China: Hollywood Hopes 2014 Is the Year of the Co-Production

21 & Over Film Still - H 2013
Relativity Media

21 & Over Film Still - H 2013

"There is a lot of froth," says Relativity's Ryan Kavanaugh of his studio and Legendary's earlier efforts -- but new reforms and a push from John Woo and Bruno Wu are giving the industry hope.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Are the seeds of China co-productions finally going to bear fruit?

Two years ago, it seemed there was a new co-production announcement every week. U.S. studios such as Legendary Entertainment and Relativity Media generated tons of attention because "co-prod status" would have given their movies special access to China and enhanced revenue-sharing.

PHOTOS: China Box Office: 10 Highest-Grossing Movies of All Time

But Legendary failed to gain traction on the Hong Kong stock exchange, and while Relativity's links to China-focused investor IDG have been a success, the company has not delivered a global blockbuster. A raft of superhero projects with Chinese elements still are waiting to suit up, including Stan Lee's The Annihilator with state-run fund manager National Film Capital and X-Men and Transformers writer-producer Tom DeSanto's Gods, which would have drawn on classic Chinese literature.

Further, the movies that initially looked set to earn the co-prod title, Iron Man 3 and The Expendables 2, ended up being released in China without it.

"None of these deals have come in the way that we expected," Steve Ransohoff, co-president of completion bond company Film Finances, told an American Film Market conference in November. Regulatory hurdles, restrictions on capital and the hubris of Chinese officials have been blamed.

"There is a lot of froth," Ryan Kavanaugh, CEO of Relativity, which shot alternate scenes for its teen comedy 21 & Over in China, told a panel at the American Film Market in November. "I think a lot of [co-production] funds have found the process of getting their money out is very difficult."

But 2014 is arriving with cautious optimism. China's ruling party unveiled reforms in November that should lift major barriers to foreign investment, especially in entertainment.

STORY: AFM: Ryan Kavanaugh Predicts Summer 'Blood Bath' for Majors as Action Movies Pile Up

John Woo, one of the few directors from the Chinese-language industry to go mainstream, is expected to be busy in 2014. His $40 million two-part movie The Crossing, a collaboration between Beijing Galloping Horse and China Film Group, is being produced by Woo and longtime collaborator Terence Chang's Lion Rock Productions. And Dasym Investment Strategies and Exclusive Media are collaborating with China Film Group on Woo's Flying Tigers, an action drama about American pilots who volunteered to join the Chinese Air Force and fight the Japanese during World War II.

Bruno Wu's Sun Media Group linked with Harvest Fund Management to create an $800 million fund to back entertainment ventures in China. And there is buzz about The Weinstein Co.'s long-anticipated sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, slated to begin shooting in June. That month, Paramount will release Transformers: Age of Extinction, which has strong Chinese elements including input from Jiaflix (though it might not qualify as a co-production).

Thomas Tull's Legendary East inked a deal in May with the all-powerful China Film Group, and while the company's China arm kept a low profile in 2013, activity is expected in 2014. Legendary's new host studio Universal, which in November announced plans to open a Beijing office to concentrate on co-productions, also should prove useful.