DMG’s Chris Fenton Discusses the Bilateral U.S.-China Film Relationship


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 16, 2012

I recently came across a series of videos published online by the organizers of September’s Stanford Business School China 2.0 conference. The keynote speaker was a friend of mine, DMG Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group President Chris Fenton, who consented to my request to publish a link to his speech, a segment of which you’ll find here.

In the video Chris provides a brief overview of DMG and the activities of its 900 employees in China and the U.S: its businesses include a major advertising agency, media buying, production of local language films in the $2-6 million budget range, co-production and import of U.S. films, and most recently, building and operating theaters. He goes on to show the Chinese version of the trailer for Looper, a film that DMG co-financed and co-produced. And most important for Chris, he shares his thoughts on the importance of improved relations between China and the U.S.

As Chris put it to me, “It is crucial for the US to understand the Chinese point of view to successfully open their market to our exports, particularly with regards to the film industry because it’s so visible. The Chinese view the inference that there’s industry-wide corruption in China and the negative rhetoric of U.S. political leaders as impediments to smoother relations between us.”

Chris’ basic message, one I wholeheartedly agree with, is that if American producers and production companies want to continue to participate in China’s booming entertainment market, they need to meet their Chinese counterparts halfway, to understand and address their needs, and to behave in ways that are a little less foreign and a little more ‘Chinese.’ Of course the same can be said for Chinese companies that wish to participate in the global entertainment business. DMG is one of the few Chinese companies that has shown itself to be fluent in the U.S. and international business culture.

Also appearing at the Stanford conference are my friend Janet Yang, who spoke about her movie career in China, former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman, who discussed business lessons from Google’s China experience, and China Film Co-Production Company President Zhang Xun, who talked (in Mandarin only) about keys to U.S.-China co-production. All well worth watching.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.

Interview on Hollywood’s China Aspirations


July 14, 2012

China Business Review,” the magazine of the US-China Business Council, recently published a feature story written by Editor Christina Nelson titled “Hollywood’s Script in China: Three experts discuss China’s rapidly evolving film industry and opportunities for US entertainment companies.“  In addition to attorney Mathew Alderson of Harris & Moure, pllc, and Brent Reynolds of distribution company Q Global Entertainment, I was also interviewed for the article, which reviewed recent developments in China’s film industry and in the U.S.-China film trade.

With the author’s permission I have re-published below the segment of the article in which Christine and I discussed co-production, piracy, and the challenges and benefits of producing in China.

There has been a lot in the news about Hollywood studios doing co-productions in China. Is there actually an uptick in this trend, and why would a film studio decide to pursue a co-production?

Cain: There’s certainly been an uptick in talk and announcements. The reality is there have been very few real US-China co-productions. You can really count on one hand the number that have been done in the last three or four years. What people tend not to know or talk about is that there’s a huge co-production business in China with companies from other places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and [South] Korea.

The reasons for doing a co-production are pretty clear. There’s still a—and I think there will be one for a while— quota on the import of films into China. Even with the increased number of slots that are expected to open up this year, [the Chinese government is] still restricting the number of films that can get in. So doing a film as a co-production is a way of getting around the quota. If films qualify as approved co-productions then they are treated just like any domestic production with open access to distribution. And the other important reason is the economics are better. You get a better share of the box office.

Are American companies trying to model themselves after companies from Hong Kong and Taiwan that have done co-productions before?

Cain: No, in fact I’m not sure how aware they are of the existing, pretty successful approaches. Particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, there’s such a cultural affinity and understanding. They speak the same language, and it’s easier for them to work with each other. They also, in my experience, come with more of an attitude of meeting the Chinese producers at least halfway and making an effort to understand what their needs and the needs of the marketplace are. They really tailor their films and their approach to be successful in China. The Hollywood studios are still trying to figure that out.

Are we going to see more Chinese characters or plotlines that fit with Chinese traditions of storytelling in Hollywood films?

Cain: I think there’s an awareness in Hollywood that they need to figure out how to cater better to the Chinese audience. What I’ve been hearing is there’s been more activity around US-China co-productions. I don’t know what the result is from those conversations. But generally speaking, I think the studios are at least at the point where they now understand how quickly China is growing, and how important it’s becoming. You can’t ignore the numbers because they’re growing so fast. How that’s translating into effective action, I’m not sure. I haven’t seen very much of it yet.

Is piracy still a big industry concern? If so, what can you do about it as a foreign company?

