Chengtian, city-bound in China

Company targets urban viewers as major cultural exporter

As more and more migrants flee rural China seeking wealth, fledgling Chengtian Entertainment is launching a slate called "New City Cinema" hoping to reflect, and cash in on, the modern urban dream.

"The Dangerous Game," by Wang Guangli, is the first in a series of 10 low-budget films due to shoot throughout China. Chengtian hopes the films by 10 different directors will echo the success of the 2006 sleeper "Crazy Stone," from Warner China Film HG and Focus Films. Director Ning Hao's nod to Guy Ritchie's "Snatch" earned more than eight times its 3 million yuan ($385,000) budget despite being shot in the tough-to-understand Sichuan dialect.

Chengtian president Zhuang Liqi shopped the "City" slate idea with industry friends and believes that by trying something different from the court dramas and martial arts films so common in Chinese cinema, the company can appeal to modern city dwellers. That demographic makes up the greatest part of a growing domestic boxoffice, which tripled to $336 million in 2006 since the government began relaxing regulations in 2001, Nielsen NRG and Screen Digest said in January.

Zhuang, former Shanghai general manager of China International Television, says Chengtian also will target Southeast Asian Chinese.

"If we manage to hit both these markets, we will have no trouble earning back our investment," Zhuang says between cigarettes on the company's glass and steel campus clustered around an immaculate lawn and improbably tucked down a narrow, sooty alley on the east side of China's capital.

"Japan's cultural influence is waning, and now there is no doubt that China will be the leading cultural export power in Asia in the future," Zhuang says.

There's a certain poetic justice in what Zhuang says, because he and Chengtian founder Wu Kebo got their start in business in Japan, China's historic rival. Wu, a wealthy telecommunications entrepreneur with Japanese connections stretching back two decades, drew a $20 million strategic investment from Avex, Japan's No. 2 music company, to start up Chengtian.

Wu and Zhuang founded Chengtian and quickly poached Wang Jinghua from China's indie film leaders the Huayi Brothers, whose modern Beijing comedies with director Feng Xiaogang ("Cell Phone") might be their inspiration for the new slate. Wang now leads Chengtian's talent agency, where she represents 50 artists including several English-speaking Chinese actors such as Xia Yu, Ed Norton's martini-mixing sidekick in "The Painted Veil" (2006).

All of Hollywood's top agencies have met with Chengtian executives in Beijing or Los Angeles, unwilling to ignore even the newest players in an expanding market projected to earn $720 million by 2010.

Chengtian also has its hands in big films, too, ones Zhuang believes could help pay for the "New City" experiment. Chengtian will get a credit on John Woo's $75 million "The Battle of Red Cliff," now shooting outside Beijing.

Meanwhile, the script for Wang's "The Dangerous Game" is still in the works, even though it is due to start shooting in March. Wang, whose 2001 film "Go for Broke" re-created a real-life story of six unemployed workers with only a loose script, found Chengtian's willingness to be collaborative "a refreshing, pleasant surprise," says his American producer, Cory Vietor, who is based in Beijing.

Andre Morgan, a longtime producer of films made in Hong Kong and China, says "New City Cinema" is a way for Chengtian to try to replicate the "Crazy Stone" model without risking a lot of money up front.

"Chengtian appears to have money and appears to be spending it wisely," Morgan, who is based in Los Angeles, says.
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