'Golden Flower' investors will have to wait

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BEIJING -- "Curse of the Golden Flower" producer Zhang Weiping told local press Monday that investors such as Standard Chartered bank will have to wait at least a year to recoup the money they put into Zhang Yimou's 360 million yuan ($46 million) Oscar-nominee.

In a rare candid interview with the Beijing Times, Zhang criticized the Chinese state-run film system for gouging filmmakers with high taxes, and said his Beijing-based New Picture Co. could not repay money from Standard Chartered of Hong Kong until "Curse" plays out overseas.

"Making movies doesn't make money," Zhang, president of New Picture, told a local reporter. "Roughly 70% of our investment was borrowed from financial institutions who will not share in the profits but will get favorable interest from us."

Thus far, "Curse," starring Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat, has grossed 280 million yuan ($36 million) in ticket sales since its mid-December opening in China, mostly in the wealthy cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

"The potential in medium and small cities is quite limited," Zhang said.

"Curse" has begun to roll out in the U.S. market and later will go to Europe, South Korea, Japan and Southeast Asia.

"It's too early to say if this film is a success or a failure," he said, adding, however, that the film, despite its Oscar nomination for best costumes, was lagging director Zhang's 2002 hit "Hero," which boasted ticket sales of more than $53 million in the U.S. alone.

Producer Zhang said that only eight million people have watched "Curse" so far, compared with "Hero," which was seen by about 11 million.

Ticket prices in Beijing, now averaging 40 yuan ($5.13), have risen sharply with the cost of real estate in recent years and though "Curse" may gross more than "Hero" in China, the number of people who see it could be smaller, Zhang said.

"This is not a good phenomenon," Zhang said.

Zhang, who came to film production from a background in real estate, said that in China's booming economy, one couldn't compare selling apartments to selling movies.

"If an apartment at 10,000 yuan per meter is too much, then you can lower it to 8,000 and even to 5,000, and that's still okay. You can do this gradually," Zhang said. "But with movies ... the best money is still made in the first two weeks of their screening. Once the film cools down, nobody will go to the theater to watch it."

In order to help Chinese filmmakers big and small lessen their risk, Zhang said that the government in Beijing should reduce the taxes imposed on the industry a la the South Korean model, where filmmaking is tax free and subsidized to the tune of several million yuan per picture.

"The film industry is our country's cultural calling card," Zhang said.
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