Asia opens doors to best of West
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"East is East, and West is West, and never the 'twain shall meet," Rudyard Kipling proclaimed in 1892. But more than a century later, Hollywood is determined to prove the poet wrong.
This summer, DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda," facing down criticism from some quarters that it exploited Chinese culture, became the top-grossing animated film ever at the Chinese boxoffice. Universal's action sequel "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" -- a co-production with Shanghai Film Studios, Beijing Happy Pictures and the China Co-Production Film Corp. -- opened in China in the wake of the Beijing Olympics and pulled in $14 million in its first 14 days.
"There's a tremendous awareness of American tentpole blockbusters, and there's a tremendous want-to-see in China," Hong Kong-based producer Andre Morgan said. "And the Chinese are also doing a better job of controlling DVD piracy."
But when films move from East to West, they don't automatically meet the same reception.
Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a co-production between the China Film Co-Production Corp. and Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia -- the Sony arm has a long-standing presence in the region -- set the bar when it was released stateside in 2000. It made $128.1 million to become the high-grossing foreign-language film in America, a record no other film has since come close to challenging.
This past year, for example, Stephen Chow's "CJ7," an effects-filled fantasy produced by Chow's Star Overseas and Columbia Asia, was a hit in foreign markets, grossing more than $47 million and topping the 100 million yuan ($14.6 million) mark in China. But on U.S. shores, its limited release attracted a little more than $200,000.
The U.S. market for foreign-language films is so depressed that distributors aren't offering more than mid-six-figures for North American rights. As a result, with no serious offers coming from buyers, such big Asian action movies as Peter Chan's "The War Lords" and John Woo's "Red Cliff" are currently without American distributors.
The hard truth is that most of the Asian-produced films that will screen at the 13th Pusan International Film Festival will never win U.S. exposure. And even big-budget American movies can get lost in translation when they try to conquer Asian markets. Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer," which ran out of gas in the U.S., didn't do appreciably better in foreign markets despite its anime roots.
Still, when Hollywood eyes Asia, it sees an enormous opportunity simply because there are so many ticket buyers lining up to see both locally produced product and American imports.
In 2007, according to the MPA, Asia accounted for the largest number of ticket buyers in the world. While North American moviegoers racked up 1.4 billion admissions, the Asian Pacific region registered 4.17 billion. In terms of U.S. dollars, Asia Pacific rang up $6.92 billion, closing in on the $9.63 billion in North American boxoffice revenue.
Given the size of the potential Asian audience -- which can only grow as the Asian economies grow -- Hollywood is stepping up its efforts in some parts of Asia, looking to foster local productions that will play in their home markets as well as the occasional crossover hit that can travel to other territories. If in the process it further opens doors for the exhibition of American-made titles, all the better.
Universal, which also has been ramping up its international production arm -- Universal Pictures International Studios, led by Christian Grass -- sees developing ongoing relationships in territories as part of its larger international strategy.
"To be competitive overseas, it's vital that we are also making movies for those international audiences," Universal co-chairman David Linde said.
In the case of China, Linde and James Schamus, who heads Uni's Focus Features, have a long-standing relationship with Hong Kong producer Bill Kong, with whom they worked on "Crouching Tiger." That has led to a multi-tiered partnership: His production services company paved the way for "Mummy" to film in China, he distributes Uni titles in both Hong Kong and mainland China through his company Edko, and the studio expects to make two or three local movies with him during the coming year.
At the same time, in Japan, where it has one of its own execs in place, Uni has set up a couple of co-productions, "Dororo" and "Midnight Eagle." And last month, Uni and Focus joined forces with Korean's CJ Entertainment to co-produce director Park Chan-wook's next film, "Thirst." CJ will distribute in Korea and retain international sales rights, while Focus will handle the North American release of the vampire tale about a priest who volunteers for medical experiments.
"Films like 'Old Boy' and 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance' got sold internationally after their domestic release, but in the case of 'Thirst,' it is a first for a Korean film to get U.S. studio investment and distribution in North America before its domestic release," said Park, acknowledging that the deal reflects his growing profile abroad.
In May, Fox Filmed Entertainment launched Fox International Prods., headed by Sanford Panitch, and quickly became the latest studio to lay down a marker in Asia. At Hong Kong's Asia Media Summit last month, Fox and satellite broadcaster Star, both units of News Corp., announced a new joint venture, Fox Star Studios, to develop local-language films. Beginning with a unit in India, under the direction of Vijay Singh, they're also planning Greater China and Southeast Asia operations.
"Outside of Japan, Star is the largest satellite provider in Asia, so for us, it felt like a natural partnership to take on an essential TV player," Panitch said by phone during a stop in Tokyo on his way to Pusan. Since American films only command 5%-7% of the market in India, the key to success there is developing local movies with appeal in their home territory.
"As a global distribution company, if there is an opportunity to find a 'Kung Fu Hustle' or a 'Pan's Labyrinth' or a 'La Vie en Rose,' a movie that has the potential to cross over, that is great," he added, "but our primary goal is for the movie to be successful in the market that it's made for."
Fox also has turned its attention to Japan, where it is putting together a slate of Japanese-language movies. First up, in partnership with Fuji TV, is a theatrical remake of "Sideways," in which two Japanese characters travel to the Napa Valley.
Warners, where Richard Fox handles the international production efforts, has been seeking local partners since 1999, producing and/or distributing more than 230 films outside the U.S. It recently scored in Japan with the two "Death Note" movies as well as Hideo Nakata's thriller "L: Change the World."
"Many of these films may never be seen beyond their national borders, but they represent an important contribution to cultural diversity, entertainment and business sectors in their countries and help Warner Bros. to develop relationships with directors, producers and talent," studio spokesman Scott Rowe said.
Currently, the studio is particularly busy in India. "Saas Bahu aur Sensex" is Warner Bros. Pictures India's first Indian film to be distributed locally. In January, it will release the adventure comedy "Chandni Chowk to China," starring Bollywood star Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone. And it has entered into an exclusive, multipicture deal with Soundarya Rajnikanth's Ocher Studios for the production and distribution of films in Tamil, Teleglu and other South Indian languages.
In the summer, Warners India also announced its first animated film, "Bird With Cap." Disney already has paved the way when it comes to U.S.-Indian animated co-productions; "Roadside Romeo," a co-production between Disney and Yash Raj Films -- the tale of a spoiled, rich dog who finds himself abandoned in the mean streets of Mumbai -- will be released this month in India.
Right now, the question is when will China see a comparable level of co-production activity. In the past year, authorities have become quite strict about what scripts, both homegrown and imported, they will approve for production. In part, the tighter regulations resulted from the fallout surrounding Lee's "Lust, Caution," which was distributed in China only after its more explicit sex scenes were excised. And while China prepared for Olympics while also dealing with problems like the Tibet riots and the Szechaun earthquake, authorities were in no mood to give film producers free reign, and the studios mostly steered clear. The Weinstein Co.'s upcoming period piece, "Shanghai," starring John Cusack and Li Gong, was one of a number of films denied permission to film in China.
"Now that the Olympics are over, there is a sense here that there will be a gradual relaxation of the censorship," one insider said, "but the truth is, it's a very slow and tough process getting scripts approved, and the whole process has come to a grinding halt."