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.

Qing Ming Brings Bling to China’s Theater Owners


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By Robert Cain for China FIlm Biz

April 9, 2013

Last week’s arrival of The Qing Ming Festival—a 2,500 year old Chinese holiday when celebrants honor their ancestors by sweeping their gravesites—also brought a big boost in movie going. The holiday ranks as one of China’s top five or six movie revenue periods of the year, along with such holidays as western New Year, Chinese New Year, Valentines Day and National Day. This past week’s national ticket sales totalled $73 million, good enough for the fourth biggest week of the year and an 88 percent increase over the same period in 2012.Box office week ending April 7 2013

Leading the box office once again was the sleeper rom-com hit Finding Mr. Right, which was down a mere 12 percent from last week, and which has only just started to show signs of slowing. I grossly underestimated this picture’s potential at $40 million; it’s now a sure thing to go over $75 million.

Also holding up well was the WWII action comedy The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, which tallied $18.4 million to extend its total to nearly $31 million.

New openers didn’t fare quite as well. Action/thriller Drug War scored a $12.9 million total in its first six days of release, a bit of a bust relative to expectations but still director Johnnie To’s best debut to date. And the Ronny Yu-directed costume action/war drama Saving General Yang  fizzled at just $5 million, perhaps putting the final nail in the coffin of that moribund genre.

The Qing Ming week capped off a surprisingly potent 8-week period during which China’s theatrical film business nearly doubled the revenues of the same period last year. The 95 percent boost over 2012 was driven mainly by such local language comedy hits as Journey to the West and The Chef the Actor the Scoundrel, and romances Finding Mr. Right and Say Yes. These four films have collectively grossed over $320 million, accounting for more than a third of China’s total box office in 2013.

Hollywood films also contributed, but not at anywhere near the level they did last year. The four biggest non-Chinese films of the past eight weeks were The Hobbit, A Good Day to Die Hard, Resident Evil and Jack Reacher, which collectively pumped $114 million into China’s exhibition coffers.

The 8-week run of hugely favorable year-on-year comparisons will come to an end this week because last April’s enormous $74 million opening of Titanic will be impossible to beat.  I won’t hazard a guess as to how Django Unchained (opening Thursday) and two new Chinese romance pics will do this week, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t pose any threat to Titanic’s record. Look for comps that will be significantly down from last year’s numbers for at least this week and probably next week as well, unless G.I. Joe 2 catches fire.

I’m hard pressed to say whether Hollywood’s relative malaise in China this year is specific to the films that have been imported or is reflective of a larger shift in the market. It’s been suggested to me that market manipulation or fraud are major factors in Hollywood’s rapid decline in China, but I’ve only seen sparse and rather anecdotal evidence of this (I’ll publish an article on this topic in the next few days).

Hollywood hasn’t done very well this year in Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia either, and Chinese manipulation can hardly be blamed in those territories. I’m inclined to credit the rapid rise of Chinese films (at the expense of Hollywood’s movies) to improving stories, good production values, and growing awareness among China’s movie goers that at least some local films are worth the price of admission.

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.