'Iron Man 3' Producer Dan Mintz Reveals China Co-Production Status, Offers Advice to Hollywood (Q&A)

Dan Mintz - H 2012

The Beijing-based 'Looper' producer discusses the latest "Iron Man" speculation, how the Chinese industry is changing and how Hollywood can crack the world's fastest-growing major film market.

Dan Mintz, American producer and CEO of Beijing-based studio, DMG Entertainment, first arrived in China in 1989 to shoot scenery for a short TV commercial. He essentially never went home.

“The hook for me was about seizing a moment in time,” Mintz tells The Hollywood Reporter. “New York City, where I was born and raised, is the greatest city in the world, but it was already built. Seeing China at that time, I felt that if you spent five years here, you would see 30 years of growth and history -- and you could take part in that.”

Mintz founded DMG in 1993 with Chinese partners Peter Xiao and Bing Wu, and put his experience to work in the local market, shooting commercials for TV, which were still rare in local broadcasting.

Fast forward a decade (or roughly 60 years in China time), and the company had established itself as one of the major marketing and advertising firms in China, with offices in five cities and clients including Volkswagen and the NBA.

Mintz also directed a couple of well-received small, independent films as side projects, and getting involved in the film business in a bigger way was always an ambition. But before bringing his company into the industry, he says he waited for two strategic triggers: one political, one about infrastructure. The political prompt was the successful culmination of the Beijing Olympics. “That was the big coming-out party, and everything was waiting for a collective sigh of relief,” Mintz says. “Our other calculation was that China needed about 5,000 screens for the industry to be stable and viable.” Both those things came in 2008, after which DMG made a major pivot toward film and entertainment, aggressively pursuing both production and distribution.

Projects large and small have followed. In 2009, DMG co-produced the government sponsored pseudo-propaganda vehicle, The Founding of the Republic, marking the country’s 60th anniversary. The rom-com Go Lala Go! came in 2010. And the company’s first Hollywood co-production, Looper was released this fall, earning $20.23 million in China (as of October 21) and $61.9 million in North America, with $75 million for all international territories—a $30-million budget hit.

DMG is currently co-producing Iron Man 3 with Marvel Studios, a big step up for the company into studio franchise entertainment. When the film’s official trailer dropped online on October 23 it generated the desired buzz among fans, thanks to its stark mood, swift pacing and the presentation of Ben Kingsley in the role of the Mandarin. But within the industry, and among China-watchers, a more skeptical response soon emerged. Where was China?

As the Chinese box has boomed in recent years, becoming the world’s number three film market, Hollywood studios have taken a keen interest in forging co-production agreements with Chinese studios, because such status ensures easier entry into the market and entitlement to a higher take of Chinese box-office receipts. On the Chinese side, the understanding has been that any co-production must share copyrights, investment and returns with a Chinese partner, and have Chinese elements integrated into the story, in order to qualify.

The Iron Man 3 trailer reveals no Chinese cast or settings, and with a May 3 release date looming, many have been skeptical about whether a promised China shoot is even going to take place. A recent warning from the country’s entertainment regulator, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, saying that it plans to crack down on films that try to exploit the co-production terms by including only token Chinese elements, has only escalated the uncertainty and speculation. 

Mintz spoke with THR about the success of Looper, the recent doubts swirling around Iron Man 3, and his advice to Hollywood on how to crack China.

The Hollywood Reporter: Now that the dust has settled, how do you feel about how Looper has performed?

Dan Mintz: We’re very pleased with it on a lot of levels. First off, it’s a great film. And then the way China was integrated into the story and the way it was released were both kind of trailblazing. There’s never been a modern film in Mainland China that approaches the future. What will Shanghai look like in 40 years? That had never been done. Every part of the film that had some China facet attached to it that was challenging, but in a way that helped the story. And that’s what we want. Getting that particular day-and-date, on Sept. 28, at the very start of a Chinese national holiday—you couldn’t have gotten a more challenging time to try to bring out an international film in China [‘day-and-date’ is a simultaneous worldwide release date in multiple major markets, which typically boosts a film’s box office performance]. Even though we collaborated on the film as a Chinese studio, it was an English language picture with an international cast. It’s not at all easy to get a film like this into the Chinese market on a national holiday. So that was kind of historic and I think it showed the way we’re perceived in the market and the way DMG films are going to be handled in China. 

THR: What’s going on with Iron Man 3? Following the release of the trailer, reports have suggested its status as an official co-production is in question and that China won’t play much of a part in the finished film.

