AMERICAN FILMMAKERS AND MAKING HOLLYWOOD FILMS IN CHINA

HOLLYWOOD FILMS SHOT IN CHINA

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Villain in Chinese film
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China is expected to be a major base for shooting Hollywood films in the future. An executive at Tristar films told the New York Times, “China is going to grow, so a lot of companies want to come in here and produce films.”

Universal's “Pavilion of Women” (2000), based on a 1946 Pearl S. Buck novel, was one of the first Hollywood films about China to be shot in China mostly for Chinese audiences. “Big Shot's Funeral” (2001), a comedy shot in Beijing, was directed by Feng Xiaogang and starred Donald Sutherland and Tony Leung.

Quentin Tarratino was the first big-name Hollywood director to use China as a low-cost production base for a film whose setting was somewhere else. Much of “Kill Bill”was shot in Beijing and elsewhere China with a largely Chinese crew. Even though much of the film is set in Japan only a week of filming was done there while 2½ months was done in China along with three weeks in Mexico and two months in the United States.

The “Great Raid”, directed by John Dahl. was shot largely in China. Parts of “Mission Impossible III” were filmed in Shanghai and nearby Xitang. “The Kite Runner”, a Hollywood film based on a popular novel set Afghanistan, was filmed in Kashgar in western China.

They main attraction of shooting in China is low cost and the willingness of Chinese crew members to put in long hours. Political stability is also a plus and these day the Beijing government is surprisingly cooperative. China has very strict rules about films shot in China that are intended to be shown in China but these rules don’t necessarily apply for films primarily intended to be shown outside of China.

For “Kill Bill”, an American production company supplied the script, investments and hired its own crew. Their Chinese partner built the sets, hired a Chinese crew and took a small cut. The script had to be approved by a government agency but this was viewed as a formality. During filming, all directions were shouted in both English and Chinese for the benefit of both the American and Chinese crew members.

Sometimes Beijing goes to great lengths to be cooperative. It rebuilt part of the Great Wall of China and took down power lines, depriving a village of electricity for six weeks, so that producer Megan Gathercole could make a film called “Testudo”. In 1981, an Italian film crew making a movie about Marco Polo rented the courtyard of the Forbidden City for US$4,000 a day (the government reportedly had asked for $10,000 a day) and recruited People's Liberation Army soldiers to play Mongol warriors.

Shanghai, the Movie and Painted Veil

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Shanghai
“Shanghai” (2010) is a '40s period piece which revolves around an American expat who returns to Shanghai in the months before Pearl Harbor due to the death of his friend. Directed by Mikael Håfström and written by Hossein Amini, it stars John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat Chow, Ken Watanabe and Franka Potente.

IMDB reported: “”Shanghai” the film happened to be a somewhat troubled project, with the shoot being blocked just weeks before production was scheduled to begin, then faced with the abandoning of sets and the relocation to Thailand and London, followed by question marks on its release date. Well, it's finally here, and I'd think it was well worth the wait, given no scrimping on its production values, and director Mikael Hafstrom splashing plenty of noir in his approach to tell a tale of spy versus spy set against Shanghai in 1941, where the city has yet to fall to the Japanese, and thus becoming a hotbed for resistance movements, with plenty of foreigners still in country setting up protective enclaves for their own citizens.”

“While it may be a Hollywood production, the cast was predominantly Asian, assembling some of the largest names in the region for this project. John Cusack plays the lead character Paul Soames, a naval intelligence agent sent to Shanghai to investigate the death of his good friend Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and The Losers fame), whose eyes from which we witness a series of intriguing events unfold, dealing with crossed loyalties and flimsy alliances. Going under the cover of a journalist with pro-Nazi sentiments, he works his charisma and know-how to get to the upper echelons of German society in the city, and from there, linking himself up with the German's new ally, Japan.”

“The Painted Veil” (2006) is about a British medical doctor fights a cholera outbreak in a small Chinese village, while also being trapped at home in a loveless marriage to an unfaithful wife. Filmed in China and directed by John Curran, it stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Liev Schreiber. During the shooting of the film Norton broke three vertebrae in his when a galloping horse threw up before filming a scene.

Looper in China: Changing the Filming Location to China Pays Off at the Box Office

Helen Pidd wrote in The Guardian, “Artistes can be notoriously reluctant to compromise their creative vision at the behest of the Man. Not so director Rian Johnson. He agreed to transplant the plot of his latest sci-fi blockbuster to another continent---from Paris to Shanghai---in order to gain lucrative Chinese funding. The switch paid off: this weekend Looper became the first new Hollywood film to make more money in its opening weekend in China than the US, provisional figures suggest. [Source: Helen Pidd, The Guardian, October 1, 2012]

"I'm thrilled the movie did so well in China. I don't think any of us expected those kind of numbers. It's fascinating to watch that market emerge and crazy to suddenly be part of the story," Johnson said. He insisted shifting the action from France to China was not a creative sell-out, but "gave us production value we'd never dream of". He added: "In many ways Shanghai was a more natural setting for a sci-fi movie than my beloved Paris."

