China turns to scandal for film, TV projects

U.S., Chinese entities look to cash in on genre at AFM

What happens in China doesn't stay in China -- at least not anymore.

A Beverly Hills- and Beijing-based production house -- working in tandem with Chinese partners -- is ripping scandalous headlines from local papers there to use as scenarios for a growing slate of TV and film projects.

Shenhart Entertainment co-founders John Venturini and former CCTV producer Steven Shen have managed to do what just a decade ago might have seemed impossible -- taken highly sensitive stories from Chinese headlines and turned them into hit TV series there.

This week at AFM, Venturini has been fielding myriad meetings with Chinese and U.S. entities looking to cash in on what may be a new hit genre for Chinese TV audiences, he said.

Although Shenhart might best be described as a boutique company at this stage, it's making a big splash in China with its new take on production: Take the story of the Chinese drug smuggler who was flying tons of heroin into the U.S. hidden inside imported fish.

"That embarrassed the Chinese government. They don't like to admit to a drug problem and the fact that a Chinese guy was smuggling heroin into JFK in dead fish was a big thing for them," Venturini said. "So they joined up with the DEA here in the U.S. and in a joint operation busted him and brought him back to China. So this is a story that the Chinese authorities can be proud of -- and they are."

The series has been seen all over China through CCTV under the moniker "Action Without Boundaries." The series was shot in Beijing, New York and Los Angeles.

But 10 years ago, it probably would not have been possible to get approval from the Chinese authorities for such a meaty and true scenario, according to Venturini. Today, with a much more enlightened approach, the Chinese authorities actually see such stories as reflecting the modern new China.

The same was the case with another hit TV series film in both China and the U.S., about a rogue Chinese politician who amassed a fortune at home through bribery and corruption. He made a break for the U.S. and the bright lights of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, where he spent his money like there was no tomorrow, Venturini recalls. Again, the Chinese authorities worked hand-in-hand with U.S. police to track the rogue politician down and bring him back to China to meet his fate.

That 21-episode series is titled simply "Honor" and broke viewing records for CCTV on its first night, with some 21 million viewers tuning into the opening episode.

The company is wrapping a new series based on the true story of a Chinese man who inherited a fortune from his U.S.-born multimillionaire late wife and is now doling out his fortune to needy people and causes at home.

"Audience demands are shifting in China as they look for more and more Western-type programming," Venturini said. "They download a lot of Western shows on the Internet and that is exposing a younger audience to new genres. 'Prison Break,' for instance is one of the most downloaded programs there."

His company has now shot six major TV series for Chinese TV as well as a plethora of documentaries and a few theatricals for general release. At least two new feature films are in the pipeline with 'ripped from the headlines' scenarios. He added that they are awaiting approval from the Chinese authorities before being able to release details.

Much of Venturini's career was spent as a producer in the advertiser arena, but he had an ambition to one day create product for the Chinese market. The story of how that came about is almost as dramatic as any of the projects the company has produced so far, he says.

Shen was traveling around the U.S. with some other CCTV producers when their car overturned in an ice storm in Texas. A friend of Venturini's witnessed the accident and helped the injured producers out of the wreck and called the emergency services. Later, that friend introduced Venturini and Shen and they found they shared a common dream of producing big entertainment offerings in both China and the U.S.

The company now regularly flies in crews from China to work with U.S.-based crews and vice versa. "These guys are real pros and very professional and love working with American crews," Venturini said.

His time at AFM is being spent in wall-to-wall meetings with both U.S. producers looking to film in China and with Chinese independent producers at the market anxious to find U.S. partners, he said.

"Even though we are based in Beijing and in the U.S., AFM is a great place to take time to sit down face-to-face with people who might be hard to meet up with in other circumstances," Venturini said.
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