the cameo appearance of a Chinese star in the Hollywood franchise Iron
Man 3 caused controversy in China, the movie has still been considered
a good example of the collaborations of Chinese and American
Chinese filmmakers are walking a tightrope between localization and
globalization. Finding a happy medium is surprisingly like cooking fish,
Raymond Zhou learns.As China's film industry rockets into the stratosphere of amazing
box-office returns, the international market becomes increasingly
enticing. Yet, only a fraction of its revenues come from outside China,
and even that is often the result of counting in the foreign receipts
of co-productions, which technically do not go to the Chinese pocket.
Chinese film companies, however, are moving up the learning curve. At a
Beijing International Film Festival forum, CEO of Bona Film Group Ltd
Yu Dong maps out three stages that Chinese films have to take to launch
a global entry.
"None of the steps can be skipped," he emphasizes.
The first stage, according to Yu, is
what he jokingly calls "dumping". Movies are bundled together and sold
to foreign television stations, video websites and, in the old days,
video distributors. The Chinese companies receive a pittance, e.g.
$20,000 for 10 movies, or a mere $100,000 for the whole year's
inventory. "There is little room for price negotiation. If you don't use
the low-price strategy, they'll go buy Korean or Japanese movies
instead," he says. "You have to remember there are some 5,000 movies
produced annually throughout the world. China accounts for roughly 10
percent, the US 10 percent, India more than 20 percent. And I'm not
counting the 100-some pornography films from Japan."
Whoever buys the Chinese stock will have to find ways to make money out
of it. So, whatever platforms they can find they will use to release
some of these movies, which means exposure for Chinese stories and
Chinese actors, says Yu. "This will help cover 80 to 150 markets across
For phase two, Chinese companies will participate in the investment of
some projects with global reach and, in return, will place Chinese
situations and Chinese actors inside the stories. The cameo appearances
of several A-list Chinese stars in these big Hollywood franchises have
caused controversy in China, with some members of the Chinese public
complaining about the short shrift given to these big names, but Yu
holds a different view. "No matter how small the role, it is worth it,"
he says, citing the example of Wang Xueqi in Iron Man 3. "This is
2013's biggest movie in the whole world, and the global audience got to
know this Chinese actor," Yu says.
The third stage will involve Chinese productions with international
participation. Yu says Wolf Totem, which has just wrapped production,
is a perfect example. It is based on a Chinese best-seller, but is
directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, a French director with a track record
for incorporating wild animals in his stories. It has reportedly
pre-sold $8 million in the European market.
This project is spearheaded by Zhang Qiang, an executive of China Film
Group. "It tells a Chinese story with Chinese characters and Chinese
emotions, backed up by Chinese investment, but it has potential global
appeal," says Yu. Yu's Bona is mulling similar projects, to be
co-produced with Fox Film Corporation, which has a financial stake in
his company. "We may even produce movies with dual language
soundtracks, a Chinese one for the domestic market and English for the
international market," Yu says.
Yu is aware he can do only one or two such co-productions each year.
For regular movies, those in the mid-budget or small budget with no
possibility of hiring international talent, he wants to have his teams
engage in international cooperation and use that experience to serve
the domestic market. "By 2020, China will surpass North America and
become the world's largest film exhibition market, and our output will
reach 1,000 feature films a year. Only then will we be prepared to set
Stage Three as our target," says Yu. "Only then will we be able to make
international films with Chinese emotions and become part of world
Zhou Tiedong, until recently president of China Film Promotion
International, a company that is heavily involved in what Yu Dong calls
"phase one" of Chinese films' global ambition, offers a different
take: "If you do not have a good story, international buyers would not
touch it even if it is free. The film industry is built on collecting
pocket money from each individual moviegoer. In the US, the average
price for a ticket is still around $8 apiece. That means selling your
story to millions of such individuals."
According to Zhou, Wolf Totem is no longer a narrowly defined Chinese
story. It is about wolves and man's relations with wild animals and
nature. So, it is global in its core. "The crux is in the positioning
of your story. You can position it for the domestic market or beyond
it. Of all the movies made in the US, most are for domestic
consumption. There are only 50-some global movies that reach the
international market and they represent Hollywood as we know it."
Zhou insists that, to reach a global audience, we should not only tell
stories about China, but more about Chinese people. "We have not
learned how to penetrate the cultural surface into the depth of
humanity. Our products are often made with what I call 'strong cultural
discount', and that will hamper the acceptance of foreign audiences.
Stories about human nature but with Chinese cultural characteristics,
such as Wolf Totem, have the potential to succeed on the wider market."
Zhou uses the analogy of fish to explain his point. If a fish has too
many bones, only people who are ardent lovers of fish as food will eat
it. But if you remove the bones and make it into fish balls or fish
fillets, even those mildly interested may choose it. A Chinese film has
to go through a similar process to find a wider audience. "When we
make a global film, we must preserve the flavor of fish, so to speak,
i.e. the Chinese elements that culturally identify us. But if you
examine any film that sells across the world, you'll find it does not
contain things that will be stuck in your throat. It can always go down
smoothly. Any race, culture, age, language group will be able to
relate to it. In that sense, you have to tell a global story or even a
story of the whole cosmos."
However, there can be endless gradations between total localization and
total globalization in terms of a film's positioning. When it comes to
the treatment of a film story and its details, there are thousands of
decisions and each one will require a careful balance. Very often there
is no right or wrong, but collectively a film may come across as heavy
on one end or the other. Occasionally, a film may capture both the
domestic and the outside market, but it may also be caught in the
middle, failing to appeal to either side.
Debates like the one described in this story, which I moderated, happen
every year as we move along – and up – the learning curve.