The film, which was shot for just $30 million and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as two versions of a futuristic hitman, made an estimated $21m on debut in the US. But according to Deadline it is likely to return $23m-$25m in China. The change in location, along with a number of other concessions, allowed Johnson's tale of time-travelling hitmen to become a US-Chinese co-production, allowing it to bypass strict rules on the number of foreign films shown in Chinese cinemas.

Looper's stunning performance is sure to encourage other directors to tweak their work in order to appeal to the increasingly lucrative Sino audience, said Robert Cain, a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. "We will see far more of this in the future," he said. "Like everywhere else in the world, Chinese people like watching films set in places they know, starring people who look like them."

James Cameron and Men in Black in China

Helen Pidd wrote in The Guardian, “During a five-day visit to Beijing last month, Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron said he was looking very seriously at the possibility of a co-production with China. He said he was visiting the country on a fact-finding mission to "find out what restrictions need to be met, find out what content guidelines need to be met, and find out the economic incentives are". [Source: Helen Pidd, The Guardian, October 1, 2012]

The 3D re-issue of Cameron's Titanic earlier this year became the first Hollywood film to perform better in China than the US on opening. It ended up grossing $154.8m in China, compared with $57.9m in the states. More co-productions are likely after China announced in May it was to build a $1.27bn Hollywood co-production film studio.

Doing business in China means dicing with the country's strict censor board. Earlier this year, the baddies from Men In Black 3 were excised from the China edition after the censors took offence at the fact they were all Chinese. Portraying any public official in anything other than a glowing light was a risk in China, said Cain: "Police officers are always honest people of integrity who always catch their man. Tthere is no bloody crime in China, no homosexuality, no nudity and no 'excessively terrifying scenes'. Horror is very difficult in China. You can't have ghosts or gore, no demons or monsters."

Problems Encountered by American Filmmakers Working in China

Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, All performances in China need government approval, but the rules are not clearly spelled out, adding an extra element of anxiety. “We have never been told explicitly, 'Don't do X, Y or Z,' by our Chinese partners,'" said Alison Friedman, head of Beijing-based Ping Pong Productions, which imports cultural events to China. "But you do want to make sure your performers know this is not the time to wear your 'Free Tibet' T-shirt." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2012]

Janet Yang, an American film producer who has worked in China since the 1980s, recalls that when she assisted Spielberg on "Empire of the Sun," she was worried that somebody would spark an incident. "I felt the need to write a long memo to the cast and crew discussing what I thought were China-specific manners: courtesy, showing respect, what is acceptable and not," Yang recalls.

For her forthcoming film, "Shanghai Calling," about a Wall Street lawyer who moves to China, Yang said she felt no need to prep the cast except to advise an actress who is an active blogger to be careful about what she wrote. "There is so much more leeway nowadays about what is acceptable," Yang said. "But still, China is not for the faint of heart."

Gladiator-Producer David Franzoni’s Odyssey on Making a Film About the Tang Dynasty in China

David Franzoni, the Academy Award-winning producer of "Gladiator” was hired in 2011 by a Chinese state-owned production company to write a script for a $30 million drama set in the Tang Dynasty. Michelle Kung wrote in the Wall Street Journal, For Mr. Franzoni “the path to China started with a fascination with Asia; his aunt had been a teacher in China. He also was having trouble getting certain projects off the ground in the U.S. His last three films as a screenwriter had been historical, including the Roman drama "Gladiator." In recent years, major film studios have focused on big-budget franchise films and remakes. "I have stories to tell, and to be honest, I prefer doing nonmainstream historical epics, which are harder to get made in the U.S. unless they involve a brand name," he says.

Enter the Xi'an-based Qujiang Film and Television Investment Group, which had been working on a Tang Dynasty film since 2007, first as a Chinese project to be written and directed by local filmmakers and with a Chinese script. After roughly a year, the group changed gears and began looking for an American filmmaker to help "interpret Chinese history and culture in a way that Westerners could understand," says QFTV Chairman and President Guan Zhaoyi.

To help it interpret Chinese culture for a Western audience, the QFTV, in 2010, hired "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua. "They seemed like they had a certain amount of creative freedom to push the subject matter," Mr. Fuqua said. Mr. Fuqua quickly tapped Mr. Franzoni, his partner on another historical epic, "King Arthur," to work on the story. In May, QFTV announced it would spend $30 million on the film, the Chinese group's first major production investment as it sought to find new opportunities in Hollywood. The filmmakers set August 2012 as a tentative start date for filming.

