'Empires' has deep Chinese pockets

China real estate tycoon bankrolls $100 mil, 3D film

HUAIROU, China -- On Tuesday, first-time film producer Jon Jiang opened the set of his self-financed $100 million digital-3D underwater action-adventure film, "Empires of the Deep."

The cast and crew -- including Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko, wearing Mermaid Queen body paint -- were on hand to puff up what's billed as the largest U.S.-China co-production yet launched, even if all the money is Jiang's.

The "Empires" budget tops the previous most-expensive film made in China, John Woo's 2008 boxoffice hit "Red Cliff," by $20 million -- and that film had multiple, international investors with decades of filmmaking experience.

Now in the final of seven months of filming on the beaches of southern China's Fujian province and in several of the China Film Group's new sound stages, 90 minutes outside Beijing, Jiang's film soon will go into a year of post-production toward a planned summer release in 2011.

It is clearly Jiang's film: he co-wrote the script, taking eight Hollywood writers through 40 drafts over four years. "Empires" is the brainchild of a man who trained as an architect, made his fortune in China's commercial real estate boom, and now appears willing to stop at nothing to fulfill his dream.

After mermaids danced atop an Atlantis-like set to introduce a slightly dizzying sample of raw 3D footage, Jiang -- wearing a high-collared navy blue band leader's coat adorned with American eagle buttons -- said he wanted to make his first movie in English to prove that a couple of Chinese guys could make a big Hollywood movie.

To do this, Jiang -- who speaks little English himself -- and his co-producers, Harrison Liang and Kevin Jiang (no relation), who do, opened E-Magine Studios in Hollywood in 2004 to "realize Jon's dream," Liang said.

First they hired a French f/x specialist (Pitof, director of the "Cat Woman" flop) and a Chinese cinematographer based in New York (Rao Xiaobing). Pitof left and was replaced by American director Jonathan Lawrence ("Dream Parlor"), who also left and was replaced by Canadian director Michael French, who shot the low-budget film "In the Heart of the Dragon" in China in 2008.

With French in place, cinematographer Rao invited in 3D consultant Anthony Arendt ("Avatar"), while Jiang and company put together the cast, including American Steve Polites ("The Murder Game") as the male lead, Atlas, a young man whose search for his father takes him through multiple undersea battles, employing lots of CGI.

Having lost the participation of their initial Hollywood advisor, "The Empire Strikes Back" director Irvin Kershner, nearly 87, who was once listed as a producer, Jiang and his partners are now on their own.

"We are nobody in Hollywood, but we don't need financing, so we're going to do this film the best we know how and then knock on Hollywood's door and say, 'Take this if you like what you see," said Liang.

To try to hedge their risk, Jiang's Fontelysee Pictures is talking with major Hollywood studios: "We hope a big studio will snap up 'Empires' in a global distribution deal," Liang said.

Meanwhile, China rights were sold to the three-year-old Golden Globe Picture Co. of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, for an undisclosed sum.

Why not make the movie in Chinese for China, where a nascent moviegoing habit boosted the boxoffice 43% last year to $909 million? Chinese actor Hu Jun ("Red Cliff") and recent Beijing Film Academy graduate, actress Shi Yanfei, play supporting roles, but for Jiang, the answer is simple: "Empires" is for everybody and will do as well here as any import.

No small claim. "Avatar" -- which grossed 1.3 billion yuan in China -- led Hollywood films to capture nearly 60% of China's Q1 receipts.

"'Transformers' was shot in Egypt but it was an American movie," Jiang argues. "Most of our cast and crew are Americans. This is a Hollywood film made by Chinese. We'll use our resources to market it so it will succeed. It has to."