BEIJING — A group of Chinese filmmakers is touring Los Angeles this week to learn what it takes to make movies with universal appeal.
Though China’s box office rose 61 percent in 2010 and Hollywood films from Avatar to Alice in Wonderland are grossing more in the Middle Kingdom these days than anywhere else outside the U.S., few Chinese films have ever enjoyed such overseas success.
So, the delegation of five Chinese film veterans and ambitious newcomers now is serious about hiring Hollywood help to achieve their goal: exportable movies.
From Pang Hong, a producer of the 2008 Gordon Chan hit supernatural thriller Painted Skin, to talent agent-turned-producer Mu Xiaoying, the delegation is led by former Warner Bros. executive Ellen Eliasoph and Bai Qiang, CEO of Beijing-based company 3D China.
“Things have changed 180 degrees,” said Eliasoph, a 30-year China veteran and managing partner here for U.S. law firm Covington & Burling. “Just five or six years ago, Chinese companies went to Hollywood looking for finance but couldn’t get it because their products weren’t developed properly and had little chance of going overseas. Meanwhile, the Chinese box office wasn’t big enough to care about.”
But now that movies are making real money in China — Avatar grossed $207 million here and Aftershock, by local hero Feng Xiaogang, took in $100 million — China’s industry is looking to expand in step with Beijing’s plans to present a new China to the world using the media.
“What’s nice about traveling with this group is that they’re paying their own way, not looking for money, just looking to partner with real talent that can teach them something,” said Eliasoph, former head of Warner’s China office from 2003-2007.
It’s a trend in the making. Last month, China’s best-known director, Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), hired not only Dark Side FX, the Hollywood team behind The Dark Knight, but also the film’s star, Christian Bale, to work on a $90 million World War II drama called 13 Flowers of Nanjing.
The Chinese in Hollywood this week for meetings with the likes of Rand Holstein of CAA, Sandra Lucchesi of The Gersh Agency, and Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, hope to be taking home a few tricks of the trade. They’re also due at meetings at Castle Rock, Village Roadshow, Warner, Fox, Sony and 3ality.
“These days we’re making so many movies in China but our goal is to make movies that will rise to the standards of Hollywood,” said Mu, who, with backing from a Zhejiang Province-based real estate conglomerate, is developing a popular graphic novel serialized online into what he hopes, a year from now, will turn into a trilogy called Jade Dynasty costing $30 million a picture, a sort of Chinese Lord of the Rings. Mu’s colleagues on the Hollywood trip include Jiang Xinguang and Mao Panfeng.
“We’re here learning how Hollywood works, what’s appealing in Asian films and how better to build relations,” Mu said over the phone.
To that end, USC film professor and accomplished editor, producer and writer Mary Sweeney (long a partner of director David Lynch) told the Chinese visitors that each of their stories had to be developed in such a way that an audience anywhere in the world could understand the characters’ emotional journey, Eliasoph said.
Pang, the CEO of Beijing-based Kylin Network Movie & Culture Media Co is in the process of making Painted Skin 2 with up and coming Chinese Mongolian director Wuershan, whose The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman from Fox International Productions will release in the U.S. in March. “Pang hopes to make Painted Skin 3 in 3D and he wants to cooperate with Hollywood,” said Qiang of 3D China.
Qiang, for his part, recently finished shooting a 3D version of a New Year’s Eve concert in Beijing held by Cui Jian, China’s biggest rock star. With the help of a South Korean crew and U2-3D producer Michael Peyser, also a USC professor. It was the first such 3D filming of big Chinese rock show and one that is bound to be popular as Cui’s anthems carry weight with Chinese from all walks of life.
Veteran Hollywood 3D producer Brian Rogers of Redruth Pictures, now working with Legendary Pictures on director Gareth Edwards‘ upcoming Godzilla for Warner, said he met the Chinese delegates with an open mind. This despite having gone there six years ago to work on project that was brought down by local political infighting.
“It’s not a question of corruption in China any more. It’s more about the system’s rigidity and finding ways to open it up, so the Chinese can be more international and give their movies a chance overseas,” said Rogers, who is helping taking the visitors to CG, 3D and post-production houses Rhythm & Hues, Panavision and Oasis.
Rogers said the Chinese he met over the weekend were forthcoming about their varied business backgrounds — from real estate to socks — but each asked astute questions about the movie business.
“It’s going to take them some considerable time, but the answer today will be different tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,” Rogers said. “They’re learning fast.”