Eastern Promise


BEIJING -- Although the global financial crisis has cast a long shadow over Hollywood, those who wish to make movies in Asia are managing to evade the economic tsunami that has engulfed much of the global entertainment sector.

While notoriously thrifty Asian consumers might not be laying aside cash to buy cars this quarter or next, they still are spending at the boxoffice, perhaps celebrating their relative prosperity: Layoffs, while broad at Sony, so far are less widespread across Asia than they have been in the West.

Huayi Brothers, one of China's biggest independent movie houses and the longtime backer of occasional hitmaker Feng Xiaogang, is among the beneficiaries of China's cash-rich economy. While U.S. banks are drying up, Huayi recently received Chinese bank loans to float its entire slate. "Asian film isn't feeling the recession yet," says Felice Bee, head of international sales and co-production.

Recent boxoffice figures bolster Bee's claim: Feng's romantic comedy "If You Are the One" earned a great-for-China $50 million when it was released in December. Yojiro Takita's Oscar-winner "Departures" -- about a cellist-turned-mortician -- made a triumphant return home and quickly scaled the Japanese boxoffice. Even "Old Partner" -- a documentary about an aged farmer and his bull -- is breaking records in Korea.

Not only are Asians going to the movies, they're going in greater numbers than ever before. Take Hong Kong director John Woo's two historical "Red Cliff" epics. Released six months apart, they are living proof of the growing market for movies made specifically for Asians. The first installment of "Red Cliff" reaped a solid $120.7 million in 10 Asian territories, with Japan alone pulling in more than $53 million by mid-January.

"That the sequel came back-to-back and rode the crest of the first film's success is a perfect example of why the sky's the limit here," says David Lee, who left the Weinstein Co.'s Asian Film Fund last year to head the Beijing movie startup Xinhua Media Entertainment. "These films show the potential of China and Chinese stories and highlight the market's size and growth over the last five years."

For Asian directors focused on storytelling -- rather than the market and the gimmicks that get you there -- financial success can come from the most unexpected places. At the Berlinale, Magnolia Pictures snapped up U.S. rights to the Thai martial arts epic and boxoffice smash hit "Ong bak 2," from Tony Jaa. In little Taiwan, where most local films lose money and a $140,000 cumulative boxoffice take is considered a hit, director Wei Te-sheng's romantic sleeper "Cape No. 7" became the island's biggest grossing Chinese-language film of all time, collecting more than $15 million.

"Thinking about the market when you're directing a film is sort of like wearing clothes for other people," says Wei, whose third film, "Seediq Bale," now in preproduction, tells the story of Taiwan aboriginals fighting Japanese invaders in the 1930s. Wei says he prefers not to think about the market, but nonetheless will participate in the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum to seek the last portion of a planned $10 million budget for "Seediq." "I prefer to think about the story first, then, once I'm finished writing, I'll consider changes, but only minimally."

In late February, another Asian novice, China's Ning Hao, saw his third film, "Crazy Racer" -- the sequel to his 2006 sleeper, "Crazy Stone" -- easily surpass 100 million yuan in sales, which is now considered the floor in Chinese boxoffice respectability.

As these local successes increase in frequency, Hollywood is again reminded that Asia matters. More than a decade after Steven Spielberg built DreamWorks with money from the soon-to-be-giant Korean company CJ Entertainment, DreamWorks has been saved by more Asian money, this time from Bollywood giant Reliance Big Entertainment.

To attract Asian audiences -- a smart bet considering it boasts 60% of the global population -- Hollywood is turning to 3-D. Disney teased "Bolt" in 3-D at the CineAsia exhibition conference in Macau in December, priming the pump for the 13 3-D releases expected in 2009. Because Hollywood industry leaders like DreamWorks Animation boss and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group president Mark Zoradi believe that 3-D films could bring in two to three times the business of 2-D releases, Asian exhibitors are scrambling to add 3-D projection. To that end, Christie Digital Systems recently supplied 100 such units to the Shanghai United Circuit.

And digital could help mitigate the world's fastest-growing regional rate of movie piracy -- in Asia. To help the fight, following months of investment in Bollywood by its member studios, the MPAA opened its first office in India in December, with a stated wish to increase the 3 billion-plus admissions that its members' films enjoyed there in 2007.

Elsewhere, just as Hollywood needs India's money (RBE signed development deals with a host of A-list Hollywood stars at May's Festival de Cannes), Hong Kong needs China's money and China needs Hong Kong's talent. In December, former Focus Films executive Daniel Yu left Hong Kong for Beijing-based production and talent management group Chengtian, which has a minority stake in "Crazy Racer." Then, in February, Hong Kong director Peter Chan ("Warlords") and Chinese producer Huang Jianxin ("Mummy 3") joined Polybona International to form a new Beijing-based production company with plans to make 15 films in three years with 500 million yuan ($73.1 million).

Additionally, co-productions, made under the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement between China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, usually see the China partner injecting 30%-40% of a film's budget in exchange for distribution rights in China.

Veteran Hong Kong producer Jeffrey Chan helps run Beijing-based sales agent Distribution Workshop, founded in June with Nansun Shi and money from Bona International. Formerly an executive with Media Asia, Chan says that he and others from Hong Kong are riding what they see as an "inevitable trend."

"In the old days we worked for Hong Kong companies, but now, since the most film projects are being initiated and funded here in China, it's natural that we should be based here," he says.

As for as upcoming releases, none has greater buzz than "Nanking, Nanking" by "Kekexili" director Lu Chuan, another Chinese film about Japan's World War II atrocities which was being submitted to Cannes at press time.

Other buzzworthy titles include the live-action version of "Mulan" from XME and CFG; a planned remake of "Karate Kid" in Beijing by "Pink Panther 2" director Harald Zwart for Will Smith's Overbrook Prods.; "The Last Dragon," starring Sam Neill, which is the first official Australia-China co-production and the work of Hong Kong's Salon Films, Australia's AMPCo and China's Hengdian Film Production Co.; and a new film from Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

Also on the China film bandwagon is global action icon Jackie Chan, who in January told THR that China surely would see a domestic film gross a billion yuan ($146 million) in the next 10 years. "This is the direction the industry is going," Chan said.