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 email@example.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.