'The Meg' Producers on Keys to U.S.-China Co-Production Success: "It Had to Be Culturally Sound"

Courtesy of Warner Bros.
'The Meg'

The highest-grossing U.S.-Chinese co-production of all time got its own panel at the Asia Society's annual U.S.-China entertainment summit.

With recent increases in regulation — not to mention the Trump administration's trade threats — China's once-blazing film market has considerably cooled, but those working in the U.S.-China entertainment space insist on a bullish outlook.

Perfect World Pictures CEO Chen Rong likened the past few years, which saw a flurry of co-productions and an influx of capital flowing both ways, to going "80 miles an hour in a parking lot," he said Tuesday at the Asia Society's annual U.S.-China Entertainment Summit in Los Angeles. The slowdown is actually a blessing in disguise, as it will give the industry the opportunity to stabilize, he added.

Ironically, this post-honeymoon phase of U.S.-China film actually spawned the first hit co-production, after so many previous attempts had fallen short. Jon Turteltaub's prehistoric shark pic The Meg, a co-production between Warner Bros. and China Media Capital's Gravity Pictures, has surpassed Kung Fu Panda 3 as the highest-grossing U.S.-China co-production of all time, earning $527.8 million worldwide (including $143 million in the U.S. and $153 million in China). The Asia Society summit devoted a panel to dissecting its success.

"People think sad historical pieces are natural subjects for co-productions," said Reach Glory Entertainment managing director Ben Erwei Ji, a co-producer on The Meg, citing several fact-based pitches about Westerners in China. "But consider the current situation of China-U.S. relations. The forward-looking projects turn to a young audience; that's the key to start with. Could be a comedy about current life in China or the U.S., or science fiction, but do something happy, family entertainment. Historical [stories] could be good, but this is not the right time."

Before approaching potential partners, producer Belle Avery lived in China on and off for about five years to learn the local film business, including moving to the coastal city of Qingdao for several months to craft the story's Chinese characters and fictional oceanic institute. "Getting the characters and cultural elements right before going to a company was crucial," she said. "It was ridiculous to see companies just throwing [Chinese] actors in [other co-productions]. It had to be culturally sound. The key was to be synergistic and respectful."

Chantal Nong, vp production for Warners' DC film group, boasted that audiences never found the film's inclusion of Chinese characters to be forced, unlike with some past co-productions. "We weren't compromising [story decisions] because it was for the Chinese market," she said. "It continued in development the way we would with any Warner Bros. movie. From the start, the fact that it had Chinese elements was very organic."

The stigma of past co-productions, which Chinese audiences had increasingly come to resent as pandering, was so great that local distributor Gravity consciously sought to minimize their own involvement in initially marketing the film. "U.S.-China co-productions had such a bad reputation in the past, in the first stage we downplayed it," said Gravity CEO Catherine Xujun Ying. "We emphasized it is a really high-profile, big-budget blockbuster from Hollywood, a blue-blood Warner Bros. production."

Turteltaub and star Jason Statham were invited to walk the red carpet at the Shanghai International Film Festival, and all prerelease marketing for The Meg in China pointed it to be nothing but a pure Hollywood tentpole. "People had the fear that it would be the same as bad co-productions before," Ying continued. "After the first weekend and after they saw the movie and saw that all of the Chinese elements were not so embarrassing, people realized and embraced the fact that it's a great movie."

After The Meg's success, the team hinted that a sequel is in the works. (The pic is based on Steve Alten's 1997 novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, and in response to questions about a movie follow-up, Avery simply offered "The Trench," which is the title of the second book in Alten's series.) Location-based and theme park tie-ins are also a possibility for the franchise.

Elsewhere at the summit, a panel on talent and representation shed some light on the current state of crossover opportunities. CAA agent and corporate development executive Christina Chou said that CAA China is looking into expanding its representation business to include below-the-line talent, while UTA agent Lucia Liu said that although the agency's Asian business development department is based out of its Beverly Hills headquarters, it has made nearly monthly trips to China, Hong Kong and Korea for nearly a decade (in addition to daily WeChat and email correspondence) and is looking to open an office in Asia in the future.

Formalizing the relationship between talent, their local representatives and U.S.-based representatives remains a work in progress, lamented PoPing AuYeung, Hollywood's go-to casting director for English-speaking Chinese talent. Oftentimes, U.S. agents are left in the dark as to the specifics of an actor's availability, and it's the Chinese rep who controls the schedule. "Where are we in normalizing a representation business in China?" pondered Artist International Group CEO David Unger. "When are we getting to the place where China has a similarly scaled representation business as here? The local partners have better expertise, and we have to figure out how to work well with them. The people there will teach us; we can't impose our methodology on them."

For now, agreements between an actor's Chinese and American teams are sometimes hashed out via "a giant WeChat group," admitted Chou, or "a shared Google calendar, even though Google doesn't really work in China," added Echelon Talent Management CEO Andrew Ooi. (Moderator Stephen Saltzman, chair of Paul Hasting's Asia entertainment and media practice, chimed in here: "As a lawyer, the WeChat stuff is a nightmare.")

But perhaps concerns over Chinese talent deals will be rendered more moot as their interest in making Hollywood cameos wanes. "About five years ago, whenever I called a Chinese manager about an American film, they'd be really interested," said AuYeung. "Now the answer usually is, 'There's no money, the script is bad, the role is bad — no thank you.'"