Can China Make a Movie the Whole World Will Love?

SKIPTRACE -Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Saban Films

Amid a domestic box-office slump, Chinese production companies seek to emulate Hollywood's worldwide "marketing and distribution muscle," said panelists at the Asia Society's 7th annual U.S.-China Film Summit.

In the throes of an uncharacteristic down year for the Chinese box office, it may no longer be enough to churn out product only for the local population. According to experts gathered at the Asia Society’s 7th annual U.S.-China Film Summit, China’s movie industry is more anxious than ever to create content that performs internationally.

“The Chinese are looking for how much further they can take their films,” said William Pfeiffer, executive chairman of global local-language production and financing consortium Globalgate Entertainment. Speaking on a Tuesday panel at UCLA’s Ruskin Conference Center, Pfeiffer said learning from Hollywood’s “marketing and distribution muscle” are among China’s key motivations for allying with U.S. companies.

None of China’s recent hits — Monster Hunt, The Mermaid, Skiptrace — have found much success beyond Asia. The latter film, a Jackie Chan-Johnny Knoxville buddy comedy directed by Renny Harlin, made 97.5 percent of its $136 million worldwide gross in China. Dasym Media Managing Director Charles Coker, a producer on the movie, conceded that it was “not current for American tastes.”

“It was written by an American scriptwriter under the auspices of a Chinese development team,” he added. “Putting a proper financing deal together is more objective than figuring out what works from a creative standpoint.”

Sheri Jeffrey, a partner at entertainment law firm Hogan Lovells, agreed that most so-called co-productions to date have been co-financing transactions. “How to develop a story that’s wildly successful in China and out of China: that’s the nut we have to crack,” she said, adding that early word on Legendary’s $135 million The Great Wall, which premieres in China over the holidays before rolling out to the U.S. in February, is that it too will play disproportionately better on one side of the Pacific.

The secret may be patience, which characterized the mutual courtship between Alibaba Pictures and Amblin Partners before they struck a long-term strategic partnership in October. Sharing the summit stage with Amblin president and co-CEO Jeff Small, Alibaba Pictures president Zhang Wei said that the two companies are taking their time looking for the right project to make together.

“It has to feel very organic,” she said. “We’re not going to force any Chinese elements into Steven [Spielberg]’s movies, and we don’t have to define something as a ‘China story’ or an ‘American story.’ So many stories in Hollywood are about universal values that people around the world can appreciate. We can tell those stories as well.”