Cooperation, patience keys to working in China

Producer Tom Lynch pull off the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Honors telecast in China.


This is the second in a monthly series of 12 articles dealing with the international media's preparations for the Beijing Olympics and the cultural and practical challenges facing thousands of producers headed to China's capital in 2008.

Green slime was very much top of mind for producer Tom Lynch as he sat down one early morning in Beijing for a rare meeting with the president of children's programming at Chinese broadcaster CCTV. He was determined to get to the bottom of the slime issue one way or the other, regardless of protocol.

Lynch, a Los Angeles-based creator and producer of teen shows, was in China to produce the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Honors. He was determined to make the show experience fun and even more determined to encourage the Chinese kids in the audience to have fun.

"I wanted the kids to slime each other. Problem was, nobody had ever heard of play slime. And the kids were just so quiet and well behaved," Lynch recalls.

His local Chinese advisers and co-producers told him to back off the slime idea. It just didn't seem to fit culturally into the picture.

"But I wasn't going to leave there without sliming -- sliming is the iconic look of Nick," Lynch says. "So there was the president, and he didn't speak much English, and there I was, and I didn't speak Chinese, and I was wondering about how to get his permission for us to slime. (The show was being shot in conjunction with CCTV). Then I jumped up and hugged him and made out like I was sliming him, and he smiled and seemed to understand what I was asking. Anyway, I took it as a yes -- and yes the audience did have fun with play slime and glow sticks and such."

The story epitomizes the odd cultural encounters that might face the thousands of media professionals descending on Beijing in 2008 to cover the Olympic Games and produce countless backdrop specials and films. There never will have been such an influx of foreign producers for Beijing media authorities to have to deal with. But producers like Lynch who have pioneered Western TV production in China stress that simple good manners and respect -- even a little humor -- can go along way to melting even the most resistant naysayers.

Emmy-winning producer Bertram van Munster is another veteran of the Chinese shoot, most recently with the Asian version of the hit reality series "The Amazing Race."

"It's much easier now than say just seven or eight years ago. The rules are a lot looser now," the producer says. "The first time I filmed in China was in 1983 (during President Reagan's visit), and it was very tight and restrictive. But when I went there for 'Amazing Race: Asia' I saw tremendous change in attitude. We got permission to film in temples and all kinds of archaeological and historical sites, and that was with a crew of 60 or 70 people. We filmed in Shanghai and Xian and Beijing, even the Great Wall, and pretty much never encountered any difficulty. Everybody was most cooperative."

Lynch and van Munster agree that the best experience for shooting in China is ... experience in shooting in China.

The former, who is embarking on a series of action films with Salon Films, headed by Fred Wang, says he made multiple trips to China before his first Nickelodeon production.

"I had to go for a week every month for a year just to get to the point of knowing how to make a TV show there," he says. "You find that working there is similar to working with a major network here in the U.S. They have their executives and their processes and you have to get everything OK'd. But it's also government-controlled, so that adds another layer of committee. It didn't affect anything, but they were very involved in what the imagery of the show was going to be."

Philadelphia-based producer Jon Goodman, CEO of Small World Television, which produces a Chinese version of "Access Hollywood" for SWTV in Beijing, echoes the point.

"I spend 10 days a month there myself," he says.

The company's executive vp, Joe Lynch, is permanently based in Beijing, but Goodman says it's important for him to be on the ground as well.

"There is a great degree of cooperation with the Chinese production companies, and it's not really complicated," he says. "You just have to abide by the programing guidelines -- not unlike the way we abide by FCC rules stateside."

Lynch argues that anybody filming or reporting from the Olympics for the West needs to bear in mind the need for cultural sensitivity at all times. "If you don't, you'll hear about it because they take their film and TV businesses very seriously," he says.

Patience also is a necessity rather than merely a virtue when filming in China.

Louie Porco, executive vp business development at Canadian animation producer Image in Media, says doing business in China calls for patience and building trust with local industry personnel.

Porco recalls in 1994 dealing with a Hong Kong producer with an animation studio in mainland China that had fallen on hard times. "I was one of five customers he had at the time, doing an animated series. He had big problems at one point," he says. "The other four customers let him down, and I stayed with him. He still remembers that."

Image in Media is now co-producing "Wushu Warrior," an animated feature, with the China Film Group.

Because of cultural misunderstanding or attitudes that can be misconstrued, van Munster suggests that producers hire a local "facilitator" who knows the key local players and, more importantly, what the rules are politically and culturally.

"You may require putting filming details before a special committee that deals specifically, say, with Tiananmen Square," he says. "You find that you go through a lot of committees. You just need to be very diplomatic when talking to people and to explain what you want and then people are usually OK -- because we do that, things have been super easy for us."

ESPN vp event production Tim Scanlan, who is orchestrating coverage of this month's Women's World Cup in China, and ESPN vp content John Skipper echo the upbeat kudos for Chinese officialdom.

Before the tournament began, Scanlan says that ESPN was told it could take scenic vistas and stand-up reports in the venues' five cities as long as the crews carried visas and proper accreditation. He says that's been the case.

"Our team has taken shots of pandas and bears, they've done interviews on the street, and everything's been fine," Scanlan says.

Even in Shangdou, where the U.S. team is training, ESPN's crews have had no trouble. "They're free to basically cover anything," Scanlan says.

That'll be music to the ears of several hundred broadcasters from around the world who will converge on Beijing next week for a meeting with officials before next year's Olympics. They will be there to nail down the final details of complicated broadcast schedules -- and also to figure out some practical challenges.

For Andy Kay, Fox Australia's Seven Network executive producer of sport, the visit will be his 17th to the Chinese capital under the auspices of the Olympics. He's worrying about the logistics of hiring 40 drivers and 40 translators for his team.

"We've been dealing with the Beijing Organizing Committee and before them the Beijing Olympic Games bid committee for seven years now and have found them both professional and engaging in almost every way possible," he says. "The biggest difference between the Chinese and every other host city we have dealt with previously is their desire to engage the broadcasters in conversation and discuss issues openly and honestly."

Aside from the patience thing, Kay reels off a plethora of worthwhile culinary tips for the fledgling producer headed to Beijing, including: Don't eat your food too quickly at a dinner -- as fast as you eat they'll refill your plate. Plus, it's rude to refuse as well as ask what it is you're eating.

Also, eat in local restaurants, not Western hotels. If you don't know what to order, look at another table's food and point. But don't tip at the end of the meal -- Chinese find tipping demeaning.

Finally -- and probably most importantly -- do not become intoxicated at a dinner. Despite the fact that the Chinese will outnumber you, constantly toast you, drink like fish and want to get you drunk, an intoxicated Westerner is a disgrace to them. If you keel over, they will never do business with you again.

Pip Bulbeck in Sydney, Etan Vlessing in Toronto and Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.