Creativity leads Shanghai forum

'Kung Fu Panda' writers highlight differences in process

SHANGHAI -- The question of how an endangered Chinese bear could have a common duck for a father briefly dominated discussion at the second annual China-U.S. TV & Film Creativity Forum.

"Kung Fu Panda" writers Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris defended their comedic choice on Thursday to an audience of mostly young Chinese directors, producers and writers gathered for the 15th Shanghai Television Festival.

Their on-screen joke helped to focus the day's debate about who should control the creative process of making filmed content: the producer, the writer or the director. The topic, chosen by organizers at the Shanghai Media Group, was ripe for debate in China's fast-expanding entertainment industry.

The inter-species conundrum in the DreamWorks Animation film that was a hit both in the West and in China last year was never explained, highlighting -- in this case, anyway -- the writers' power over the finished product.

"We just thought it was funnier that way," Voris said.

But so odd a choice struck many in the audience as, well, foreign.

Ma Zhongjun, a TV writer and producer, said that few Chinese have the guts to make such an illogical choice. "Only Western people would be risky enough to have a panda and a duck in the same family," said the jovial chairman of Beijing-based Ciwen Digital Oriental Film & TV Production Co.

The panda-duck combo defined a challenge Ma and his peers, such as TV producer Zhao Zhijiang, face as they try to keep up with the interests of China's increasingly worldly young audience.

"This was a very creative combination of two key elements. Kung Fu and Panda," said Zhao, executive director of Hairun Media, a company in Beijing known for its military-themed TV series. "Westerners have a broader knowledge, and this explains why the West could love the film. They understood both.

"In China we need to ask ourselves, 'How can we do this same thing, this same sort of combination, to get our films into foreign markets?"

Reiff cautioned, however, that it is best not to worry about discovering a formula or combination of themes right for the market. Although an exec producer on the TV shows "11th Hour" and "Sleeper Cell" -- responsible for bringing them in on time and on budget -- Reiff remains a firm believer in the writer-centered production model.

"Work hard on making your story the best version of what it's supposed to be," he said. "If the ranks of the U.S. TV industry can create successful writers out of guys like us, then the ranks of China's TV industry shows great potential."

Despite stirring minor protest in China last year over the perceived denigration of a national symbol, "Kung Fu Panda" was a $26 million hit at the Chinese boxoffice, making it the highest-grossing animated film here.

Voris, who was inspired by the Hong Kong films of John Woo, Tsui Hark and Wong Kar Wai while a film student at New York University, said "Kung Fu Panda" was payback for all the influence he'd gleaned from China over the years. "The film bodes well for the future of U.S.-China co-production," he said.

Meanwhile, the TV festival's marketplace at the Shanghai Exposition Center ended today after a week of few deals against the backdrop of falling ad revenue.

Most booths in the massive Soviet-era hall were filled by Chinese production companies trying to sell low-budget serial dramas and animation to regional and national broadcasters. And those broadcasters, such as CCTV, SMG and Hunan Satellite TV, were hoping to attract the rare foreign passerby who might be a buyer.

The few foreign visitors with booths included the South Korean broadcasters KBS and SBS and the Japanese equipment giants Sony and Panasonic.

The 12th Shanghai International Film Festival starts across town Saturday and runs through June 21.