Chinese images,” Zhang Xun, president of the China Film Co-Production Corporation, told those assembled at the film conference on Tuesday. To underscore her point, Ms. 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, for instance, said in a Tuesday interview that 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, a thousand years ago.
Mr. Zhang said he believed the global breakthrough for China would come “very soon,” though, earlier in the day, he sounded a cautious note on the subject.
“I don’t think Chinese films can travel the world all that well,” he warned peers during a panel discussion.
But, Mr. Yu, of the Bona Film Group, contended that to conquer the movie universe, it is really only necessary to prevail in two places, the United States and China.
“If we are able to play a part in these two markets, we pretty much control a majority of the world,” he said.
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