Hong Kong, China film partnership fruitful

In the seven years since Hong Kong and China signed their Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, filmmakers from both territories have laughed all the way to the bank.

Since 2003, a raft of films made as Hong Kong-China co-productions have helped China's boxoffice gross grow an average of 25% a year. In 2009, a dozen films made jointly by Hong Kong- and China-based companies helped a few Hollywood blockbusters push China's boxoffice gross up a record 43% to 6.2 billion yuan ($908 million).

Veteran Hong Kong producer Raymond Wong's hit comedy "All's Well Ends Well, Too 2010" -- the debut from Pegasus, which he founded with his screenwriter son, Edmond -- grossed more than 60 million yuan ($8.8 million) during the Lunar New Year moviegoing season. Its co-production partner was Enlight Pictures in Beijing.

At the Hong Kong Filmart (Mar. 21-24), the Wongs -- father and son -- will unveil a $10 million sequel to the martial arts epic "Ip Man," about Bruce Lee's trainer. "Co-production prospects are getting better and better," papa Wong says.

The highest-grossing Chinese-language films in Hong Kong and China are co-productions. More than half of China's 2009 boxoffice gross (56.6%, to be precise) was earned by homegrown Chinese films and China-Hong Kong co-productions, according to the State Administration Radio Film and Television in Beijing.

Six hundred films showed in China last year and while the Hollywood import "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" topped the boxoffice at 450 million yuan ($66 million), the 12 Chinese-language films that grossed 100 million yuan ($14.7 million) or more all were co-productions.

"Co-productions are the driving force in the Chinese as well as Hong Kong market for Chinese-language films," Wong says.

Boosting China's sales potential is the moviegoing public's sheer size. "As more cinemas are built, the audience is more inclined to watch films in cinemas instead of on pirated DVDs," Wong says. China added 626 new screens in 2009 -- that's 1.7 new screens every day, bringing the national total to 4,723 screens by Jan. 1.

Though China's ticket sales soared, they were only 8.4% of the United States' gross of $10.8 billion last year. But when boxoffice growth in China is nearly five times as fast as growth in the U.S., people notice, particularly today's shaky recovery.

"People are looking at China regardless of where they are in the media and entertainment world and seeing the last frontier," says Janet Yang, producer of Disney's forthcoming Chinese-language version of "High School Musical" with Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Pictures and the Shanghai Media Group.

"China is going against the trend around the world that news is bleak. Rather, news in China's film business is very, very good," Yang says.

To Yang, who came to her parent's homeland in the mid-1980s to help Universal and Paramount promote 1960s Hollywood movies such as "Roman Holiday" and "Spartacus," it wasn't a question of whether Hollywood studios would learn to work in China but when.

Thirty years, and several noble attempts later -- first by Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia under Barbara Robinson in Hong Kong and then by Warner China Film Hengdian under Ellen Eliasoph in Beijing -- a Hollywood studio has co-produced a Chinese-language boxoffice hit in "Hot Summer Days" that it planned carefully at every stage.

"Crossing Hennessy"

In a nation filled with media companies mired in bureaucracy, some say it was a "third-mover advantage" that allowed Fox International Pictures under Sanford Panitch to avoid mistakes made by his predecessors. There's little doubt that co-production with sister company Star TV and, again, with Huayi Bros., helped, too. Huayi, after all, is the first publicly listed (read, relatively transparent) mainland Chinese film studio.

Fox and Disney, which already has a pair of China co-productions under its belt ("Secret of the Magic Gourd," 2007; "Trail of the Panda," 2009) are now in the lead in among Hollywood studios co-producing films expressly for Chinese, Yang says.

"Disney saw that they had a successful franchise and thought it was time that it be tailor-made for the Chinese. But that's just one model," Yang adds.

Another is the "Kung Fu Kid" model, which forgoes official co-production status and its guaranteed China release for being an "assisted production." Sony intends it for the Western audience, where derivative-weary moviegoers may get a thrill from unfamiliar Chinese stories and themes.

Accountants may like it too, as this route takes advantage of cheap local locations and labor.

"Down the road, there might be the same migration to China as there was to Canada, since it can be so economical to make movies here," Yang says.

No matter what city they call home, studios targeting the Chinese-language audience go for co-productions for three reasons, says Jeffrey Chan, a Hong Kong film veteran who is now COO of Beijing-based Bona International Film Group.

First, Chan says, co-productions are market-driven: "We can tap into the talent resources of directors and actors in both China and Hong Kong which prove more attractive to the Chinese market as well as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Southeast Asia."

