Ask pretty much any Hollywood exec what it takes to gain a foothold in China, and they’ll tell you it’s about patience and perseverance. That means spending lots of time in the market and grasping a cultural understanding of the ins and outs of a rapidly morphing industry that has become the second-biggest box office in the world. But it comes with restrictions — wielded, for the most part, by government-backed entities.
With all that in mind, there were a number of messages sent out by Hollywood and Chinese execs Monday at the U.S. China Film & Television Industry Expo in downtown Los Angeles. Key among the themes were the primary ingredients required for a successful co-production, the importance of “honest” partners and ways to adapt to the rapidly changing Middle Kingdom business. Among the panelists were Relativity’s Ryan Kavanaugh, The Weinstein Co’s David Glasser, Fox Rothschild partner Jody Simon, Shanghai Film Association Vice Chairman Wang Tianyun, veteran Chinese producer Bill Kong, and Yunnan Film Group President Zhang Xun.
Kavanaugh, who’s been active in China for a decade and is developing The Merchant Of Shanghai to shoot there, said the Chinese industry “operates a lot differently than the United States. In the U.S., you want to put a film out, you make the movie, you put the film out, and people buy it or they don’t. In China, it has to be culturally … something that is meaningful both to the government and to the people. And it’s very important to the Chinese government that films that come out are something that have a message. It doesn’t have to be their message but a message that is important.”
As Western companies increasingly set up shop in and work with China, straight co-pros have nevertheless remained somewhat elusive for Hollywood – neither Transformers: Age Of Extinction nor Iron Man 3 ultimately went for the stamp but used local elements and are the biggest Hollywood pictures ever in the market. Said Glasser, who’s working with China Film Group on the official co-production of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: “Everybody sees sometimes new markets as opportunities, whether it’s fresh cash or opportunities. But going into China, it’s about respect and it’s about partnership.”
Kavanaugh echoed that, saying: “When you’re working in China, it’s important that you understand it’s a different set of rules than it is here. China is a country that operates and is run by the government, and you have to recognize that and you have to respect it.”
Zhang noted that “true co-productions must jointly share investment and risk. They can be about any country, but the story has to be related to China, and one-third of the actors have to be Chinese.” The former General Manager of China Film Co-production Corporation said difficulties have come because of “a lack of efficient, deep communication” and “cultural understanding.” Speaking through a translator, she also warned Hollywood that “the door to the Chinese market is wide open, but if you choose to jump over the wall, it’s not appropriate. … When the door opened, there were a lot of people waiting to ride in on white horses, but not all of them were princes.”
In what sounded like another warning, she said: “You have to think deep on the subject matter and work with solid honest partners. Do not graft forcefully the Hollywood-style movie onto China.”
Kong, who has produced films ranging from the original Crouching Tiger to House Of Flying Daggers and Coming Home, sounded a bit like William Goldman when he said: “One thing I learned these 14 or 15 years is that it’s just the beginning. I really don’t know anything because things change in China so quickly. … So what you know yesterday no longer applies today.”