China Co-Producers Share Views on the Future of the Business

Shanghai Film Festival hears from Ren Zhonglun, Peter Loehr, Dan Mintz, Nansun Shi and E. Bennett Walsh


SHANGHAI -- As China’s box office booms -- rising 64 percent last year to hit $1.5 billion (up from just $150 million in 2005) -- five veterans of Chinese film co-productions gathered at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival on Monday to share their views on the future of the business.

The panelists were Ren Zhonglun, president and chairman of the Shanghai Film Group (The Mummy III: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor); Peter Loehr, managing director in China of Hollywood talent agency CAA; Dan Mintz, CEO, DMG Entertainment (The Founding of a Republic, Looper); Nansun Shi, chairwoman, Distribution Workshop, a production company backed by Bona International Film Group, China’s the largest independent film distributor; and E. Bennett Walsh, independent producer in China of Quentin Tarantino’s two Kill Bill films and of The Kite Runner.

Following is an edited transcript of the panelists’ answers to questions posed by veteran Beijing-based film producer Zhang Zhao, formerly president of Enlight Pictures and now working with Chinese Internet video company

Zhang Zhao: What are you looking for when you come to make a film in China?

E. Bennett Walsh: When Hollywood looks to come to China, it’s best to be very careful. I came for the workforce and the locations. Big blockbusters like The Mummy III and The Karate Kid could have taken better advantage of China.

Zhang: What’s your outlook on distribution in China and overseas?

Shi: You need to have a story that requires a connection between the two audiences, the West and China.

Zhang: What’s it like to work for a company like DMG that was founded by an American and Chinese?

Mintz: We have many Chinese elements in our company, but most important in our collaboration is taking time to getting to know one another through our filmmaking, through our international language, our common points. We need to make sure that our films meet the tastes of the Chinese audience. It’s not enough to have the American viewpoint. We need to have the Chinese view.

Zhang: Agenting is tough part of the industry, how do you reconcile conflicting interests when you package a film?

Loehr: As an agency we’re honored to cooperate with lots of talents and good ideas from both sides, from China and from America. A lot of artists we represent make requests of us. We’ve been a part of 20 co-productions over the years. Sometimes they happened by accident; sometimes it’s well planned. We play a bridging role. Of course we sometimes have difficulties, but in terms of co-productions, it’s rare to have such serious conflicts. The whole process of The Karate Kid negotiations only took about nine months. The initial agreement was made very rapidly. We always need to balance different interests. Sometimes the China Film Group is not the best partner to work with. We’ve done projects with almost every film group in China and each time we make very careful considerations about choosing the right partner.

Zhang: Where is SFG in its evolution of co-productions?

Ren: First, there was Empire of the Sun, when the local government blocked a lot of roads so Spielberg could shoot in Shanghai. Second there was The Mummy III, which also was in cooperation with SFG. Now we’re at the third stage, when we’re looking at good stories with Chinese elements and international appeal.

Zhang: What was the toughest part about Kill Bill?

Walsh: Back then, it was bridging the different working styles, but there was such openness to accommodation that after a week of shooting together, people started to understand one another. Five years later, on The Kite Runner, China was a completely different place. It proved that people are willing to change and adapt.

Zhang: If you’re working for SFG and for Disney, who do you listen to?

Walsh: That’s a good question that gets asked a lot. I listen to the film. The script, the director the budget – they’re my guides. Sometimes each side will disagree, but my guide is the film and its needs. I tell people coming from Hollywood to China to start small, get to know them. Don’t go in for the short haul, go for the long term.

Hollywood has gone more and more global. Fifteen years ago Hollywood was not shooting much outside America, now we’re going anywhere in the world to find the best quality and relationships.

Zhang: What’s the biggest challenge in co-productions?

Shi: In 1991, when I did my first Hong Kong-China film co-production, there was still a quota system for Hong Kong films. Chinese partners came dressed very formally, while the Hong Kong crew came dressed very casually. That’s the challenge, finding the right partners and learning to relax. That and finding the right screenplay.

Zhang: Tell us about the business model for Looper, starring Bruce Willis.

Mintz: We need a clear positioning for any co-production and with Looper it’s an international film with some Chinese elements. Endgame is our investment partner and Sony is our distributor.

Zhang: How do you keep SFG competitive in co-productions?

Ren: Shanghai was the first Chinese city to open its doors to the outside world it’s in the city’s spirit to be open. We have the most complete value chain, including features, documentaries and animation plus the control of 800 screens in 66 cities across the China, roughly 10 percent of the local market.

Zhang: In one or two sentences, give us your summary five-year outlook for U.S.-China co-productions

Walsh: What’s important in the next five years is that both sides invest in each other’s projects. Both sides have to share the risk and the revenue, finding new business models that will make both sides comfortable.

Shi: I’d like to see more co-productions in China and expect that we’ll see more genres added to the mix. Governments should introduce more enabling policy environments to benefit filmmakers. I want to see a Sino-India co-production since these are the two biggest markets.

Mintz: I hope there will be no co-productions. I think we can ignore these irrelevant matters. We need to focus on the filmmaking.

Loehr: I’m sure there will be more co-productions because Asian markets are growing so rapidly and many Western companies need the capital and the growth. China will enter a stage of growth enjoyed in America in 1950s. Policies for co-productions have become more open and many Chinese filmmakers are going to go more into international projects.

Ren: Our hope is that Chinese film and culture will become as influential as the Chinese economy has become in the world.