Suitors rap on China's door

Potential partners aplenty but hurdles remain

BUSAN, South Korea -- Hours into his first trip to Korea, Doug Liman, the 44-year-old producer-director of “Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” was seated next to an Inner Mongolian debut director whose name he could barely pronounce.

In a hotel lounge at the Pusan International Film Festival on Monday, Liman — who is presenting the 40-something, one-named former commercial director and visual artist Wuershan’s debut feature, “The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman,” for 20th Century Fox — laid out his reasons for being there.

“The world is getting smaller and it’s exciting that people with such vastly different backgrounds can collaborate on films,” he said. Asked what, exactly, he was helping Wuershan do as executive producer Liman broke his trip down some more.

“The reality is that it’s about promoting the film,” Liman said. “I wouldn’t even begin to offer him feedback on his edit, just as I wouldn’t want feedback on mine.”

The film, which was made for $1.5 million with Beijing-based Taihe Universal Film Investment and First Cuts Features, is the second Mandarin-language co-production from Fox International Prods., a division of 20th Century Fox. 

“Butcher,” the story of a mystical blade whose power alters its owners’ fates, is also presented by Chinese director Ning Hao (“Crazy Stone”). It’s due to release in China on Nov. 25, just in time for the year-end movie-going season. FIP’s first Chinese-language co-production, “Hot Summer Days,” with Huayi Brothers last year, was made for $2 million and grossed more than $19 million.

For years, the Hollywood studios and the Motion Picture Assn. have fought with China’s film industry regulators to try to gain greater access for their blockbusters, only 20 of which are allowed into the market each year on a revenue sharing basis. Now, just as there’s more talk than ever before about the possibility of China lifting that import cap under pressure from the World Trade Organization, a combination of timing and calculation has left Fox on the cusp of gaining a new kind of entry into China.

It’s against this backdrop and China’s atomic box office growth – up more than 80% this year – that impelled France, Singapore and New Zealand all signed film treaties with Beijing in the last six months in a rush to establish toeholds in a market where
Hollywood has a big jump.

This year’s box office gross got a big boost from Fox’s “Avatar,” which grossed $200 million in China, making the territory James Cameron’s biggest outside the United States.

It’s against this backdrop that Britain, India, Russia and Belgium are all circling film treaties with Beijing, too — agreements that would give their productions ­ favorable distribution terms in exchange for agreeing to the state censors’ final cut.

The biggest Chinese co-production success so far was John Woo’s 2008 “Red Cliff,” which the Hong Kong director with a decade or more of Hollywood chops, made with money from China, the U.S., Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

“Red Cliff" grossed more than $100 million in Asian territories, including $47 million in China, $53 in Japan and $9 million in South Korea. But not every co-production can be a “Red Cliff.”

Distrust on both sides of any co-production and wildly different business cultures mean that each one is a crap shoot, especially if language means lots is lost in translation.

“The bridge we build between us will take a long time to build and many attempts to construct, and then it will take a long time to cross,” says Tony Safford, executive vp worldwide acquisitions for 20th Century Fox, Searchlight and FIP.

Calling the phrase “That’s not how we do things,” the worst conversation stopper he knows, Safford, who was leaving Pusan for Beijing on a plane, said, “We hear it a great deal in Korea, China and India, and we are learning we can’t behave as we’d like to behave, as a big arrogant U.S. studio.”

Hiring local staff, such as Golden Network’s Carrie Chu in Hong Kong, and local counsel, FIP, which is headed by Sanford Panitch, is hoping to be in Chinese films for the foreseeable future. “There’s a great business there,” Safford said. “It’s just figuring out how to get it cracked open.”

Wuershan, for his part, seemed pleased to have been discovered by these men who can’t pronounce his name. “For the subject matter I’m interested in and the costume dramas and action epics I’d like to make, it’s best to work with an international company like Fox that can guarantee delivery of a quality film,” he said.

In a discussion about co-productions with Safford on Monday, Hu Xiaofeng, a producer on “Red Cliff” and on “Aftershock” — China’s biggest homegrown box office success to date — stated the case for choosing a Chinese co-production partner, splitting them into two categories for the audience gathered at the PIFF panel.

“We worked with the state company, the China Film Group, on ‘Red Cliff’ because they have control of the channels you need to get a film seen,” Hu said. “But there are also new privately invested companies such as Huayi and Bona, which have great potential for development. They don’t have such established systems, but that gives them flexibility.”

Some of that flexibility is seen in Beijing-based Bona International Film Group, run by CEO Yu Dong, which in June signed a co-production agreement with Korean powerhouse CJ Entertainment, the company that, way back in 1995, gave Steven Spielberg $300 million for an 11% stake in DreamWorks 1.0.

The first project Bona and CJ are working on together is, perhaps fittingly, a Chinese remake of a Hollywood picture, director Chen Daming’s “What Women Want,” starring Andy Lau and Gong Li. It’s the first of more to come, said CJ’s Mike Suh Hyun-dong, senior vp for international film financing and production.

“CJ will have priority over distribution of films concerning Korean and Japanese territories. Bona will lead on films in Chinese regions,” Suh said. “The partnership is mainly based on distribution and some joint-production. We will share content and make suggestions to each other as we go.”

Not to be outdone by private companies talking up China co-productions, Mao Xiaotian, deputy general manager of China Film Co-production Corp., was heard at a PIFF panel on Southeast Asia co-prods earlier in the week reiterating the benefits of working with what, for now, remains the biggest filmmaking concern in the fastest growing movie market in the world.

Would-be partners from smaller Asian markets aren’t yet as bold as Fox or the other studios to try to get into China. Their concerns are real and very simple. Amy Iamphungphorn, executive director of Five Star Prods. in Bangkok, will begin to look at co-productions with China, but is concerned that Beijing’s tough ­­censorship will bar many Thai movies, in which ghouls are part of the regular cast.
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