Lionsgate to Make Chinese Spinoff of 'Now You See Me' (Exclusive)

Now You See Me 2 Morgan Freeman Still H 2016
Courtesy of Summit Entertaiment

The studio and Chinese film company Leomus Pictures are also exploring producing "Escape Plan 2" as a U.S.-Chinese co-production.

And now for their next trick ... Lionsgate and Beijing-based film company Leomus Pictures are set to co-produce a Chinese-language spinoff of magician thriller franchise Now You See Me.

The movie is being developed as an official U.S.-China co-production. It will be shot in China and feature a mostly Chinese cast.

"We're working closely with Lionsgate on the story," Leomus Pictures CEO Jie Qiu tells THR. "And a Hollywood writer will be involved to make sure the spinoff is aligned with the Now You See Me franchise and has the same level of quality."

Lionsgate and Leomus have good reason to be optimistic about the prospects for a Chinese-language addition to the franchise. In June, Now You See Me 2 debuted to $43.3 million in China, Lionsgate's biggest opening weekend ever in the country — and nearly double its bow in North America ($23 million). The sequel went head-to-head in China with Fox's Independence Day: Resurgence, which had nearly double the production budget. After three weeks on Chinese screens, Now You See Me 2 has earned $94.5 million, compared with Resurgence's $74.7 million. In North America, the Lionsgate film topped out at $63.7 million.

Leomus Pictures is a partner with Hunan TV in the Chinese broadcaster's $375 million slate financing deal with Lionsgate, which began last year. The company has handled China distribution on Drive Angry, Escape Plan and the first Now You See Me film — all of which grossed more in the Middle Kingdom than they did in North America.

Leomus was involved in Now You See Me 2 at an early stage, advising Lionsgate on how to localize the film for the fast-growing Chinese market.

The sequel featured returning stars Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Morgan Freeman, with Daniel Radcliffe appearing as the villain and Lizzy Caplan replacing Isla Fisher. Taiwanese mega-star Jay Chou also joined in a supporting role, and the story takes place in the Chinese casino enclave of Macau.

Leomus was instrumental in the casting of Chou and the selection of Macau as a shooting location. "We told them that even if it's a small role, the Chinese character must be meaningful and indispensable to the story," Qiu says. Past Hollywood productions have seen their efforts to woo Chinese fans backfire, after the casting of big name beloved local stars in minor parts was blasted on Chinese social media as pandering (see the response to Chinese actor Wang Xueqi's appearance in Iron Man 3).

Qiu says Chou was selected in part because of his well known off-screen love of magic tricks, which created authentic chemistry with the role and generated added curiosity among his fans. The studio also insisted that Chou have a place on the movie's international poster. "For the trailer, we cut a local version to emphasize the family connection between Mark Ruffalo's character and his father and then moved into the magic and the action," Qiu explains. "The U.S. trailer was more focused on the theme of revenge — an individualistic American feeling — and action. For Chinese people, family is much more important than individual desires and generally Chinese people are more introverted. We found our trailer tested much more successfully locally."

Leomus and Lionsgate also are exploring the possibility of producing Escape Plan 2 as a China co-production, Qiu adds.