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International strategy of Chinese film


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
the world."


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.



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