With that in mind, Mr. Franzoni crafted about 10 pages to give his sponsors a sample of the story. Writing a synopsis was a rare exercise for the Oscar winner, but he thought it would be a good way to get in sync with his new collaborators. QFTV gave Mr. Franzoni use of its in-house historian to help guide his writing.

The story focuses on the Tang emperor Xuanzong, his imperial concubine, named Yang Guifei, and the foreign-born general, An Lushan. A favorite of both the emperor and his consort, the general went on to betray his former allies when he led a rebellion starting around 755 that led to their downfall.

Mr. Franzoni and QFTV want a movie like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which 12 years after its release remains the U.S.'s top-grossing foreign film. Hoping to grab some of that magic, the filmmakers tentatively secured "Crouching Tiger" co-stars Asian actors Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi---for their film currently titled "Love Affair of the Tang Dynasty." Mr. Franzoni says the production also wants to cast a Western actor as the general.

Problems Encountered by Gladiator Producer David Franzoni in China

Franzoni’s idea on how to form the plot was viewed suspiciously by the Chinese authorities. Michelle Kung wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Franzoni proposed using a rebel general as a "window" into the ancient world. One problem: To Chinese censors, the general, rather than a hero, was a foreign interloper who betrayed an 8th-century emperor, according to Mr. Franzoni and his Chinese producers. The producers told Mr. Franzoni he should be less sympathetic toward the general and focus more on the emperor and his consort. So the story went into rewrite. [Source: Michelle Kung, Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2012]

Mr. Franzoni decided to use the outsider general, a familiar archetype to Western audiences, as a central character to help foreign audiences better grasp those distant times. "We have to make sure that if we fall down the rabbit hole, we have a rabbit we're familiar with," he says. QFTV officials read Mr. Franzoni's treatment this past summer and passed it to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. The censors quickly raised concerns about Mr. Franzoni's approach, which they said risked presenting an unfaithful interpretation to historically aware audiences. QFTC told Mr. Franzoni that Chinese audiences would never accept Lushan in a heroic light.

Mr. Franzoni says he explained to his partners that even villains needed some humanizing elements to become complete characters. He cites Iago in Shakespeare's "Othello" as a character who was villainous yet well-developed. Still, Mr. Franzoni reworked the treatment to address the government's concerns. In the new version, "I treat the Emperor and Yang like Adam and Eve, and the palace like the Garden of Eden," Mr. Franzoni says he explained to his sponsors, "An Lushan's the snake." He adds that he remained true to his vision.

QFTV Chairman and President Guan Zhaoyi explained, "We had some conflicts about the script because if we change the story too much from what the Chinese know and expect, they won't be able to accept the film." QFTV chose to make the film a tragic love story, because it was a plotline that could be followed in any language, he says. After a January meeting with the censors over Mr. Franzoni's approach, QFTV officials got the green light. Regulators suggested that Mr. Franzoni work with another historian as he writes the script to help alleviate their concerns about the film's historical accuracy, according to the screenwriter. "I don't envision any problems," he says. "But I'm a very optimistic guy."

Young Chinese-American Director in China

China-born Daniel Zhao grew up in Hacienda Heights and, after graduating from USC's School of Cinematic Arts in 2009, started directing commercials, music videos and the occasional TV pilot. "I just didn't see any route for me outside Hollywood," he says with a confident, deep voice not unlike his hero Clint Eastwood. [Source: Gabrielle Jaffe, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2012]

Then came an offer to work as an in-house director at DMG Entertainment, the Chinese studio co-producing "Iron Man 3" with Walt Disney Co. Just months into the job, he was supervising post-production work on a Hong Kong director's feature film. "We did a lot of major fixes, from shooting pickup shots to editing scenes to rewriting dialogue," he says with obvious bursts of excitement. "In L.A., for the amount of time that I've worked, it would be rare for me to work on a feature of this scale and have such an integral part in changing it."

Zhao's knowledge of Mandarin helped them build careers in China, but it is not essential. The demand for Hollywood skills is so strong that, at the top levels at least, some people who don't speak a word of the language are being hired. With more than three decades of experience, having worked as a set painter or visual effects art director on hits including "Escape From Alcatraz" and Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," Ron Gress could have continued to enjoy a fruitful career in Hollywood.

However, after working in Beijing for three months with Peter Pau (the cinematographer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") on the Chinese state-backed epic "Confucius," his interest in China was piqued. He soon moved back to work for the visual effects studio Base FX, where he supervised work on the upcoming film "Looper" (starring Bruce Willis) and HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," which won a special effects Emmy. With companies such as Base FX offering their services for sometimes a third of their U.S. counterparts, more American studios are outsourcing post-production work to China.

