Globalization reinventing film industry

Wang Zhonglei strikes a pose in Beijing (photo by Chien-min Chung)

Major players in the international marketplace weigh in

A spiky-haired man in a sleek black shirt plants himself at the center of a room packed with canisters of film.

The orange, red and blue cans tower above him, but Wang Zhonglei -- or James Wang, as he's known outside his Beijing base -- isn't intimidated. After all, as president of Huayi Brothers Media Corp., the savvy exec has transformed cans like these (and the movies inside them) into gold, so much that in October he and his brother were able to raise more than $160 million in an IPO on the Shenzhen stock exchange.
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He glances at the canisters without nostalgia. "With digital," he shrugs, "all this will soon be gone."

It will indeed, just like the old movie business that Wang and his peers are rapidly transforming. Across the globe, men and women like Wang, Germany's Bettina Brokemper and France's Vincent Maraval are ushering in a new business model where Hollywood is no longer the center of all things, but where foreign outposts like theirs are at the heart of decision-making.

The growth of international box­office has made this inevitable. Foreign revenue reached $29.9 billion in 2009, compared with $10.6 billion in the U.S. That means international constitutes 64% of worldwide boxoffice -- up 20% from just a few years ago.

China is now the second-biggest boxoffice territory for Hollywood films, eclipsing Japan. In fact, "Avatar" made more money in China ($194 million) than in any country except the U.S., a showing that helped convince distributor Fox to follow Disney, Sony and Warner Bros. into Chinese-language movie-making.

Huayi recently released Fox's first such effort, "Hot Summer Days," which grossed 130 million yuan
($19 million), roughly four times what the studio had anticipated. Huayi also helped Disney produce a Chinese version of "High School Musical" set in a Shanghai college.

"Five years ago," Wang boasts, "we hoped (the Hollywood studios) could bring us support and investment. Now we're helping them."

'What have I forgotten?'

Five-thousand miles away, Vincent Maraval is helping them, too. Sort of.

Hunched in his Paris office, phones ringing nonstop, staff swirling around him, the sales superstar of production/ distribution house Wild Bunch -- one of the few entities that American filmmakers can count on for money -- is in constant motion, though dealing with Hollywood counts for only a small part of that.

As his iPhone rings for the hundredth time in the past 15 minutes, he lunges for it.

"Oui!" he demands.

Sitting under a giant poster of the controversial French film "Baise-moi" (Rape Me), he notes that at any moment four different calls are coming through on his cell phone, while his e-mail inbox is accepting messages at the rate of one every .0004 seconds. He gets 350-600 e-mails every day heading into the festival, most labeled "urgent."

In the lead-up to Cannes, "His phone rings all the time," notes Wild Bunch COO Brahim Chioua.

Finding Maraval in his office is a rare occurrence. The workaholic spends much of the year traveling to film festivals across the globe and estimates he's in Paris only about 10 days per month. A medium-height, slightly thickset Frenchman whose green rugby shirt gives him the air of a professional sportsman, he could teach Americans lessons in energy. He plays hard, works hard--especially today.

"Bitch!" he yells.

The salesman isn't angry; he's suggesting that word as the title for a new French-language movie starring Tahar Rahim ("A Prophet"). "I want to change the title," he says. "We also need to find a title for the Dardenne brothers' (picture)."

Vincent Maraval
 

He sits back for a moment and shakes his head, amused at his own ferocity. These days, he says, "The adrenaline is so strong that I can only sleep a maximum of three hours. I wake up in the middle of the night, stressed out about something. Even if I somehow find 10 minutes to breathe in all the chaos, I think, 'What have I forgotten?' Before Cannes, I constantly ask myself, 'Is our lineup balanced? Do we have films that are more along the lines of Wild Bunch's auteur international identity?' "

A few years ago, companies like Wild Bunch were on the fringe of filmmaking. Those were the days when Cannes was dominated by American product. Today, as even the major studios are investing in local filmmaking ("indigenous" product, they call it), high-caliber international powerhouses like Wild Bunch are busier than ever.

Which means so is Maraval.

A 20-year Cannes veteran who started his career as an intern at cinema chain UGC after attending business school in Bordeaux, Maraval will be making his 13th appearance at the Marche for Wild Bunch this year.

He's very much a businessman, despite the artists he deals with. "I like the passion of distributors from all over the world," he says, "but I like the artistic milieu less. It's filled with spoiled brats."He adds, "I don't consider myself part of the film business--I don't live in Paris and I go out very little to cocktails and (industry) parties."

He does, however, go out for business, all over the world. Globalization, he says, "opens opportunities for those who know how to take risks." Like Maraval.

"Two hours and 20 minutes!" he sputters into the phone, arguing that his movie isn't too long to screen during the festival. "If you don't take it, I'll march up to the podium myself!" He hangs up and barely has time to press "end call" when a colleague taps him on the shoulder, asking about another title. "They want it, but after Tuesday," Maraval says. "I told him Sunday or Tuesday--or nothing."

Does that mean he'd turn down Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux? He shrugs. "If it's between a small screening in the Directors' Fortnight or a gala screening in Toronto, sometimes I'd prefer the latter."



Then his eyes twinkle.This may be big business, but it's also a game.

"It's like high-level sports," he grins. "We need to live only for that."

'I wasn't interested in the business'

Bettina Brokemper is living only for that.

In her small Cologne office, smoking heavy Gauloises cigarettes, the worldly producer is doing what she does best: Exercising the art of persuasion.

She takes a puff while on the phone, negotiating with the star of her new movie, "The City Below," as if her life depended on it. "It's a lovely bed-and-breakfast," she cajoles, pleading with the actress to stay in a B&B rather than make Brokemper's Heimatfilm pay for an expensive hotel.

