'HSM' China shooting in Shanghai

Global franchise gets first Mandarin-language production

BEIJING -- "High School Musical" will graduate to college in China, where Walt Disney Motion Pictures International hopes to finish a Mandarin-language feature film version of the global franchise by year's end.

Produced by Janet Yang in cooperation with the Shanghai Media Group and Beijing-based Huayi Brothers Media, "Ge Wu Qing Chun" ("Musical Youth") is not set at a Chinese high school because, Yang told The Hollywood Reporter, "they tend to be too strict."

"Students we talked to said that it wasn't until they arrived in college in China that they felt the unburdening sense of freedom to express themselves," said the longtime Hollywood producer, who is working with acclaimed stage, opera and film director Chen Shi-Zheng and a mostly novice cast from across China.

"Chen's excited to make the first kids musical for China and raise the bar for the genre," said Yang who called the project a departure for both her and director Chen, whose credits include the 1999 Lincoln Center production of the 19-hour Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion," and "Dark Matter," a 2007 Sundance Film Festival winner.

"Disney High School Musical: China" -- as the film is officially known in English -- also follows closely after Disney got the go-ahead from the central government in Beijing to build a theme park in Shanghai, China's largest and most cosmopolitan city. The film is currently shooting at Shanghai's Hua Dong Normal University.

Jason Reed, general manager of Walt Disney Studios International Production, said that he hoped the film would open the door to more projects in China's import-restricted entertainment market.

"This could be a perennial if we're successful. And if it's not a 'High School Musical' sequel we're making, we'll be making other movies in China, well, forever," Reed said over the phone from Los Angeles.

While Hollywood is struggling to grow revenues at home, China's market is booming, with boxoffice up an average of 25% for the past five years. In 2008 alone, China added 118 new cinemas and 570 new screens, bringing the total to 4,097, a number that is expected to hit 6,000 by the end of 2010. Still, only 20 imports are allowed to share in the boxoffice each year.

Skirting that theatrical import cap, the Chinese version of "High School Musical" will be the third film Disney has made in China in as many years, but the first on which Disney has total control, Reed said. Previously, Disney made the modestly successful "Secret of The Magic Gourd" (2007) and "Trail of the Panda" (2009).

The "High School Musical" franchise has now reached more than 290 million viewers in over 30 languages across 100 countries. Millions of viewers in China have seen the original, starring Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron, downloading or streaming it illegally for free from the Internet or buying it on cheap and readily available pirated DVDs. It did not receive a theatrical release in China.

"The Motion Picture Association would probably kill me for saying this, but I think that China's exposure to Hollywood films found via piracy has helped build up a taste for this kind of movie," said Yang, who has helped Hollywood studios sell films into China and who consulted on Steven Spielberg's 1987 wartime Shanghai film “Empire of the Sun."

Earlier this year, a live stage production of "High School Musical" made Shanghai its second stop on a global tour, after debuting in South Africa at the end of 2008. The Shanghai Grand Theater nearly sold out for two weeks, with tickets going for as much as 680 yuan ($99), a small fortune for most ordinary Chinese.

The regional Chinese-language market has potential, too. The U.S. original's first sequel was a hit in Taiwan in 2007, when the Mandarin-dubbed version became the most-watched program in its timeslot against all free-to-air and cable TV channels among kids, especially young girls. A Mandarin version of the hit song "Bet On It," from "High School Musical 2," put Taiwanese singer Show Lo on the local charts.

The two sequels to the U.S. original were equally successful and Disney has already taken the franchise overseas, localizing versions for Russia, India and Latin America.

The Chinese version, working from a script by Li Lin and choreographed by Peruvian-American Ruthy Inchaustegui, tells the story of a new student who meets a gifted young man with whom she shares a secret passion for singing, Disney said in a statement: "With the help of their friends they overcome the odds to win an inter-school singing competition, and discover their true calling in the process."

Early script development meetings almost saw basketball replaced by kung fu until Chinese consultants told Reed that kung fu is what Hollywood thinks Chinese kids are into, not what they're actually into--NBA stars such as Yao Ming and LeBron James. "We had to go back and make it more like the American original to make it work for China," Reed said.

Disney, whose dedicated sports channel ESPN last year became part owner of the National Basketball Assn. China, is in discussions with the league about helping to market the film and its fictional team, the Wild Tigers.

The film's basic plot and the song and dance are where the similarities to the original stop. Whereas the original is set in a second-tier midwestern American city, the Chinese version will bear the big city stamp of Shanghai. Also, distinctly lacking from the Chinese version is the multiethnic cast of the American original. Although the six lead characters do come from widely different socio-economic backgrounds, all are majority Han Chinese, Yang said.

Reed said that Disney, SMG and Huayi "never really had a significant conversation about that," and that the stars were chosen because "the talent pool was predominantly Han."

Reed said that Disney had had "no conversation with the regulators" who must approve every film script, and that the "government had been very supportive" offering "no political guidance" about its composition.

Casting director Luo Lisha helped select actor Zhang Junning as the male lead, Poet, who plays opposite the new girl in school, Ning Ning, played by actress Ma Zihan.

Kobe, who in the Chinese film version is a hip-hop-loving kid from a poor, traditional Shanghai family, is played by Yuan Chengjie, the best-known member of the cast for his work singing in a pop duet. Playing opposite Kobe is Gu Xuan as Yang Yang. Rounding out the cast are Skinny, played by actor Liu Yanchen, and Yuan Yuan, played by actress Lin Qi.

All of the film's undisclosed production budget will come from Disney, which will own the entire copyright, said an official from Huayi. Huayi will help with product placement and work as the film's China distributor, she said.