Cain: There’s been a huge amount of pressure applied for many years. It is still a concern. It’s interesting that where online piracy is also a big problem at least there is a lot of spending and legitimate acquisition of film titles by online distributors. So where there was no money coming back to the studios from that, at least there’s some revenue stream [from online sources] and it’s one that’s growing from China. So much of the viewing in China has shifted from physical media to online—that change is happening really quickly.

What is it like to work with a Chinese company to make a movie? What are some of the challenges and benefits of doing this?

Cain: I’ve really enjoyed the experiences I’ve had working with the Chinese producers and crews. I can’t really say I’ve had any more problems or challenges than I’ve had elsewhere. The difficulty in working there is the infrastructure for making films is still at an early stage of development, and the talent pool is not very experienced yet. There are great film-makers and great writers, but there just aren’t many of them. It’s hard to find people at the level of skill and professionalism that you’re accustomed to finding here in Los Angeles. And that goes all the way down the line, sourcing cameras and equipment and sound stages. But that’s changing; there’s been a lot of investment in China so it’s getting better. It’s an issue that’s going to go away as they make more films there and get more experience. The opportunity, of course, is just to show a part of the world that people are eager to learn about and understand. They are also phenomenal locations. I made a couple of productions in Beijing and Shanghai, and they are really spectacular locations. Just having access to such a big and growing market is a real plus.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.

Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your @#!* Away: The Rules of Film Censorship in China


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By Robert Cain

November 27, 2011

Whenever I make the rounds in Hollywood to talk with producers and studio executives about China, one of the most common questions—and complaints—I hear is about censorship. It’s not just the fact of censorship that confuses and rankles people, but also the lack of transparency and seeming arbitrariness of the permitting and distribution approval processes.

But there’s really not much point in complaining. Censorship is a hard reality of the movie business in China. If you want to shoot or distribute films in the People’s Republic—the fastest growing and soon to be the largest film territory in the world—you’ll have to deal with censorship, and you’d better know the rules.

So herewith, a brief primer on censorship in China.

Gimme shelter

Western ratings systems like the one administered by the MPAA start with the premise that adults should be free to view whatever content they wish; ratings exist mainly to shelter children from inappropriate sexual and violent images.  In China it’s a whole different ball game. Censorship there is designed not only to protect the innocent, but even more to protect the status quo of authoritarian rule. No distinction is made between children and adults; the government holds the ultimate right to decide what content is ‘appropriate’ and therefore available for viewing, irrespective of the viewer’s age.

The process of enforcing media censorship in China falls to the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), a powerful branch of the government which controls the content of all radio, film, television, satellite and internet broadcasts in China. Within SARFT there is a committee of 30 or so staff who oversee movie censorship. These 30 individuals come from a broad array of backgrounds,  including the film industry, the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation, and various government departments. They are divided into various areas of authority. International co-productions, for example, are handled by a small group of three or four staffers.

The principal aims of the censorship system are to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony. SARFT upholds these values by subjecting each and every film, beginning with the script, to a three-step process:

  1. The filmmakers submit their screenplay or finished film to the Censorship Board for review. The board has 15 days to offer a response, though things don’t always move this quickly.
  2. SARFT then offers comments and often suggestions for altering the film to meet censorship requirements. The filmmakers are given the opportunity to make modifications to comply with any requested changes.
  3. The script or film is submitted back to SARFT for review of the changes and an approval decision.

If the filmmakers disagree with the results of the review process, they can apply for an additional review.

SARFT doesn’t typically tell filmmakers what they should do; it advises them as to what they can’t do. The list of taboo topics starts with sex and violence, and extends to obscenity, religion, superstition, gambling, drinking, drug abuse, and criminal activity.  Any story element that is not rooted in scientific fact, like time travel or ghosts, is also likely to fall to the censor’s axe.  And of course any hint of criticism of the Communist party, its leadership, or its legitimacy is strictly prohibited.

SARFT’s Ten Commandments of Chinese Film Censorship

I often joke with friends who run their screenplays by me that, according to the government, nothing bad or subversive ever happens in the modern day communist utopia that is China. If you want to explore any salacious topics, either set them somewhere else, or in some cases, you can set them in the past.

See, before the Communist party took power in 1949, violence, crime, and—gasp!—even drinking occurred in China. Apparently the pre-communist rulers were not sufficiently enlightened to prevent such unsavory behavior. For films set in the past SARFT allows a bit more creative leeway (though not a lot). The reason so many period martial arts movies get made is that they are censor-friendly; a pre-1949 kung fu punch is viewed very differently than a post-1949 one.

