Hollywood Pans to The East

2011/9/28 17:07:00 (Beijing Time)   Source:TheNational    By:Daniel Bardsley

A panda that likes martial arts, and the family values of traditional Chinese culture - it was no wonder the animated feature film Kung Fu Panda was a hit in the world's most populous nation.

The success of the DreamWorksfilm prompted much soul-searching in China after its 2008 release, with commentators asking why it had taken an American film studio to produce a feature that was perfectly tailored to modern Chinese tastes.

 

Fast-forward three years, and there is more of the same. Kung Fu Panda 2 smashed records after its release in China in June, earning 125 million yuan (Dh71.9m) at box offices on its opening weekend, a record in China.

Given this kind of success, and the growth of the Chinese cinema industry as a whole, with takings forecast to grow 30 per cent this year to 13 billion yuan, it is no surprise that foreign studios are taking a growing interest.

"The population of mainland China … is four times that of the United States at least, so the market is there. It's a huge market," says Professor Cheuk Paktong, the director of the Academy of Film at Hong Kong Baptist University. "What's interesting is that not only in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also in the smaller areas they're … building and setting up the theatres."

At the end of last year, the total number of screens reached about 5,000, and about 20 are added each week. The Canadian cinema operator Imax plans to increase its tally of cinemas in China from 48 to 181 by 2015, while South Korea's Lotte is also expanding in the country at a breathless pace.

"In a few years' time, probably we'll have more than 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000. That's why it's a really important market, so everybody wants to get in," says Prof Cheuk.

While foreign film studios are increasingly interested in the Chinese market, until now their hands have been tied. The authorities limit to 20 the number of foreign films that can be released annually in China on a profit-sharing basis, and the state-owned China Film Group has a monopoly on their distribution. Other foreign films are bought for a flat fee.

According to reports from AFP, DreamWorks Animation is looking to open its own studios in Shanghai, which would allow the company more easily to make features in China. The venture would need to be set up with a local partner.

The limit on foreign films would not apply to films produced by the planned joint venture, potentially giving DreamWorks unfettered access to a market forecast to become the second-largest in the world within the next five years.

The challenge this presents to Chinese film-makers is all too obvious. Even with the quota in place, last year American films secured 44 per cent of the Chinese box office's total revenue of 10.2bn yuan, helped along by the success of James Cameron's Avatar.

A recent attempt by Chinese film-makers to beat Hollywood at its own game fell flat. Legend of a Rabbit, described by reviewers as heavily inspired by Kung Fu Panda, had a budget of 120m yuan - a fraction ofKung Fu Panda's, but still the most ever spent on a Chinese-made animated feature. Yet it was greeted with indifference by critics and grossed just 16.2m yuan in July, the month it was released.

Despite this disappointment, there are likely to be many other big-budget animation films coming out of China to compete with what Tinseltown has to offer, because in May, a 4.5bn yuan animation studio was opened in Tianjin.

Prof Cheuk insists that in terms of "entertainment and narrative", Chinese films now compete with the best from anywhere in the world, countering the arguments of those who say they are preoccupied with telling stories from an ideological perspective to be enjoyable. What is lacking sometimes, he says, is technological know-how and a well-oiled machine that can consistently turn out high-quality features

The Tianjin facility and other investments may help close this technological gap, and Prof Cheuk believes the presence of foreign film-making companies such as DreamWorks will provide further incentives and opportunities for local producers to perfect their craft.

"They can learn from Hollywood … The system of making films in mainland China is still very simple," he says. "In Hollywood, they have a very effective system because … they can control every step. In mainland China … they don't have this systematic way."

Although DreamWorks' potential entry into the mainland has attracted attention, as have distribution deals the company and Warner Bros have signed with Chinese video-sharing sites, there are already examples of Hollywood studios collaborating with Chinese film-makers.

Some key projects have involved Columbia Pictures, notes Esther Yau, a University of Hong Kong academic who co-edited the book New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics.

One example was the Chinese-themed remake last year of The Karate Kid by Columbia and the China Film Corporation, which grossed hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide.

In fact, a Hollywood influence on Chinese cinema is nothing new, Ms Yau says.

"As far as mainland China goes, Hollywood goes back to the end of the Second World War. Hollywood released a backlog into Shanghai. The generation that's 70 or 80 years old, they watched a lot of Hollywood movies," she says. "In that sense, they're coming back. If you look at the Chinese movies of the '30s and '40s, there are a lot of Hollywood references."

Last year, 456 films were produced in China, and Prof Cheuk believes there is a market for 1,000 or 2,000, even if figures have indicated that most struggle to generate a profit. But will the local industry develop if Hollywood arrives en masse?

Despite describing the vigour of Hollywood's competition against indigenous film industries as "vicious", Ms Yau believes local production houses will thrive.

Many Chinese film-makers, she says, are showing impressive imagination, especially in documentaries. Among Chinese film-makers there is, she says, a "creativity of practice", an "intention to find their own stories".

"That's also a reason for optimism," she says.

 

 
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