Mintz: Okay, first off, Iron Man 3 is absolutely a DMG co-production. Obviously I can’t talk about story, but we’ll be filming in China before the end of the year and we’ll have an announcement about Chinese cast members sometime very soon—all will be revealed. About the co-production issue, of course, it’s kind of sensitive. What I will say is that I’ve lived in China for 20 years and we’ve been working at this a long time—and there’s no single loophole to be exploited, like some have been suggesting. You can’t waltz in thinking you can get around something. It just isn’t there. This market doesn’t work that way. The big things that happen do so because they’re wanted to happen. It’s like filmmaking itself; it’s all in the minutiae. It’s about your reputation in the market, based on what you’ve delivered, and the relationships you have.

THR: How would you say the co-production scenario in China is changing?

Mintz: Let’s talk about cycles. If you’re in a place for a good amount of time, you start to recognize cycles, which really helps you strategize. I’ve noticed a pattern of people focusing on the wrong things. As an example, when I first showed up in China in 1989, getting an official certificate to open a business was very difficult, even as a Chinese person. As a westerner, it was almost impossible. So people were so focused on getting this piece of paper that when they did get it, they’d often realize they hadn’t even spent the time figuring out how they were actually going to build a viable business in China.

The same thing happened here recently within the film industry. Everyone had been so focused on the official quota number of how many films are allowed into the Chinese market, that they neglected to really examine every other step of the process. If you actually look at it, the China Film Group controls every aspect of distribution—how much you can market, when you’re put in, against what competition, and how long you stay in. So when the rule changed to allow more foreign films in, everyone celebrated. But look what happened. At the start of the year, some Hollywood films were brought in under the new quota and did quite well. But then they started to move them, so studios weren’t getting a day-and-date. And then they started to put Hollywood films up against each other, as with The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man—the same genre, on the same day, with neither of them getting day-and-date. So they lost, who knows, half of what they might have made in China. So here’s another example of narrow focus.

Now it’s the same thing with co-productions, and the co-production approval process. Do you see what I’m saying? They’d love you to focus all your energy on trying to crack this so-called co-production formula, because as soon as you do, you’ll realize it never was the most important thing.

THR: So what is?

Mintz: Looking at it from a very serious, engaged point of view. Most studio systems are set up to distribute—and they’re very good at it. They’re targeted at different distribution points: you’ve got Eastern Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Japan—and then you’ve got China. But if you treat China as a distribution point, you’re probably not going to be very successful. That’s actually a very difficult conceptual point to get over. It requires a huge paradigm shift, because what it means is you actually  have to get out there and build real relationships and figure this thing out. The strategy before was: We have the best films, if you want them, you’ve got to let us do what we want. That’s worked everywhere else, but it doesn’t work in China. Because this is the first time that Hollywood has come up against a market that means too much to be ignored, but that is actually kind of happy if Hollywood films don’t go there. From a macro-political perspective, they want their own industry to grow and the box office will eventually grow anyways, one way or another. So it’s a market that really has to be engaged, studied and figured out, which is not really the way most studios are set up, because the old way has worked for generations.

The most important thing is the idea that this market is not going away. And I think only recently has it started to sink in. You can see this in the normal hierarchy of distribution, where the HQ for a studio’s international distribution is usually in London, and then the APAC office is in Singapore or Hong Kong, and then that person works with China. So we have the studio’s number two market in the world addressed by the bottom of this diluted structure. So you know right away how seriously they’re approaching this market. On the flip side, organizations also often keep the code they can’t crack furthest from them.

THR: What does DMG have in the pipeline and what kind of projects are you interested in pursuing next?

Mintz: Large global films with Chinese elements and relevancy are a big part of who we are now and the direction that we’re going. There’s more of that to come for sure. We’ll have another studio film announcement soon. We’re not on some China-centric-only agenda, but this is the market we’re closest to and this is where we really add value. I want to be a quality player, rather than a volume player. Whether they’re smaller-budget Looper types of projects or larger franchise projects, that’s the playground we’re in and hope to continue to grow in.

THR: How about Chinese language films?

Mintz: We want to do some more domestic Chinese films, but growing that global film base is what we’re after. As far as an international Chinese language film, I think that’s still a tough one. Not that it will never work, but for now it’s going to be a rarity. It’s still a ways off. What we really want to do are global, large-scale films that have some very interesting Chinese elements. I don't mean copying and pasting dragons and red lanterns. I mean some core storytelling elements that add to a film in a very cool way. China is an amazing place. When you bring it into an international film, you should take that opportunity to do it in a way that makes the film cooler and more interesting.

THR: Early in your career you directed some small independents. Are you interested in returning to directing someday?

Right now I’m focused on building this platform and ecosystem of big films for China and the world. It’s something that’s very unusual and hasn’t really been done before, and the focus now is on continuing this with quality and consistency. But at some point down the road—if I find the right material that resonates with me—definitely, nothing’s off the table.