Content took center stage today at the U.S. China Film and Television International Expo downtown during a panel discussion that included executives from China and the U.S. At issue was how to make films work for the Chinese marketplace and what “Chinese elements” need to be in place to work. Miao Xiaotian, general manager of China Film Co-Production Corp., said that for a film to work in China it has to include Chinese elements.
“One main character is Chinese … it is very simple. Without that requirement it does not meet our standards. If American producers want to receive success in China you have to add the Chinese element,” he said through an interpreter.
He said many of the scripts he sees do not meet their requirements, so they try to help filmmakers understand how to change the scripts to reach their standard for co-production.
The issue of content and censorship is one that has followed the Chinese around like a shadow during panels this week here and at the U.S. China Summit held at UCLA.
The relationship with Chinese companies — particularly Dalian Wanda Group, whose chairman Wang Jianlin has said it expects to invest billions into every major studio, and is looking for further investments and acquisitions across the board in Hollywood — has raised the eyebrows of many in the U.S. government. Just last month, John Culberson (R-TX) asked Assistant Attorney General John Carlin to ask for a review on whether Wanda has violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires those acting as agents of foreign countries to make a public disclosure of their relationship with their government. Wang makes no bones about having a direct relationship with the Chinese government.
The FARA act was initiated to thwart foreign agents from infiltrating the U.S. government with propaganda.
According to Xian Li, director of international productions for 20th Century Fox International, who spoke in Chinese through an interpreter: “If we want to make a movie successfully for both countries, you have to include Chinese elements within the story itself. There are rarely stories that can appeal to both countries … if you add Chinese elements, it would be good for both markets.”
Li told Deadline afterwards that the translation was slightly off and what she meant by that was that “for a movie to be a successful co-production, the underlying story should have organic Chinese elements in itself, which is very hard to come by. But if you do have a story that already has Chinese elements in it, you can maybe enhance it to make it a true co-production for both markets. But it has to originates from the story itself first.”
Wei Zhang, president of Alibaba Pictures and SVP Alibaba Group, said, “For Chinese American actors it’s a great opportunity.” She advised any Chinese American actors to “One, speak Chinese, and two, spend time in China to make sure you understand your country.” Oops.
Brian Goldsmith, co-chief operating officer of Lionsgate, said his studio incorporated a Chinese character into their worldwide box office hit Now You See Me, but it came about naturally. Producers “put a big Chinese character in the story. Because he was really into magic and it organically made sense for him to be involved. We shot a portion of the movie in China … we tried to organically incorporate elements into the story.” He said for co-productions, “there are some elements you have to think about. If you try to force elements into it, it won’t work.”
Mike Medavoy, who said his next picture will be shot in China, said, “I don’t think anyone would question that you have to put Chinese elements into (films for co-production). I think the key issue is that there are certain films that work for both audiences. For example, any kind of movie that has fast cars (Fast And Furious), that worked everywhere. Science fiction is an interesting area to explore because China is now sending rockets into space. China is involved in modernizing its fleet. They have an enormous middle class that go to the movies. Detective stories play everywhere … you just have to find the common things that audiences are interested in. A love story works everywhere. A comedy can work in both places depending on what it’s based on . .. Chinese are no different than Americans … it’s about pride in their country and how they feel about their county. I think the Chinese can guide you through what can and can’t work.”
Li urged filmmakers to do their due diligence because the tastes of Chinese audiences have changed. Chinese elements, she said, is not just adding a Chinese character or moving the film location from New York to China. “If you want a Chinese movie, then you have to think about the movie,” she said through an interpreter. “Adding Chinese elements is very important, even no matter what script you have … otherwise, your movie would be very weird to air in China.”
Simon Sun, EVP of Le Vision Pictures USA, said the world has changed so much that “You have to think about China. I feel as passionately when we approach a project … is that more for the U.S. or for China? Sometimes we like the project, but we don’t feel it works everywhere, we try to fix the problem. The most important thing for us is the idea. If the idea kind of resonates with the audience, I think we have already reached a big step forward. Another thing, those characters are a major obstacle or task to make it relevant to Chinese audience. If we can make the characters more relatable for a Chinese audience … the performance [of the film] will be enhanced.”
All the executives on the panel noted the importance of communication to resolve problems and misunderstandings that come up, and a fair amount do come up between cultures. Goldsmith and Li said that whether you are working with the Chinese or with Germany or others, all countries have their own culture so choosing partners is key.
“When you choose a very good partner, you can communicate … respecting each other is the very basic foundation,” she said. Miao Xiaotian, who moderated the panel, said, “We want to make a good movie and we have to have understanding and trust from both sides, but we have the cultural difference and that cause some misunderstandings sometimes.”
And what are the Chinese elements outside of place or face? Miao waved off the question and would not answer. How about concerns for filmmakers who want to do business with China, given the election where one candidate (Donald Trump) has spoken about putting trade restrictions on China?
“That candidate is not going to win so what difference does it make?” said Medavoy to a round of applause.