Asia ready to fill in gaps if U.S. majors call

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SEOUL -- A looming writers strike is threatening to bring North American film projects to a halt, but producers working in Asia are still going strong as co-productions and other international ventures continue to grow in importance to Hollywood.

And while the U.S. studios have not yet stepped up their international plans, producers in Hollywood and Asia say those options are more ready than ever should a strike drag out.

"My sense is that everybody is so focused on dealing with the pending strike, they are just trying to get as many spring projects finalized as possible," said Dede Nickerson, a Beijing-based producer for Paramount Pictures' Digital Media Group and the China Interactive Media Group. "The focus is not on how to fill the gap yet, but that will come. Then the U.S. studios will begin looking at Asia and non-U.S. markets for new product.

"AFM will be interesting, to see how the majors fill the gap."

Asia has for several years been growing in importance to Hollywood, both as a source of creativity and revenue. Japan, with $1.76 billion in 2006, is the world's second-largest movie market in terms of theatrical revenue; South Korea's $1.1 billion is the fifth-largest; and China's $336 million is rising rapidly thanks to 1.3 billion people and an average annual growth rate for theatrical revenue of 42% since 2003.

Already, the major studios have projects in the works around the region. Warner Bros. has been involved in many high-profile films, from two "Deathnote" movies in Japan to the record-setting "Crazy Stone" in China.

Universal Pictures Japan and Shochiku are co-producers on "Midnight Eagle," a $10 million thriller that opens later in November.

"Greater interest was already in place even before the strike threatened, both in studios getting involved in local-language productions (in China, India and Japan) and in co-productions," said Nansun Shi, a Hong Kong film veteran.

And the list goes on. Disney co-produced "The Secret of the Magic Gourd" with the China Film Group and Hong Kong's Centro Digital Pictures. Warners is co-producing the Indian film "Made in China" and the Japanese film "Sushi King! Goes to New York."

Meanwhile, the Weinstein brothers are teaming with China's Huayi Brothers to make the Jet Li-Jackie Chan film "The Forbidden Kingdom."

With the production connections in place, the question for many producers is how long it will take for studios to come calling.

"A prolonged strike in the U.S. might affect the amount of attention the studios in Hollywood pay to local productions in non-English-language territories like South Korea," said Roy Lee, head of Vertigo Entertainment. "I know of at least two studios that were interested in developing projects based on their intellectual properties for non-English-language films as local productions outside the U.S. If the strike lasts a long period of time, I may develop projects in Asia because the guild rules do not apply to the writers and directors there."

In addition to Hollywood's involvement in non-English movies, co-productions within Asia with an eye on the West have been on the rise for the past several years. Hong Kong producer Bill Kong's live-action, English-language adaptation of the Japanese anime "Blood: The Last Vampire," starring Korea's Jun Ji-hyun, is directed by France's Chris Nahon.

Vietnamese-French director Ahn Hung Tran is making the English-language thriller "I Come With the Rain," set in Hong Kong and starring Josh Harnett, Elias Koteas, Japan's Takuya Kimura and Korea's Lee Byung-hun.

But even for enterprising Hollywood executives willing to make the gamble and try producing in Asia, many doubt whether local producers can create projects at a level Western audiences will embrace.

"I just don't think there are enough writers here to substitute for the quality of writers in the states," said Peter Anshin, president of the Tokyo-based Asia Entertainment Finance Associates. "If you are looking for concept-driven programs like in the West, the question is not about story but of structure. Methods are not as honed here as in West. Certainly the business aspect is not there. Especially the legal, contractual framework is not in place."
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