China Film Personality: Han Sanping


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 7, 2012

This week Hollywood welcomes one of the Chinese film industry’s most important and influential players, Han Sanping (韓三平). As Chairman of the Chinese government/business mega-conglomerate China Film Group, Han is responsible for more financing, production, distribution, export and import of films than everyone else in China combined.

Han is visiting Los Angeles this week to meet with executives at several studios (Universal, Sony and Disney have been specifically mentioned in the industry trades) to seek out co-producing partners, and to consider requests for precious import quota slots. A couple of clients of mine are meeting Han this week to ask that he allow their blockbusters to screen in Chinese cineplexes.

There is no real Hollywood equivalent to Han, because he wears so many hats: producer, director, studio executive, government administrator, and mentor. If you took Jack Valenti, Lew Wasserman, and Steven Spielberg and rolled them into one, you’d begin to get an idea of Han’s power and influence in China. He has overseen the production and distribution of hundreds of movies and television series, he manages the Beijing Film Studios, and he has final greenlight authority on all co-productions with foreign partners.

Han is also widely recognized as a kingmaker who has nurtured the careers of such top directors as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang, and of many leading Chinese actors and actresses as well.

The kingmaker’s own career was nurtured and mentored by my new friend Liu Cheng. Han began producing movies nearly 20 years ago, which makes him the equivalent of an OG in China because there are few film veterans who can claim that sort of longevity. He has had a producing role on numerous Chinese blockbusters including Red Cliff (directed by John Woo), The Warlords (Peter Chan), Shaolin (Benny Chan) and Aftershock (Feng Xiaogang), and on such Hollywood films as Mission Impossible III and The Karate Kid. He also directed two of China’s highest grossing films of the past three years, the star-studded, Chinese Communist Party sponsored propaganda films The Founding of a Republic and The Beginning of the Great Revival.

Last year I helped Han to evaluate Hollywood visual effects companies for one of his films, and as a result I gained some access to his inner circle. I’ve heard that his trip this week has yielded at least one major surprise: there has been a marked negative shift in the major studios’ attitudes toward co-production with Chinese partners.

Apparently, in the wake of the Chinese government’s recent announcement regarding its relaxation of film import quotas and its enhancement of revenue sharing, the studios’ appetites have diminished for co-production as a means of boosting their China business. With enough quota slots now for each major studio to average 5 or 6 Chinese releases per year, and with their share of revenue now bumped up to 25 percent of box office gross, the Hollywood giants see little incentive to deal with the hassles of Chinese co-production. An unanticipated consequence of Beijing’s opening up of the Chinese market is that it may encourage less Hollywood cooperation, not more. Most of the studios have had trying experiences in the past with Chinese partners, and any incremental revenue they might theoretically earn by making movies in China isn’t considered sufficient compensation for the risks, creative restrictions, and headaches they would have to bear.

From my vantage point this is a good thing. China still wants access to Hollywood expertise and market clout, and the less the studios want to provide these things the more opportunity there will be for entrepreneurial American and other foreign companies. We may see more Chinese money begin to flow into high profile independent productions.

Han Sanping won’t have to concern himself with these issues for much longer; he’s nearing the mandatory retirement age of 60, and it’s widely anticipated that he will soon be leaving his post. Some speculate that Zhang Qiang, a younger protégée of Han’s, will step into the China Film Group chairman’s seat later this year.

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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China Film Personality: Liu Cheng


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 3, 2012

Last week I had the privilege of attending a luncheon event that yielded two most unexpected gifts. The first was a copy of a beautiful Chinese book, the Three-Character Primer of Film (电影三字经), given to me by the author himself, Mr. Liu Cheng (柳城). The second was the gift of meeting and beginning what I hope will be a long friendship with Mr. Liu, a warm and generous man who has inspired and influenced countless filmmakers in China and around the world.

The luncheon was part of a day-long celebration of the installation of Mr. Liu’s newly translated Three-Character Primer at the Motion Picture Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. Written in admirably poetic style in just 900 classical Chinese characters, evocatively translated into English, and exquisitely bound on rice paper, the book is a marvel of economy and truthful insights about the art, craft and power of film.

Mr. Liu himself is a unique individual: accomplished and modest, powerful and gentle all at once. He was the man of the hour among an august group** of American and Chinese filmmakers, producers and industry executives, and the respect, admiration and affection for him in the room were as rich and piquant as the Chinese delicacies on the table.

A few choice morsels from his book:

In scene and storyline, less is more,
Stress what’s important, stick to the core.

.

For subject let obsession be your guide,
Release the yearning that lies deep inside.

.

Emotional truth is your glue and your weave,
Conflict comes from desires to which we cleave.

.

Liu Cheng’s career has encompassed teaching and leadership positions at the Beijing Film Academy, at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), and currently at China’s national film channel, CCTV-6. He has been responsible for screenplays and movies at the highest levels in China’s industry, and counts among his friends film luminaries the world over.

The 50-plus commentaries and testimonials to his book reveal the impact he has had on global film industry leaders. A selection of quotes from these testimonials follows:

Zhang Yimou, filmmaker: “It amazes me that he was able to produce a major work using so few words and present a major truth so neatly… This is a book which is deceptively simple, but full of surprises. It seems effortless, but has been carved out through painful effort.”

Im Kwon Taek, filmmaker and the ‘Father of Korean film’: “I hereby recommend the Three-Character Primer of Film to all my Korean colleagues, as well to young people who hope to make a career in film. They will find the wisdom that the writer has acquired through a lifetime at filmmaking.”

Han Sanping, Chairman of China Film Group: “It would not be excessive to hail the Primer as a classic, not because of its three-character format, but because it has put the finger on the essence of the art of film as well as upholding an attitude to life itself.”

Jane Campion, filmmaker: “There is poetry in film, but Mr. Liu Cheng has written a poem on film itself, thus worthy of our attention.”

Janet Yang, Producer: “The Primer has a deceptively light touch. The writing must have been a very demanding job: one must be knowledgeable about film, one must master classical Chinese, and one must understand life.”

Jon Avnet, filmmaker, Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America: “When I read Mr. Liu’s poetics, I felt he captured the essence of filmmaking. He has done it in rhyme, and he has done it concisely.”

J.J. Abrams, filmmaker: “As a fan of script writing and filmmaking books, this fantastic volume from across the globe has become one of my favorites. It is slight in page count only; the contents herein are critical truisms to which we all should adhere.”

David Seidler, screenwriter: “Please don’t read the Three-Character Primer of Film by Liu Cheng. If you do, you’ll become extremely wise in the ways of screenwriting, and I don’t need the competition.”

It is tempting for those of us in the west who have little insight into the inner workings of China’s film establishment to dismiss it as a faceless bureaucracy, an adversary standing in the way of our ambitions. But we can all take comfort that rare individuals like Liu Cheng, lettered, passionate about art, and optimistic about the future, are there in China, ready and willing to lend us a hand.

(**My table at lunch comprised a convivial group that included producer and former AMPAS President Sid Ganis, producer Janet Yang, Rhythm & Hues president John Hughes, visual effects master Doug Smith, writer-director Anna Chi, Wuxi Studios business development executive Rita Cahill, CCTV on-camera personality Maggie Wang, and Mr. Liu Cheng.)

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.