The censorship review process can be baffling to those not familiar with it. Fortunately SARFT from time to time provides guidelines that take some of the mystery out of their judgments. In 2008 they offered the following codification of film taboos:

Films containing any of the following content must be cut or altered:

(1) Distorting Chinese civilization and history, seriously departing from historical truth; distorting the history of other countries, disrespecting other civilizations and customs; disparaging the image of revolutionary leaders, heroes and important historical figures; tampering with Chinese or foreign classics and distorting the image of the important figures portrayed therein;
2)  Disparaging the image of the people’s army, armed police, public security organ or judiciary;
(3)  Showing obscene and vulgar content, exposing scenes of promiscuity, rape, prostitution, sexual acts, perversion, homosexuality, masturbation and private body parts including the male or female genitalia; containing dirty and vulgar dialogues, songs, background music and sound effects;
(4)  Showing contents of murder, violence, terror, ghosts and the supernatural; distorting value judgment between truth and lies, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, righteous and unrighteous; showing deliberate expressions of remorselessness in committing crimes; showing specific details of criminal behaviours; exposing special investigation methods; showing content which evokes excitement from murder, bloodiness, violence, drug abuse and gambling; showing scenes of mistreating prisoners, torturing criminals or suspects; containing excessively horror scenes, dialogues, background music and sound effects;
(5)  Propagating passive or negative outlook on life, world view and value system; deliberately exaggerating the ignorance of ethnic groups or the dark side of society;
(6)  Advertising religious extremism, stirring up ambivalence and conflicts between different religions or sects, and between believers and non-believers, causing disharmony in the community;
(7)  Advocating harm to the ecological environment, animal cruelty, killing or consuming nationally protected animals;
(8)   Showing excessive drinking, smoking and other bad habits;
(9)  Opposing the spirit of law.
Source: SARFT

But even this detailed list doesn’t cover it all. Censors have wide-ranging powers, and the rules keep shifting. And censorship doesn’t just end at the script stage. I learned the hard way that when you’re shooting a film in China, there are eyes and ears everywhere.

One small slip for a film, one giant slap for the filmmakers

Back in 2006 I was on set in Shanghai for a romantic comedy I’d helped to set up. One of the film’s scenes, a romantic conversation between the two leads, took place in a movie theater. The director shot 5 or 6 takes and decided he had what he needed. As it was the end of our shooting day and we were feeling punchy, someone tossed out the idea that we shoot one more ‘comedic’ take. So we shot the scene again but this time with an extra in the background, camcorder in hand, acting as though he was a theater patron taping the film off the movie screen.

We quickly shot that take and wrapped for the day. What we didn’t know was that there was a spy in our crew, a plant from SARFT or some other government entity, who dutifully reported to the local authorities that our film contained a scene which made the ‘subversive’ suggestion that there were film pirates operating in China.

The next day, before our morning call, we were summoned to the office of a powerful Shanghai party member who advised us that our movie was being shut down. He said that our depiction of an act of piracy was “naive” and “untruthful” and damaging to China and to the Communist party. We would have to pack up and leave the country without being able to finish our film.

After we spent that entire day begging and pleading ignorance and promising to be on our best behavior, we were fortunate enough to get the party member turned around, and he gave us permission to continue shooting. We never did find out who the spy was, but we learned a costly lesson about discretion in China and the importance of maintaining appearances, even if those ‘appearances’ weren’t true.

It’s important to mention here that, while the system may seem draconian, the reality is that censorship in China is guided by flesh and blood human beings who often want to help. Our Shanghai party member was not so rigid that he couldn’t see we had made an honest and admittedly dumb mistake. And the SARFT committee members actually do want to see films get made; they allowed more than 500 to shoot in China in 2010 alone.

My Chinese filmmaker friends don’t like censorship any more than my Hollywood filmmaker friends do. Some in China speak out boldly against it; prominent directors like Jia Zhangke and Feng Xiaogang have stated publicly that the censorship system is a form of “cultural naivete” that “does great damage to film production.”

But the truth remains that no matter who you are, if you want to play in China, you’re going to have to play by China’s rules. For now and the foreseeable future that means subordinating your creative freedoms to the political and social imperatives of China’s government. If you can pull off the trick of telling stories that adhere to censorship strictures while still entertaining the mainstream Chinese audience, the financiers, the distributors, and even the government officials, will beat a path to your door.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.