How Hollywood Filmmakers Can Supply China's VFX Demand

Courtesy EMP
'Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon'

Top experts from Hollywood and Asia are learning from South Korea to foray into the world's fastest expanding film market.

In China, local comedies have recorded some of the biggest box office scores but VFX-heavy Hollywood films such as Furious 7 and Transformers are still dominating the world's fastest growing film market. Naturally, everyone from DreamWorks to star VFX specialists such as John Dietz (Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games) have set up shop in the Asian country.

"In the past few years, the interest [in China among American producers] went from zero to 100 percent. China is the only market in the world that gets people in the film business in America very excited," said Stu Levy, the international chair of the Producer's Guild of America who is based in Tokyo and L.A. and now frequently travels to Beijing. Levy was among specialists who spoke during the NAFF (Network of Asian Fantastic Films) forum on Tuesday during South Korea's Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan).

According to Levy, box-office projections for China are expected to shoot up from the current $7 billion to about $20 billion in 2020, compared to the $1 billion jump from $10 billion to $11 billion during the same time frame for the U.S. There is higher demand for more films and for more diverse genres, which naturally feeds into the need for more VFX experts and other specialists.

"You have big productions, internally made Chinese ones. There is a whole lot of demand for sci-fi and other genre films that pose technical challenges and they're trying to compete with Transformers and Avengers. Chinese audiences want to see these movies made by the Chinese," said Dietz, who is currently working on his 13th Chinese/Chinese-language project.

Says Beijing-based Singaporean film producer KQ: "Chinese filmmakers are no longer disconnected from the international creative community. But there is a lack of locally trained crews that can work well with the shooting process, while producers don't have experience understanding how costly and time consuming VFX projects are."

Though many American filmmakers have tried to work with Chinese partners, many have failed because they simply do not understand the nature of the local market.

"Chinese films can't compete with [films like Avengers] right now because of ability and skill… But [American filmmakers] can't come to China just because you did Transformers," said Dietz, emphasizing that non-Chinese filmmakers need to understand that there is no organized structure in China's ever evolving market.

"Part of the chaos is that there is so much money floating around and there are many risks. What often happens is that you have inexperienced producers working with inexperienced financiers," he said.

Americans, furthermore, can learn from the Korean example.

Having created the VFX for the ambitious 2013 Korea-China co-production Mr. Go, Korea's Dexter Digital has been a key player for big-budget Chinese works such as Tsui Hark's Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon and The Taking of Tiger Mountain. Chinese giant Wanda Group also recently became a major stakeholder of the company.

"Korea has a great advantage because there is great proximity with China, both geographically and culturally," said KQ.

"For many Korean companies, working on Chinese projects is very appealing because many will pay shot-based rather than a flat rate like it is in Korea. Also, the Korean government provides financial support when Korean companies work on foreign projects," said Kim Wook, executive VGX supervisor and producer at Dexter.

In 2013, the Seoul-based studio opened a Beijing office, of which some 30 out of the 50 employees are Chinese. "You have to get involved after really understanding how business works in China. It's all about building trust first," said Kim.

Dietz agreed, saying that it took him a while to prove that he was there not to "just make a few films and leave" but to contribute to build the local VFX industry. "Sure, there are many risks in China. But with taking risks there comes innovation and different techniques actually have a shot at taking off. In the long term there is room for a lot of growth."

July 21, 1:57 p.m. Updated with additional quotes and details.