What about director Christoph Hochhausler, the actress asks? Will he also be in the B&B? Uh,no. "Christoph is staying in the hotel. But the festival's paying for that!"

The actress finally caves.

"Great!" Brokemper smiles. Then she moves onto her next piece of business.

Just a glance at that business indicates how global the industry has become. Brokemper is organizing a Swedish shoot for Danish director Lars von Trier's "Melancholia." She's putting together international financing for a biopic on philosopher Hannah Arendt, directed byGermany's Margarethe von Trotta; and, right next door, her partner Johannes Rexin is chatting with French producers about Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska's "Sponsoring," toplining Gallic superstar Juliette Binoche.

The movie Brokemper is taking to Cannes, "The City Below," a drama set in the world of high finance, isn't finished yet--final color-grading should be done this week. Then Brokemper will head to a copying facility in Munich to make the four prints Cannes requires and, after that, to Holland to get subtitles done in English and French.

There's a ton of stuff to do before she leaves. Co-workers dart in and out of her office-- one with a set of photos that needs to be approved, another to discuss which firm will cut a trailer. Then there's the issue of posters: Brokemper thinks they're a waste of money but concedes that "every director wants to see posters of his film in Cannes."

Bettina Brokemper
 

The glamour of Cannes seems odd juxtaposed with her office in one of Cologne's rougher industrial neighborhoods. It's a clutter of old objects--a box of kids' clothes, a broken plaster-of- Paris Jesus lying on the windowsill, a plastic robot and 1970s-style ashtray on her desk. On the wall hangs a clump of accreditations from more than a decade of A-list festivals, including a dozen Cannes.

Matching her office, the very tall, very blonde producer is comfy-casual, with no makeup and a loose gray sweater. She grins as if to say, "This might be my life, but that doesn't mean I have to take it seriously."

For her first Cannes, back in 1991, Brokemper snuck in using fake business cards and wideeyed enthusiasm.

"I wasn't interested in the business; I was just a film fan," she laughs. "I slept on the campgrounds, went to five films a day and conned my way into parties at night. Cannes was never that good again."

Since then, she has seen the festival from every angle, whether scrambling for press and world sales on Hochhausler's debut, "I Am Guilty," or juggling business with breastfeeding following the birth of her daughter, or being the center of a media storm as co-producer on several von Trier films, including the all-out scandal that was last year's "Antichrist."

"Lars was in a really good mood before the press conference," she recalls. "But the very first question was an attack. And so he did what he always does when he's attacked --goes into that 'I'm the greatest filmmaker in theworld' pose. It was a shame."

That won't be repeated this year, or so Brokemper hopes. She is scrutinizing every aspect of "City Below's"Cannes strategy, working with Cologne-based sales outfit the Match Factory.

"I've asked for aTuesday slot for the premiere," she says, echoing Maraval. "The first weekend is crazy; by Wednesday, people are already leaving. So Sunday, Monday or Tuesday is best."

Faced with all this stress, Heimatfilm's queen bee remains relaxed and calm. But she knows she won't always be like this. "The schedule is very tight," she says. "Nothing can go wrong. And something always (does)."

Horses, cash and kung fu ...

Unless you're Wang Zhonglei.

Back in Beijing, as he prepares to take his team to Cannes, he seems utterly unfazed--hardly surprising for an executive who now heads the only film studio to be publicly traded in China.

Since Huayi Brothers' founding in 1994, Wang and his older sibling Wang Zhongjun (aka Dennis) have grown their company from a small advertising firm into a conglomerate in a media marketplace complicated by censorship, piracy and, until now, a lack of investment capital. Net profit for 2009 rose 23% to 84 million yuan ($12.3 million), compared with 2008.

To celebrate their IPO, at the end of Beijing's bitterly cold February the Wangs flew 300 employees to the South China resort island of Hainan. They not only paid for hotel rooms but also doled out red envelopes of cash ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 yuan ($293 to $2,930) to a host of young, increasingly bilingual staff.

Wang talks about this quietly, with a relaxed confidence. A slight pause between answers--broken by a broad smile--is the only hitch in his smooth delivery, perhaps reflecting the pressure he's now feeling at the forefront of this high-energy crowd.

Like Maraval, he deals with hundreds of e-mails each day and works till 2 a.m. every night--though he often takes time to lunch with his 4-year-old son. Unlike Maraval, he is also dealing with new found media wealth that has allowed him and his brother, who live in separate villas a stone's throw from their headquarters, to maintain a stable of 60 horses.

Again, like Maraval and Brokemper, he's an exemplar of an international world that is increasingly snatching power from Hollywood.

It's interesting, then, that in many ways Wang and his brother have emulated Hollywood of old. Like the golden era studios, they oversee a vertical chain of entertainment units, including film, television, music, advertising and talent management, controlling everything from script to screen. But unlike those studios, their base is in the fast-rising Chinese market.

"Apart from kung fu films, Chinese films are not going to have a big market internationally," Wang says. "Sales are not the most important thing. We go to Cannes because of the history and to try to focus world attention on the new type of Chinese film we're making."

That new type of film will grow increasingly important in the years to come, if Wang is right. Chinese boxoffice for 2009 may have been only slightly more than $900 million, but with per-capita gross domestic product now topping $10,000 for the first time, Wang expects the number of patrons to explode.

And he'll be here when they do--even if the film cans aren't.

"We'll weld these into a sculpture to our success," he quips.

Jonathan Landreth reported from Beijing, Rebecca Leffler from Paris and Scott Roxborough from Cologne, Germany.
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