'The Mermaid' Producer Explains How Chinese Movies Can Spark International Appeal (Q&A)

Bill Borden Filmart H 2016
Scott Witter

Bill Borden Filmart H 2016

The Hollywood vet tells THR how pollution inspired the blockbuster and what's ahead for the Chinese film sector.

Bill Borden has had a front row view of China’s historic film boom.

After two-decades in Hollywood — producing projects such as Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado (1995), Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus (1996) and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days (1999) — the veteran producer was dispatched to Hong Kong by Columbia Pictures in 2002 to co-executive produce the Jackie Chan action picture The Medallion. During his time in Hong Kong, Borden became friends with Chan and many of the local industry’s leading film figures, including Stephen Chow, with whom he went on to develop the action-comedy Kung Fu Hustle for Sony and Columbia. Written and directed by Chow and produced by Borden, Kung Fu Hustle grossed $17 million in North America, $20.2 million in mainland China and $101 million worldwide — a fantastic total at the time of its release in 2005.

Fast-forward a decade, Chow’s latest fantasy comedy, The Mermaid, which Borden again co-produced, has grossed an astonishing $500 million from the mainland Chinese market alone. In 2014, Borden became the head of Mili Pictures Worldwide, a Shanghai-based animation studio that is developing a slate of animated features around IP from Shanda Games, one of China’s largest and most successful mobile gaming companies.

Borden, who divides time between Los Angeles and Shanghai, spoke with THR about The Mermaid’s unprecedented success, the changes he’s witnessed in the Chinese film sector and what the industry needs to do to reach a global audience.

How did you get involved in The Mermaid?

In October 2009, when Stephen was doing Green Hornet at Sony Studios, he didn't like the script and it wasn't working out. We were meeting occasionally in Los Angeles for dinner, so I said, "Well, there's another movie I think we should make in China." He said, "What is it?" I said, "I want to do this story about a group of mermaids, or mer-people, who live in a beautiful grotto in China, and the grotto is being taken over by an industrialist who's going to ruin the environment and kill off the last beautiful area where the mer-people are living, and so they decide to send a beautiful young mermaid up to meet the industrialist and kill him."

That’s the film’s whole story concept. Where did you get the idea? 

I was living in China, and the pollution was getting worse and worse, so I said, "We can make this great green statement." Stephen goes, "That's genius, let's do it!" We sent the treatment back and forth and by May or June, we had a script. That was in 2010, and then of course he got sucked away doing other projects. And it sat there. Years later, we met in Hong Kong and he said, "Hey, I'm going to do Mermaid." And then he went off and made it. I was working on other projects in China at the time, so I wasn't on that set, but I had developed the project with him. That's the story.

So do you have a story credit, too?

No, I don't have story credit. That's a bone of contention, but it's okay. I have a consulting producer credit.

From the time that you worked on Kung Fu Hustle to the current Mermaid moment, what's changed in the Chinese industry? 

A lot. In mainland China, when I first started working there, Feng Xiao Gang told me, “I used to simply say, I’m going to make this movie and then we made it.” Their system was one directed by the government, which basically paid for the movies. There were five major studios and the government gave them a budget for making features and TV every year, and those studios were required to produce so many hours of film features and television. They had directors they trusted, and they just came in and did it. So the concept of developing screenplays and having someone analyze the marketing potential of a picture was simply not the system. It was government and director-driven, without much market pressure. It didn’t even really matter how successful the films were, because they were mostly paid for by the government.

What changed that? 

As people like Wanda moved in and started building malls and movie theaters, and as those malls moved from A markets to B markets to D markets, they began to need more product for this vast network of cinemas they were building like crazy. As you know, there's a quota system that restricts Hollywood from importing more than 34 film a year. So, the Chinese government realized over the last 12 years that the market was growing and reaching deeper and deeper into China, and that the country was leaving a lot of potential money on the table. So their perspective changed and they said private Chinese companies should be making movies — lots of them — and they actively promoted this through grants. So the system started growing and changing, and private studios and distributors emerged. China Film Group had had the monopoly on distributing everything domestically, but soon the system got so big that they needed additional distributors and more product.

Now you have companies putting big money in, and people need to do good things. So then these private studios look around and go, "Oh my god, how do we make good movies?" There’s a lot of desire today to make good product. Before, there was a lot of desire just to make product. There was nothing at risk. The system still has not caught up with the Hollywood development system, because developing great writers and stories doesn't happen overnight. But it’s happening.

How’s the new market-driven system in China different than the United States?

When you distribute in China, the P&A costs are one-tenth of the United States, because it’s all done through social media to reach the Chinese youth, who all go to the movies regularly. You can make and market a movie for $10 million that makes $100 million. And if you really have the right product, you can reach $500 million from one market over three weeks, as Stephen did. The system has grown and adapted and changed so quickly. Because that's the way China is — they can turn on a dime.

What needs to happen for Chinese movies to take the next step — to go global like Hollywood?

This is something I'm preaching all the time with the companies that I work with. With some light development where you understand both the Western market and Eastern market, and add a few simple things — like connectivity between themes and some character development, which is not in their tradition — we can make a big Chinese picture much more acceptable and palatable to the West.

What other subject matter can you tackle to make them internationally appealing?

That's one of the things about these hit Chinese movies: most of them are very parochial. They just don't translate. But if it's a subject that's more international — like say, Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt — if you made an English version, I think it could work. We don't like to read subtitles in the U.S., but there are stories that can be made in both languages that will work. Animation is easier because you don't have actors. On Dragon Nest: Warriors' Dawn at Mili (2014), we had two sets of voice actors and we redid the lip synch for each language. I know Kung Fu Panda 3 claimed it was the first movie made in Chinese and English, but that's not true. We did the same thing.

Do you think that’s possible for live-action, too? 

If you have a cast that speaks both languages, a piece like Mermaid could be made in two versions pretty easily. A lot of those actors are from Hong Kong and speak English. With a little bit of extra production, you could run English takes. That has not been done yet, but I've been preaching it, believe me.

Many studios are setting up Chinese joint ventures to produce big budget, Chinese-language films. Is this the way forward?

It is. Every studio is going to be in China. There's no reason not to be, with the box office potential that big. It’s going to be the trend. The studios are going to try to dominate by making movies with local partners. Kung Fu Panda 3 is a very good example. Also, you have to remember that an A-list animator in Shanghai makes a $100 per day, where as here in California they can make $1,000 per day. So there are lots of reasons for DreamWorks Animation to do animation in China.

Do you foresee any friction points? 

Well, even if a studio does a $500 million deal to create a joint venture, they're going to find out very quickly that it's a different culture. The studios might be surprised to learn that they're going to have to accommodate the culture a little more than they think. A lot of people like to make way for Hollywood, but I'm not sure the Chinese are going to be quite as accommodating. The Chinese are very culturally confident.

Also, rule of law in China is very different than it is in the United States. So contracts and the transfer of money in and out of the country are hurdles. My experience in China is that you can shake hands and have a one-page understanding on paper and that’s enough. But that's just not the way the United States works. Our contracts for making a movie are hundreds of pages long. Whenever I've done a deal in China, you can make them sign that contract, but it makes no difference. In the end, they're going to do what they want to do. And what are you going to do about it? I find it refreshing, by the way. Things move quickly and are based more on a trust. It’s not the litigious culture that we’re steeped in.