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September 2, 2011

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An industry at the crossroads

FOR Hollywood, the Chinese film market presented a splendid box-office return this summer. And among the top five box-office hits of all time in China, three are from Hollywood: "Avatar" at US$182 million, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" at US$145.5 million and "Kung Fu Panda 2" at US$91.5 million.

However, "Legend of a Rabbit," a 3D animated movie produced completely by a Chinese team and aimed at competing with the best of the West, grossed only 16.2 million yuan (US$2.5 million) in the Chinese market last month after its release on July 11.

The US$18.8 million 3D production, which took more than 500 animators three years to complete, last Sunday shared the Best Animation Award of Huabiao, China's highest government honor in the film industry, along with three other animated films.

In the last few years, China has become a key destination for big Hollywood films. "Avatar," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Inception" and "2012" made more money in China than they did anywhere else outside the US.

However, Chinese films, even blockbusters such as the earthquake drama "Aftershock," rarely do well in the US market.

Rare successes

Made-in-China films were first launched in North America in the 1980s.

However, successes had been rare until December 2000, when "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a kung fu drama directed by Ang Lee, hit the screen.

As the most profitable Chinese film, the movie, released by Sony Pictures Classics, grossed a total of US$128 million in roughly 2,000 theaters in North America.

Almost four years later, "Hero," a smash hit directed by Zhang Yimou and distributed by Miramax, made another wave by garnering US$53.7 million in ticket sales, making it the second most profitable Chinese film in the US market. It was also ranked the No. 1 movie at the US box office for two weeks in a row.

But still, many Chinese films have met with box-office failure after brief showings in a small number of US cinemas.

"Aftershock," which grossed over US$100 million in China, earned only US$60,954 in 25 US theaters. John Woo's US$80 million "Red Cliff" netted merely US$627,047 in 42 US cinemas in 2009.

China Lion Film Distribution, a Los Angeles-based company that distributes Chinese-language films via an exclusive deal with AMC, North America's No. 2 theater chain, for the US and Toronto markets, has distributed several Chinese-language films in North America over the last year, including "Aftershock," "The Warring States," "A Beautiful Life" and "If You Are the One II."

"If You Are the One II," a romantic comedy directed by Feng Xiaogang, earned US$427,000, with more than 90 percent of viewers being Chinese or Chinese Americans.

Such earnings, humble even by Chinese standards, are already much better than other Chinese films released in North America. Most of the Chinese-language films were just screened in around 20 theaters. Over the decade, although Chinese films have increased their presence in US theaters, most moviegoers still tend to prefer Chinese martial arts films rather than straight dramas or comedies.

Chinese films that are not kung fu movies are usually screened in "art house" cinemas in major cities - the main location for foreign-language films.

"Chinese films in the US are subject to market forces," said Richard L. Anderson, an Oscar winner in sound effects. "The US distribution companies are audience-driven. They buy what they think they can sell here."


Foreign-language films rarely find more than a niche audience in the US. Their tastes and cultural preferences obviously bar them from watching Chinese-language films.

"Red Cliff" ended in a fiasco with only US$627,047 in the North American market. But in Japan, the film quickly became a phenomenon when it opened in 2008 and was one of the hottest movies that year.

Besides hot actors in the movie, Japanese viewers' knowledge of the Chinese novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" served well.

It was the same case in France for "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame." The kung fu movie, directed by Tsui Hark, did fairly well when it opened in April. It ranked ninth at the French box office, a strong performance for a foreign film.

Experts say that the success of the movie was due to the French people's familiarity with the main character, Detective Dee, who had been made famous in Western countries by late Dutch diplomat and writer Robert Van Gulik.

Besides US viewers preferring local films, Chinese films have their own problems.

Technology has always been an integral part of film making. But the lack of professionals in film making has plagued the Chinese industry for years.

Feng, director of "Aftershock," said that when he shot the earthquake drama, numerous disaster scenes had to be processed abroad. Although there was an imported apparatus with more than 5,000 functions of audio-and-visual effects, the machine could not be fully utilized "because technicians could only use perhaps 500 of them."

