No Climbing, No Dabbling in China’s Movie Biz


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

May 8, 2013

I spotted the sign shown above as I was exiting Shanghai’s Pudong airport last week, and although the signmaker’s translation skills are sorely lacking (the bottom sentence should read “Please don’t play in the water.”), the message stuck with me as an appropriate one for those looking to earn their fame and fortune in China’s movie business.

No climbing, no dabbling. Precisely! Understand the hierarchy, especially the government culture, don’t try to overstep your bounds, and don’t dabble because things are moving so fast here that if you fail to move and adapt quickly you’ll get left behind. It’s a culture that Hollywood’s studios generally abhor, and for that reason they’re mostly opting out of the China boom, leaving the money and opportunity to entrepreneurs and risk-takers.

And there’s so much money and opportunity, even (perhaps especially) for foreigners who respect the rules. From small private startups to the biggest state-owned enterprises, China’s film industry is awash in cash, hungry for success, and eager to partner with people who possess know-how and international access.

In my recent China travels I’ve met a 30ish entrepreneur who has poured at least $25 million of his own money into a state-of-the-art post facility; a former government employee who controls an enormous production facility and sizable production fund; and countless others who are prepared to fund movies and entertainment ventures if they can only find investable projects.

Recognizing that commercial filmmaking skills and business savvy are in short supply in China, most of these folks are happy to collaborate with–and in many cases finance–foreign professionals. Even the huge and stodgy China Film Group, the supposed dinosaur of China’s film industry, has aggressively embraced foreign talent, reportedly placing more than two-thirds of its upcoming film projects with international directors. One of the biggest budget films in China’s history, Beijing Forbidden City Film Company’s Wolf Totem, is in the hands of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. It’s a sign of the heady times in the PRC that Annaud was granted approval to direct Wolf Totem even though he’d been previously banned for making the anti-PRC film Seven Years in Tibet.

One major way that foreign influences have seeped into China is the increasing prevalence and success of Hollywood-style storytelling in locally made films. Pictures like Lost in Thailand, Finding Mr. Right, So Young, Drug War and American Dreams in China have attracted giant Chinese audiences by co-opting western storytelling techniques, and in some cases adapting Hollywood hits to the local culture. This an encouraging trend, one that bodes well for skilled western writers and filmmakers who are willing to give China a go.

Of course there’s a catch to all of this. To play in China one must be willing to play by the rules. Here are a few to keep in mind:

1. Meet them more than halfway. Chinese investors tend to be more likely to place their capital at home than overseas. Co-productions are fine, whether in Mandarin or English, but don’t expect them to finance your quirky indie comedy or heartfelt drama unless it can shoot in China with Chinese elements. Chinese movie investors neither understand nor trust the foreign marketplace; most will only invest if they’re confident they can make their money back in China.

2. Brand name drop. If you want to get a Chinese investor’s attention, there’s no better way than to trot out some brand names with which you can claim some association. Can you get a major movie star involved? Are you or have you ever worked for one of the major Hollywood studios? Did you get a masters degree at Yale (or better yet, at Beijing University)? Can you work the words “Goldman” and “Sachs” into the conversation? Few PRC investors have the ability, or even the interest, to assess the quality of your screenplay, but a strong brand name they recognize will help you to swiftly cut through the clutter.

3. Be sensitive to the culture.  Just as in Hollywood, there are many cultural, social, and business rules that must be obeyed if you’re to have a reasonable shot at success. Too many foreigners show up with little understanding of how things work in China and reveal themselves as ‘barbarians’ who are best avoided.

4. Bring protection. China can be a rough-and-tumble place, and foreigners are often treated as targets for exploitation (and sometimes amusement). It’s best to have a local partner or ‘sherpa’ to guide you through the minefield. A great source of information and advice is the Harris Moure law firm’s China Law Blog.

Several friends recently asked me if I’d be attending Cannes this year, and I felt compelled to reply “What for?” The action is all in the East these days. Of my scores of Chinese film business contacts I’m only aware of two who bothered to attend the Cannes festival this year. Better to spend your time at the Shanghai Film Festival in mid-June, where you can participate in a relevant and rapidly growing scene. So don’t dabble, book your ticket and hotel room before everyone else squeezes you out.

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.

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5 thoughts on “No Climbing, No Dabbling in China’s Movie Biz

  1. Hi Robert,
    Great article with very useful information. How do Indie writers/directors fare in China? Are there any opportunities or is it, as your blog suggests, more geared toward the US studio system?
    Thanks,
    Max.

    • Max,

      Thanks for your question. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that the Chinese system is geared toward the U.S. studio system, as that is not at all the case. Writers and directors who spend the time to develop relationships can do quite well. The salaries are nowhere near what they are in the U.S., but work opportunities are plentiful.

      Rob

  2. I’m don’t understand your comment on Cannes : it is considered the most important film festival in the world. Does that means it is the most hyped with a lot of stars but in fact not that good (anymore) for business ?

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