CAA snaps up 'High School Musical' trio

Producer Yang, director Chen and star Ma sign with agency's China office

BEIJING -- Creative Artists Agency has snapped up the producer, director and lead actress behind Walt Disney Studios International Productions' Chinese version of the global hit franchise "High School Musical," due out in theaters here nationwide in August.

Hollywood producer Janet Yang, New York-based director Chen Shizheng and Beijing-born actress Ma Zihan are now all represented by the CAA team, which set up shop in China's capital in 2005, led by agents Peter Loehr, Jonah Greenberg and Jessica Chen.

Yang, who CAA will represent for Mandarin-language projects, has long worked on Hollywood movies about China and the West, from Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" in 1987, through Wayne Wang's 1993 "The Joy Luck Club" and Chen's "Dark Matter," a Sundance Film Festival winner in 2007.

Yang said her partnership with CAA would provide her with a "home base" away from her Los Angeles home and be mostly about sharing information on new projects and people.

"CAA in China is very integrated into Chinese society. It's not as though they are some big Western company trying to barge in. They've been instrumental in building up the business in the last five years," said Yang.

In that time, China's boxoffice has grown rapidly, jumping 43% in 2009 to reach $909 million, a trend that's expected to improve this year and one that is drawing increased attention from across the Pacific. "HSM" is Disney's fourth film made in China as a co-production, a status that allows it to skirt a government-imposed cap on imported films.

Yang first introduced Greenberg to Chen and Ma in the spring. "While we were shooting, I thought hard about who should represent them now that they're going to get huge exposure with 'High School Musical,'" said Yang. "I decided CAA would 'get it' better than a lot of the Chinese companies."

Chinese management firms often put up lots of money to develop talent but, in turn, take a far greater cut of their clients' fees, sometimes as high as 70%, Yang said.

Director and writer Chen, who's in his 40s, is a native of Hunan Province in central China. He has worked with Yang before -- on "Dark Matter," directing Meryl Streep and Chinese actor Liu Ye. But he is best known, perhaps, for his 19-hour stage production of the classic Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion," at Lincoln Center, in 1999.

CAA will represent Chen for the stage from New York and in motion pictures from Los Angeles and Beijing.

Actress Ma, 22, plays love interest Ning Ning in the upcoming "Disney High School Musical: China" -- as the film is officially known in English. In her native Mandarin, the film is called "Ge Wu Qing Chun," or "Musical Youth."

Hailing from Chengde, about two hours east of Beijing, Ma is learning English and often goes by the name Ivy. In "HSM" she plays opposite pop singer turned actor Zhang Junning, the only member of the cast with any prior fame.

CAA recently helped Ma land a part in a TV remake of a 15-year-old Chinese series called "Take Love All the Way" that Beijing Galloping Horse Productions will start shooting in the port city of Qingdao in July. Ma also has a bit role in the next film from Gao Chunshu, director of the 2009 hit "The Message."

Disney's "High School Musical" franchise has now reached more than 290 million viewers in over 30 languages across 100 countries. Millions of viewers in China have seen the original, starring Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron, downloading or streaming it illegally for free from the Internet or buying it on cheap and readily available pirated DVDs. None of the "HSM" trilogy a theatrical release in China.

In 2009, a live stage production of "High School Musical" made Shanghai its second stop on a global tour, after debuting in South Africa at the end of 2008. The Shanghai Grand Theater nearly sold out for two weeks, with tickets going for as much as 680 yuan ($99), a small fortune for most ordinary Chinese.
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