Bona's 2009 hit thriller, "Overheard," about cops using a wire to bust inside traders, followed a strong example in plot and pacing set by its own writer-director team: Alan Mak and Felix Chong. Their 2002 hit "Infernal Affairs" was remade in 2006 as "The Departed," which won Martin Scorsese his first Oscar.

Riding on the "Overheard" success, Bona is now involved in several co-productions, including director Derek Yee's "Triple Tap; the martial arts mega-production "Shaolin," with Hong Kong-based Emperor Motion Pictures; and Wong Kar Wai's "The Grand Master," now shooting in China with the Hong Kong director's outfit, Jet Tone.

Chan says the second reason Hong Kong-China co-productions thrive is the operational efficiency of Hong Kong film industry pros. "Hong Kong provides better legal support for contracts, payment, and various operational procedures, especially on projects that involve personnel from outside China," Chan says.

Third, Chan says, Hong Kong-China co-productions simplify sales into buzzworthy Taiwan which caps imports of China-only productions. "Hong Kong-China co-pros don't have to apply for a quota in Taiwan, which makes it easier for us," says Chan.

Among the big co-productions coming this summer is a 75 million yuan ($11 million) 3D Chinese fantasy adaptation of "Don Quixote," from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hong Kong-based Filmko, whose GM of Distribution, Dominic Yip, puts it succinctly: "China's market is too huge for us to miss. For every film with a budget over 30 million yuan, China is definitely part of the equation."

Also due out this summer is "High School Musical: China," (called Ge Wu Qing Chun or "Musical Youth" in Mandarin), with Huayi's role in the Disney co-pro coming in the form script development, by bringing in writer Zhang Jialu ("The Message"), through to Huayi's role as a licensed distributor.

Felice Bee, Huayi's head of co-productions, says the company's rapidly growing bilingual staff is in a good position to help Hollywood.

"A lot of outsiders still view China as tourists. But it's Huayi business to care most about what's going to play to the Chinese audience," Bee says. A rise in Hong Kong-China and trans-Pacific cinematic cross-fertilization has meant an overall rise in China's film industry skills, Bee says. Of the eight films Huayi has announced for 2010, two are co-productions: Disney's and, with Emperor of Hong Kong, "Stool Pigeon," with actors Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung."

"The Hollywood studios and the Hong Kong realize they have to do local language Mandarin films, so there are now fewer people blowing hot air," Bee says. "There's a general increase in knowledge about the way things work in China."

Trying to show she's a part of that sharpening of China's industry, Cindy Lin of Beijing-based Infotainment recently helped Rosem Films and TF1 of France produce award-winning Chinese director Wang Chao's "Memory of Love." Lin says she is working with U.S. law firm Loeb & Loeb with the hope of drawing more Hollywood filmmakers to China on the promise of trustworthiness. "It's hard to find a Chinese company that will not manipulate production costs," Lin admits.

For Hong Kong filmmakers who've worked seven years under favorable trade terms (no Chinese import quota), co-productions were borne of necessity, says award-winning writer-director Ivy Ho: "Historically, industries in Hong Kong were export-oriented. Now Hong Kong is a post-industrial city which has seen most of the industries shifted to China. The only homegrown industry left is the film industry, and it's a creative industry at that."

"Crossing Hennessy," Ho's second film as a director, was one of the films to open the Hong Kong International Film Festival on Sunday. It stars Chinese actress Tang Wei ("Lust, Caution") and Hong Kong leading man Jacky Cheung ("July Rhapsody").

"Hong Kong co-productions with China are only a natural development," Ho says. "They are exports for the Chinese market as much as films in previous decades were exports for Southeast Asia and beyond."

Following a period of Chiu-chow dialect films made for export to the Chinese Diaspora in Asia and the West, Hong Kong's film industry went through a period in the 1960s and 1970s -- while China's doors were closed -- when local studios made Cantonese movies for local filmgoers and Southeast Asians, and Mandarin films for Taiwan. In the early 1980s, there were even action films made for South America.

"Hong Kong's film industry has gone through a very difficult period," Ho says. "It has always been transforming. If co-production is the way forward, why not?"

For Ho and others, the priority is to maintain Hong Kong's filmmaking infrastructure. "If Hong Kong filmmakers can make a living in China shooting co-productions, at least they can come back to work on Hong Kong projects, too," she says. "It's a matter of human resources as much as it is a matter of investment."