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June 20, 2011

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Not just a pretty backdrop

FOREIGN and Chinese film makers are keen on genuine coproductions in which China isn't just an exotic locale with low production costs, reports Xu Wei.

When it comes to movies, China want to be more than just a pretty face - an exotic backdrop with low production costs. At the just-ended Shanghai International Film festival, film makers from China and many countries expressed keen interest in working together in genuine coproductions, with a China as a full partner sharing investment, risks and rights. There was a lot of brainstorming and pitches were tossed around.

China's booming film market, maturing film industry, low production costs and splendid locations all draw foreign film makers to China to make films for international release. China too wants to make films with foreign companies that are box office hits outside of China. Of course, bridging cultural hurdles to make films of wide appeal is a major challenge.

There have been very few real co-productions in which the Chinese side provides more than backdrop, as in the visually spectacular "The Painted Veil" (2006). The Sino-British film "The White Countess" in 2005 was the first full coproduction between China and another country. In 2007, cooperation went further when the Shanghai Film Group (SFG) became the first Chinese company to invest in a foreign film, "My Blueberry Nights," a coproduction directed by Wang Kar-wai. That was followed the group's coproduction with Universal Studios in 2008 of "The Mummy III," a highly successful franchise.

The latest notable effort was "The Karate Kid" (2010), a coproduction of China Film Group and Sony Pictures.

At the film festival Chinese producers made clear they hope for a new era of collaboration, in which they would participate both in investment and international rights, sharing budgets, risks and resources throughout the entire film making process.

The Sino-American coproduction "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" (2011) is a recent example. The film is a joint effort of Wendi Deng and Hollywood and Chinese production companies. It is to be released on Chinese mainland on June 24.

With universal themes and an international cast including Li Bingbing from Chinese mainland, Gianna Jun from South Korea and Hugh Michael Jackman from Australia, the epic film about the bonds of friendship and family shared by two women has already been sold to more than 30 countries.

Deng shot the film in China largely because of lower labor and film making costs and Chinese production teams were fully engaged.

"We're totally involved in financing, production and distribution," said Ren Zhonglun, president of SFG, a coproducer. "We have learned a great deal from the foreign veterans."

Ren said the group plans four coproductions with foreign companies in the next year. One with Hollywood's Phoenix Pictures will be a love story set against a backdrop of World War II Shanghai where many European Jews sought refuge from Nazi persecution. The film project, loosely based on Chinese author Bei La's novel "The Cursed Piano," interested Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, whose many credits include "Silence of the Lambs" (1990) and "Black Swan" (2010).

Born in Shanghai in 1941, Medavoy spent six years of his life in the city with his parents who were Russian Jews. Coproducer Medavoy said the film would bring together foreign and Chinese film professionals and will mostly be shot in Shanghai. The cast has not been chosen.

"My hope is to give young people opportunities to work on the film and learn more about film making from the artists," Medavoy said last week at the Shanghai film festival.

3D coproduction

The 3D version of "The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven" is another coproduction, to be released next January. It pays tribute to the original 2D version made by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio 50 years ago. The 3D scenes and character images will retain the original Chinese flavor. Signature sequences, color images and the sound track be restored by the Technicolor Business Group, which also provided high-end visual effects.

Ren did not disclose the other two productions.

A few foreign film companies are even preparing their push into Chinese market.

Legendary Entertainment, the maker of box office hits "Inception" (2010) and "The Dark Knight" (2008) recently signed a deal with China's Huayi Brothers Media Corp to form Legendary East, a new film and TV production company based in Hong Kong.

The new venture is dedicated to making or coproducing English-language films and TV shows in China that can be exported to the rest of the world.

Technicolor SFG, a joint venture between SFG and Technicolor Business Group, was set up on June 12 to provide post-production services such as digital intermediate, visual effects, sound work, animation production and game development for Chinese movies and coproductions.

Making pitches

The Shanghai film festival's session titled "Coproduction Film Pitch and Catch" attracted hundreds of directors, producers and international buyers to seek more cooperation and financing possibilities.

Some projects featuring universal themes and distinctive Chinese or Asian elements are suitable for coproduction and have market potential. Many of them are also expected to be shot and produced in China.

Some of the pitches that found favor at the festival include French director-writer Christian Lara's "East Wind West Wind," a comedy romance adapted from a novel by Pearl Buck, and "A Romance In Rome," which was presented by the Draco Tar (Beijing) Culture Development Co Ltd.

"East Wind West Wind" is about the modern evolution of a Chinese family through two children: a daughter who marries a young Chinese man returning from overseas studies and a son who studies abroad and returns married to a Westerner. It highlights cultural and conceptional differences between East and West, as well as two generations. It is expected to be filmed in Sichuan Province and Shanghai next year.

"China's film market is becoming more open and mature," Lara told the pitch session. "China has a great culture but it is not easy to understand for foreigners. We want to mingle our culture with Chinese culture and tradition in the movie."

"A Romance In Rome" is a love story about a couple who are both tired of each other after seven years.

Zhuo Shunguo, general manager of the Draco Tar Culture Development and producer of the film, said that 85 percent of the scenes will be shot in Italy.

"The film's budget has almost been solved," Zhuo said at the session. "We're eager to find more opportunities in other aspects of transnational cooperation such as worldwide distribution and marketing."

Zhuo has produced, supervised and distributed more than 80 films in the past 20 years and believes that a good creative story is essential to any film project.

"Before a film is sent to break into overseas markets, it should first suit the tastes of the local audience and never lose its original flavor," he added.

Last year China produced 526 films; box office takings hit more than 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) in 2010. The country built 313 movie theaters and 1,533 new screens last year, adding to the total of around 6,200 screens nationwide.


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