China takes its place at centre stage
The days when going to the cinema in China meant watching a propaganda movie projected against a sheet on a wall are long gone. These days, China is the world's second-biggest film market, with more than US$3 billion in box office sales last year.
The property boom of recent years has resulted in a surge in the number of cinemas being built - 10 new screens a day - as developers focus on luring the public into the shopping malls in major cities.
The film and television industry in China contributed $15.5bn to the country's economy and supported 909,000 jobs in 2011, according to a report by the Motion Picture Association and the China Film Distributors and Exhibitors Association. The industry also generated tax revenues of $3.4bn.
Film in China is red-hot right now, and the nation's film makers are enjoying great success. Xu Zheng's Lost in Thailand, the biggest Chinese movie ever, took 1.26bn yuan (Dh751 million) in Chinese cinemas.
This comes despite China's censorship system being famously difficult to manoeuvre for Chinese directors and for their foreign peers, who also have to put up with a quota limiting the number of overseas films.
But box office receipts in the US are flat, and Hollywood studios are constantly on the lookout these days to find the magic key to unlock the China market, especiall after Avatar took more than $220m there.
"China is the hottest place to be in the entertainment world today. There is no greater place in the film world," said Peter Shiao, the chief executive of Orb Media Group, who has been involved in many bridge-building efforts between Hollywood and China. He recently attended the Beijing International Film Festival, which is becoming afixture despite being in only its third year.
Mr Shiao'sLos Angeles and China-based company signed a deal with the Chinese production-distribution company Le Vision Pictures to produce a media franchise that will include a range of cross-platform projects.The first project to be produced, financed, marketed and distributed through the new franchise will be The Legend of 18 a $40m fantasy action franchise slated to launch late this year.
In the past few weeks, Keanu Reeves, The Matrix trilogy star, presented the trailer for Man of Tai Chi, his feature film directorial debut, while Kathleen Kennedy, the head of the Lucas Film studio, announced that the company's Industrial Light & Magic unit had signed an expanded deal with the Chinese visual effects company Base FX for work on the three upcoming instalments of Star Wars.
The French filmmaker Luc Besson recently unveiled his latest project, an adaptation of the Chinese bestselling novel Wolf Totem, while the DreamWorks chief Jeffrey Katzenberg was in Beijing to present Tibet Code, a swashbuckling effort from the company's Chinese unit, Oriental DreamWorks.
DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda was adored by Chinese audiences, but also unsettled movie mandarins here with its depiction of Chinese history and culture in a mass-market animated film setting.
Since then, the search has been on for a Chinese equivalent and Oriental DreamWorks' head Li Ruigang, who previously ran the powerful Shanghai Media Group, hopes Tibet Code is the one.
A big buzzword for Hollywood executives and Chinese movie makers is co-productions, which enjoy advantages in the Chinese market as they are treated as domestic films and do not fall under the import quota and stand a much stronger chance of getting a Mainland Chinese release.
One successful co-production has been Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which involves Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, a unit of Australia's Village Roadshow, and has taken in more than $200m in China.
Last month, Paramount Pictures announced a deal with China Movie Channel and its online movie service partner, Jiaflix Enterprises, to produce Transformers 4 in the country.
But Hollywood executives are learning that to take advantage of the booming Chinese film market, you have to do more than just shoot a number of scenes with Chinese actors in Chinese locations. The movie has to have genuine, meaningful Chinese input.
Marvel Studios and the Los Angeles- and Beijing-based production company DMG released a special edition of Iron Man 3 solely for the Chinese market. DMG collaborated with Marvel Studios on the Chinese elements in the film, and is marketing and distributing the film. The movie set a new box office record, taking 130m yuan on its opening day.
Foreign box-office takings for Chinese films fell 48 per cent last year, which will not have gone down well with the powers-that-be, keen to improve China's soft power abroad by encouraging more cultural products.
Last year, for the first time in nine years, Hollywood movies took more than half of ticket revenue, which totalled 17bn yuan.
Tong Gang, the head of the film bureau, bemoaned what he sees as a lack of core creativity."China's film industrialisation is still far from other film powers, and there is plenty of room for improvement in Chinese movies' variety and diversity," he told the Xinhua news agency.
Published: May 5, 2013 04:00 AM