Gress is busy seizing the opportunity. He is vice president at CTC Entertainment, based near Chengdu, where along with the new title and pay raise he is tasked with recruiting talent. "The goal is to bring over U.S.-trained supervisors to train young people here. I'm hiring matte painters, compositors, lighting technicians and people proficient in 2-D to 3-D conversion."

"Most people don't take much persuading," he says. "We can at least match their U.S. wages and offer them free apartments, and it's cheaper to live out here." However, some of the people he has approached have responded, "Why should I train someone to take my job away from me?" For now at least, those with Hollywood training continue to have the upper hand. "As a foreign filmmaker here, you have an intrinsic advantage," says Zhao. "The Chinese education system doesn't foster creativity. Your skills and creativity are valued here because the industry badly needs them."

But while the infantile state of China's movie sector has allowed Zhao to blaze a path not open back home, it also has its disadvantages. "I've been on sets where the grips, gaffers and even some of the key PAs are just migrant workers who would have otherwise been working on a construction site," Zhao says. For Zhao, China's movie business today is best compared with Hollywood in the 1920s---"before the anti-trust laws, before regulation and before the industry matured." "It is," he says, "the wild West. But if you come with an open mind, it's a great time to be here."

Hollywood- China Co-Productions: the Wave of the Future

Cathy Yang of Reuters wrote: “A sharp rise in China's box office revenues in 2011 has brought Hollywood hunting for local partners who can help them crack the booming Chinese market. Co-productions are exempt from China's strict quotas on the number of foreign films allowed in the country, giving the major studios a better chance at having movies released widely in the country if they can find a local partner. [Source: Cathy Yang, Reuters, July 10, 2012]

"China is an amazing market, an amazing growth market," said Dan Mintz, CEO of DMG Entertainment Group, which is collaborating with Disney to co-produce "Iron Man 3. " "What it's going to take to green light a film in the future will be a combination of sentiment in the United States, with Hollywood at its centre, and huge markets such as China ... The thing to really watch is how that's going to shift the thinking process when starting to make a film." Mintz's other co-production, "Looper", did well at the box office in China . "Our real focus at this point is making international films, international wide-release, star-driven (films) with Chinese elements in them. It's a very specific criteria as we look for the right kind of story that will resonates around the world and in China," Mintz said.

Several major Hollywood film directors are getting in on the act. In April, James Cameron announced at the Beijing International Film Festival that he is looking for co-production opportunities in China for sequels to his smash hit, "Avatar". "You already know it's costing you a ton of money, so you try to figure out every way possible to hedge that financial risk," including getting co-production money and rebates and shooting in cheaper locations, said Trench. "This region now plays into a lot of those factors." [Source: Kelvin Chan, Associated Press, March 20, 2012]

Domestic entrepreneurs hope to gain as well. Beijing-based Seven Stars Entertainment, a production company owned by Bruno Wu, in April announced a partnership with the Chinese government to open a new filmmaking centre outside the city of Tianjin, China. The facility, worth more than $1.27 billion dollars, would be named "Chinawood" and serve as a venue for Chinese co-productions with filmmakers from the U.S. and other nations. The complex is due to be completed in October 2012

Chinawood to Be Built Outside Tianjin

China is planning on building a $1.27 billion Hollywood co-production film studio called Chinawood outside Tianjin that will service co-productions between the U.S. and China. Andrew Pulver wrote in The Guardian: “The US and Chinese film industries took a significant step towards each other with the announcement of the Chinawood Global Services Base , a multi-million-dollar movie-making centre to be constructed in partnership with the Chinese authorities. Chinese studio boss Bruno Wu, of Seven Stars Entertainment, has secured the help of the government of the Binhai New Area, Tianjin to build Chinawood, which represents a $1.27 billion investment for a complex that will ultimately total 8.6 million square feet on completion. [Source: Andrew Pulver The Guardian, May 1, 2012]

Chinawood's main aim will be to service co-productions between Hollywood and China---a move that will no doubt be popular among US producers, to get around China's strict quota regulations. Over a third of the Chinawood investment represents a financing fund to kickstart production, and the centre will also contain post-production facilities and a dedicated 3D conversion centre.

In a statement, Wu said that the East Asian film market was catching up with North America's, and was "on course to be worth $10bn by 2015". "This project is a significant step towards closing that gap by providing expertise and facilities in all areas." The first part of the studio is due to open in October 2012.

Image Sources: Wikipedia, Ohio State University: IMDB, Chinese B shots from Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013


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