China takes on Hollywood in b.o. battle

Directors offer ways to defeat dominance of imports

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HONG KONG -- John Woo and Feng Xiaogang, the only two directors to break the 300 million yuan ($44 million) boxoffice barrier in China, said the country's movie business is in a battle with Hollywood that will require it to honor the past while embracing the cutting-edge production values of today.

Woo, whose first part of "Red Cliff" raked in more than $44 million last summer in China, said that Chinese-language films need to reclaim the audience taken over by Hollywood blockbusters.

The secret to his success, he said, was to combine stories derived from Chinese culture with Hollywood production values.

"Many audiences in Asia and Hong Kong only watch Hollywood films nowadays," he said. "The priority of the Chinese-language filmmaker is to retain the Asian sentiment and cultural heritage in their work but present it in a way that is comparable to what the audience is familiar with -- the production values of the Hollywood blockbusters."

"China is a director-driven, not star-driven, market; directors are the ones who draw the audience into the cinema," said Feng, whose films have been setting boxoffice records in China for the past decade and a half. His latest film, "If You Are the One," grossed more than $44 million during the 2008 Christmas season.

Speaking on Wednesday at the Hong Kong Film New Action business forum organized by the Hong Kong Film Development Council, Feng stated that the future of Chinese-language films lies within the country itself.

"In 2003, the total boxoffice gross in China was 1 billion yuan; in 2008, the number rose to 4.6 billion," he said. "The number of screens increased by 130% for the last year; two new screens were built each day. For the 4,000 screens in China today, a film can break 300 million yuan; we don't have to wait until the number levels with what it is in the U.S. -- around 40,000. By the time we have 8,000 screens, we can achieve $1 billion in homeland boxoffice gross alone.

"For a film with a $20 million budget, we can recoup the investment just within China, so there is no need to rely on the foreign market," said Feng, who shared the panel with Woo, "Infernal Affairs" director Andrew Lau and helmer Oliver Stone, who was in town to promote "W."

Feng also cited 350 main cities where the exhibition business is in early stages of development. Combined with the steady 25% annual increase for the past few years, "we can foresee that in five years, the total boxoffice gross will exceed 30 billion yuan ($4.4 billion)," he said. "That will be the time that Chinese-language films will take on an international importance that can't be overlooked."

Feng said he has proposed an initiative to the Chinese government and members of the film industry to speed up the process of doubling the number of screens in China -- thus reaching the coveted $100 million boxoffice in the country -- by setting a target of 5 billion yuan as the amount needed for the cinema exhibition project. He urged the government to pitch in 1.5 billion yuan from boxoffice taxes as incentive for the industry.

"We have to build the market within China before we can take on foreign markets," Feng said.

The director added that Chinese filmmakers can't solely focus on film as art or culture.

"If this is a battle between Hollywood films and Chinese-language films at the Chinese boxoffice, Hollywood is fighting in a business sense," Feng said. "We can't fight this battle as if film is culture. This is a business war, not a cultural war."