Rogers shows China way West

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As Beijing prepares for the 2008 Summer Olympics, a Canadian-made drama is ready to give Chinese TV viewers a crash course in ethnic diversity and Western ways.

Next month, Toronto multicultural TV station Rogers Omni 2 will begin shooting 20 one-hour episodes of "Once Upon a Time in Toronto," a Mandarin-language drama about the ups and downs of Chinese immigrant families living in the Ontario capital.

Rogers Omni 2 co-financed the Canadian-made drama with Chinese producer China Western Movie Group (formerly known as the Xi'An Film Studio) and will begin airing it n the fall. And Wang Dawei, a co-producer with the Xi'An, Shaanxi-based China Western Movie Group, said he is negotiating Chinese broadcast rights with state-run national broadcaster China Central TV as well as provincial channels.

Irene Chu, president of Toronto-based Goldspin Prods. and executive producer of the series, said authorities at China's State Administration of Radio, Film and TV gave the project their blessing in 2004, viewing it as an educational exercise for the traditionally insular Chinese before Westerners descend on the country for the Olympics.

"The Chinese are mass-educated by TV," Chu said. "And by having this series on air, hopefully toward the end of 2007, (Chinese authorities) will let the people know more about Western lives."

Wang added that SARFT's official backing for the Chinese financing and broadcast of the Canadian drama should help dispel confusion among the international media as to whether foreign investment in Chinese media is welcome, following recent SARFT pronouncements (HR 12/11).

"Once Upon a Time" originally was to portray Chinese students in Toronto, following the success of the 2004 series "Farewell, Vancouver," which aired on CCTV-8 and followed the lives of Chinese exchange students in Canada.

But Chu said the script soon expanded beyond the lives of students to include those of their parents and grandparents to expose generation gaps and conflict.

Mainland Chinese director Yang Yazhou ("Pretty Big Feet") was hired to helm the drama, and a stable of Canadians came aboard to pen the scripts, thus satisfying the division of labor required for an official Chinese-Canadian co-production.

However, after Chu secured a co-production permit from SARFT, the companies learned that China and Canada have yet to sign an official co-production treaty covering TV series (the nations have a long-standing agreement for feature films). This means the series makes do without key Canadian government subsidies traditionally offered for official co-productions, relying largely on Rogers Omni 2 to fill out financing from the Canadian end.

Rogers Communications, Canada's largest cabler and the parent of Rogers Omni 2, recently secured licenses for nine mostly Mandarin-language Chinese cable channels that it has begun marketing here as the Great Wall package of channels (HR 1/3).

Despite lacking official co-production status, Chu said SARFT has remained on board with "Once Upon a Time," regarding the Canadian TV series as "assisted" by Chinese participation.

Etan Vlessing reported from Toronto; Jonathan Landreth reported from Beijing.
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