Filmart: How Easternlight Films Makes Horror Films Chinese Censors Can Tolerate (Q&A)

Ying Ye Filmart H 2016
Scott Witter

Ying Ye Filmart H 2016

The Los Angeles and Beijing-based exec Ying Ye speaks to THR about China’s appetite for horror movies, dealing with censors and the future of the quota system.

In 2005, Ying Ye founded Easternlight Films, the Asian offshoot of influential film sales outfit Arclight Films, established by her husband, Gary Hamilton. The timing of the company’s eastward push would prove fortuitous. Initially based in Los Angeles and Sydney, Easternlight grew to acquire one of the most formidable Asian film libraries of any indie label not stationed in the region.

At the same time, Ying’s work in her native China helped the company build the relationships that would make the banner’s first major production success possible. In 2012, relatively early in China’s recent ascendance as the world’s fastest growing major film market, Arclight produced horror thriller Bait 3D via its budding genre label Darclight Films. Crucially, Ying’s contacts in China contributed a sizable chunk of the film’s financing and helped arrange for portions of the picture to be shot there.

Although the movie was officially a Singapore-Australia co-production, Chinese authorities deemed that it had enough Chinese cast and story elements to qualify as a Chinese co-production, granting it permission to access the theatrical market without going through the country’s notorious import quota. The film grossed some $25 million, an unheard-of performance for an Australian genre film in China at the time. The company’s next release, on which Ying is a producer, will be the monster picture Nest, starring Chinese superstar Li Bingbing, Kellan Lutz and Kelsey Grammer.

Ying, who divides her time between offices in L.A., Sydney and Beijing — and airplanes — sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the censorship challenges but huge market potential of the horror genre in China and whether Hollywood can expect some of the barriers to the booming Chinese theatrical market to be lifted anytime soon.

There are various models that international film companies have been pursuing to access China. Smaller film companies can sell their titles to Chinese distributors for a one-time flat fee, while the studio’s compete fiercely for the 34 import slots allocated for releases that get to share box-office revenue. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each model in the current climate?

There is a large burden for Chinese distributors who want to import films. It’s hard, but many are also very motivated. Partnering with Chinese companies is the new trend for those that have the scale and resources to do that. The advantage is that the movies you produce in China through a China-based joint venture will be categorized as Chinese, so the import difficulties are not an issue. The challenge is finding the right local partner, and this takes a lot of time and trust. For co-productions, you need to meet a lot of criteria to qualify as a co-production with the government: the film needs to have enough Chinese story elements, cast and locations, and then you need to get the local government approval and the central government approval and the co-production SARFT permit. So there are a lot of processes to go through.

You made the co-production system work very well for Bait 3D back in 2012. What did you learn from the process?

First of all, it was a different genre than the market had seen. It was a light horror film. There’s an appetite for these kinds of movies, because there haven’t been many horror films made and released in China because of censorship issues. But so many Chinese young people have found a way to watch these types of films online and they love them. They haven’t seen them on the big screen yet. That’s what made Bait 3D successful. So with Nest, we’re coming back with the same director and the same team and one of China’s biggest stars, Li Bingbing.

How do you develop horror films like Nest that the Chinese censors can tolerate?

Well, we spoke with the censorship committee early on and they read the script and they really love the concept. The censorship committee is a little more open-minded now. There have been a lot of Hong Kong-China co-productions with quite a lot of violence and action. The whole story is set in China, the lead actress is Chinese. And it’s not a ghost story or a slasher. Not too much blood, nothing supernatural. Supernatural stories will only be accepted if they are based on a classic Chinese story. The horror in Nest comes from a spider.

We’re going to do a whole slate of these types of films for China. We have three movies that have already gotten censorship approval. In our pipeline, we have a dozen movies that are very solid. We have scripts and famous Chinese actors and good directors in negotiation. Hopefully, we’ll make two or three this year. Also, we’re going to do the sequel to Bait.

You mean Deep Water, the film that was put on hold after Flight MH370 went missing? Did you have to retool the story?

Yes, that’s the one. We’ve actually had so many investors chasing us and asking us when we’re going to make it. These are people who invested in Bait 3D and they’re very eager for us to move forward with the sequel. But we had to wait a while, because in that instant, it was just so ... you know. We’re thinking probably next year will be okay.

A lot of industry players are speculating that at the end of 2016, when the U.S.-China film trade agreement expires, that the import quota of 34 films might be lifted. Do you think that will happen?

That’s a question that everyone in the Chinese industry is discussing, on both the government and private sector sides. I honestly cannot see that happening — them dropping the quota altogether. In some way, they will open up, but they will keep some other restrictions and control, too. Maybe they will remove the specific number, but there will still be hurdles. You could optimistically begin to prepare for the quota to lift, but focusing on doing films for the full Chinese audience is the key. Making movies that can excite the mainstream audience is a requirement that won’t change.