Meanwhile, although there are a small group of actors, directors and producers at the top of the movie industry who are extraordinarily successful, talent among screenwriters and directors has not been actively cultivated.

"Money is not the problem. The film industry is desperate for creative talent," said Wang Zhongjun, chairman of Huayi Brothers Media Group, China's first listed private film company.

Three years ago, when "Kung Fu Panda" broke the Chinese box-office record for highest-grossing animated feature with 180 million yuan, many questioned why the DreamWorks film had not been made by a Chinese company, as it borrowed heavily from Chinese culture.

For years, local moviegoers have complaining that Chinese animated films are not as funny or as good as their Hollywood counterparts. When "Legend of a Rabbit" was released last month, many questioned the originality of the movie, saying it was just an imitation of "Kung Fu Panda."

The US audience's preference for domestically produced movies and China's lag in film-making technology are certainly obstacles, but insiders say that storytelling seems to be the biggest problem.

Mark Osborne, one of the directors of "Kung Fu Panda," once said that if Chinese animation film makers want to learn something from Hollywood, they should learn "how to tell an interesting story."

Hollywood's storytelling methods are not unique to the US but are universal ways to attract human souls, he said.

Yin Hong, a professor of film and television studies with Beijing's Tsinghua University, said Chinese films have not yet found a cultural and artistic strategy for telling a Chinese story with a global perspective and for expressing universal cultural values through film.

"America is such a multi-racial, multi-cultural society that they have been able to make movies for the lowest common denominator," Chris D. Nebe, an acclaimed Hollywood writer, producer and director, said in Los Angeles. "That's why everybody understands them and likes them."


China has been endeavoring to let its films go global by participating in various movie markets and renowned international film festivals.

But among the efforts, experts say creative partnerships between Chinese and foreign companies are one of the most important and effective ways.

Co-productions can not only help to grow China's own industry but also to export Chinese movies. Introducing Chinese movies to the world is part of China's cultural strategy that helps build up its "soft power."

"To increase our share in the international film market, we must spend much time on film promotion and marketing," said Yang Buting, board chairman of China Film Promotion International.

"Hollywood's successful global distribution system will benefit Chinese films through co-productions. To cooperate with foreign companies, it will be their job to distribute the film in their countries. This is much more effective than selling the film by ourselves," said Yang.

Partnerships between Chinese and Hollywood movie makers have increased. Oscar-winning actor Christian Bale played the leading role in Zhang Yimou's "The 13 Women of Nanjing."

Meanwhile, Mike Medavoy, producer of "Black Swan" and who was born in Shanghai, is working with Beijing-based film promoters to help Chinese films go global. Hugh Jackman starred in "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," Wendi Murdoch's first co-produced movie.

In addition, Oscar winner Branko Lustig, producer of "Schindler's List," has announced his plan to produce "The Melanie Violin," a movie about Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II.

In one of the latest big moves, Huayi Brothers Media, China's largest independent film studio, and Los Angeles-based production company Legendary Entertainment, maker of such global box-office hits as "Inception" and "The Dark Knight," formed in June a new Sino-US venture called Legendary East.

New project

Earlier this month, the newly formed, Hong Kong-based and Chinese-managed entertainment company announced its first project, "The Great Wall," which is designed to be a "globally appealing" adventure movie and will be directed by Edward Zwick, director of "The Last Samurai."

In China, the project will be distributed by Legendary East's co-production partner, Huayi Brothers. Warner Bros is expected to handle other territories.

As China is advancing fast, especially in film financing and distribution, some have warned, including actress Gong Li, that what is more important is the quality of movies.

"I know some films were done in only a month," Gong said. "No one talked thoroughly of the screenplay. This does not happen in Hollywood. A good screenplay needs to be worked on time and time again."

For a Chinese film maker to win over US viewers, the most important thing is to incorporate Chinese elements with Western ones in terms of storytelling and film techniques, said Nebe.

The Hollywood writer was involved in producing "Mysterious China," an award-winning series of documentaries exploring China and its 5,000-year-old culture, with Chinese filmmakers.

"Since we want laowai (foreigners) to understand China, we have to give them information in the laowai fashion," he said.


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