Producer James Schamus in Beijing: "China Is Becoming the New Hollywood"

James Schamus P

Speaking at the Beijing International Film Festival, the former Focus Features CEO argued that China is leveraging its booming domestic box office to replicate the conditions that made Hollywood so globally successful.

Veteran independent film producer James Schamus rattled and delighted the local crowd on the first day of the Beijing International Film Festival on Sunday, declaring that "China is becoming the new Hollywood."

The former Focus Features CEO and multi-Oscar nominee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain) participated in a panel discussion about the rapidly evolving nature of Hollywood and Chinese film partnerships.

Schamus began by stating that the common assumption that Hollywood and China are pitched in competition is "already a categorical confusion — because the genius of Hollywood is that it's not any real place." Instead, he suggested, Hollywood is a powerful brand that unites a loose collection of corporations and trade groups, which are infused by talent and capital from around the world.

"It's a shell game," he said. "The capital in Hollywood has been coming from India, the Gulf States and now from China and some very high-net-worth hedge fund individuals and banks — and it's been this way for a long time."

Crucially, Schamus argued, China is beginning to leverage its booming domestic box office to create some of the same conditions that define the allure of the Hollywood brand and sustain its success.

"China is leveraging every aspect of the cinematic sphere, and that leverage is centered on the rise of the theatrical box office," he said. "The key difference between doing a co-production with China and doing one with Italy or any other country is that the co-production here will open up the theatrical marketplace in a more lucrative way."

The effects can been seen in the way international film companies are scrambling to set up joint ventures with Chinese partners, and top global talent are expressing growing interest in the creative possibilities that the Chinese market will make possible. Last month, for example, Warner Bros.' new Chinese joint venture Flagship Entertainment unveiled a 12-film slate of Chinese-language films, and Joe and Anthony Russo, the director duo behind Marvel's Captain America franchise, announced a project to produce established and aspiring Chinese directors. 

Yu Dong, chairman and founder of Bona Film Group, one of China's top studios and a co-financier of six films from Fox, echoed Schamus' sentiments by laying out some of the demographic fundamentals that are driving change within China.

"The Chinese market has room to grow by 5,000 to 7,000 movie screens every year for at least 10 more years," Yu said, adding, "If this continues, we will more than double the number of screens in North America within the decade." (North America had 40,000 screens at the end of 2015 and China had 39,000).

The executive noted that China's box office is expected to surpass North America to become the world's largest single film theatrical territory in the next one to two years — he said China eventually doubling North American box was probably a certainty, and tripling it was conceivable.

Yu also explained that the screen construction that has yet to come in China will take place in increasingly provincial parts of the country, where audiences are more interested, generally, in domestic Chinese movies than foreign imports — a fact that explains Hollywood's recent declining market share against local Chinese pictures. Meanwhile, Hollywood is "producing more sequels and super hero pictures to reduce risks, but these are remote from Chinese people's daily lives," he said.

"The Chinese inland market is more interested in our local creations, so this will change the picture for both industries," Yu further argued, before adding: "The young directors in Hollywood who don't get their support form the big bosses making the superhero pictures, many will come to China to take advantage of the opportunities here."

Schamus, whose production company Symbolic Exchange has a strategic agreement with China's Meridian Entertainment, proposed that the slate investments Chinese studios have made in U.S. film companies — recently, China's Perfect World Pictures invested $250 million into Universal and Huangzhou-based Film Carnival poured $500 million to Dick Cook Productions — are laying the groundwork for Hollywood-like global reach.

"The fact that the new screens are going to be coming into tier four and five cities means a decisive change at the base of the audience for a whole new generation of Chinese filmmakers, while at the same time you are layering on top an international and global business," Schamus said.

The Chinese hosts of the event noted on several occasions that Schamus co-wrote Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which remains the highest grossing non-English-language film ever in North America. As a writer, Schamus added that he objects to the common industry contention that the Chinese film community will need Hollywood's help with story development if it wants to achieve the same level of success in tapping international box offices.

"There's a lot of pride and intensity now in the Chinese film business, but there's still a sense that the storytelling is not up to par and that you need help," he said. "I think that's not true. It's just a different sensibility and that's what's exciting. There's no secret sauce that Hollywood screenwriters have — we just got to the market a little sooner, but that's all going to change."