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Winds of change buffer Chinese film co-productions

Updated: 2012-05-10 09:49
By Harvey Dzodin ( chinadaily.com.cn)

I have noticed recently that the winds of change are blowing forcefully across Beijing and China. I am not talking about the sandstorms that cross the capital region at this time of year, but something of far more consequence.

Since the beginning of the year palpable change is in the air. It is readily apparent to me that a critical mass has been reached and that China's long-time inability to master the art of soft power and cultural diplomacy is finally changing.

The few popular long-time staples of Chinese cultural diplomacy like kung fu fighters and acrobats, together with a few memorable highbrow museum shows, now have more and more company. The floodgates seem to be suddenly opening to a growing tide of professional, world-class cultural exports and co-productions.

Take the current in-depth multimedia exhibition, "Terracotta Warriors: Defenders of China's First Emperor" in Manhattan's Discovery Times Square. Unlike previous traveling museum-based exhibits of these iconic treasures that were object-focused, this show is designed to appeal to the masses and give a close-up and intimate understanding of the Qin Dynasty, the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang's rise to power, as well as the relatively peaceful life of the Han Dynasty which followed. It's a partnership that joins the Shaanxi provincial government, China Institute and the media-savvy exhibition subsidiary of Discovery Communications, parent company of the Discovery Channel. It follows such innovative shows in the same space as "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" and "Pompeii: Life and Death in the Shadows of Vesuvius".

I can personally contrast this with the September, 2000 exhibit "A Close Look at China" less than a mile away but light-years distance in terms of design and audience. I was one of the very few people to attend that exhibit, even though it was both free and somewhat interesting. The poorly marketed $7 million show featured Chinese fashions, contemporary design items and places of interest to tourists to visit in China. The contrast between the two shows couldn't be more vivid and I remembered at the time thinking: what a monumental waste of money.

Even more important and far-reaching, however, are the announcements of Sino-Hollywood co-ventures, co-productions and various other cooperative ventures that began appearing during the visit of Vice-President Xi Jinping to the United States in February.

At that time the annual limit on foreign films, which had been set at 20 for years, was increased by 14 more if these used IMAX or 3-D. Moreover, foreign studios got to keep about 25 percent of the box-office receipts, up from 13.5 to 17.5 percent.

On the same day, it was announced that DreamWorks Animation was joining three Chinese partners to make live-action and animated TV programs and theatrical films "for China, by the Chinese, in China, at a quality that can be exported to the rest of the world," in the words of CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.

More recently, it was announced that the next Iron Man film will be co-produced in China with Disney partnering with Marvel Studios and Beijing-based DMG Entertainment.

These announcements have continued with the establishment of a nearly billion-dollar Chinese-government backed fund to invest in both Chinese and American co-productions. The cheers in Hollywood, which loves "OPM" (Other People's Money), must have been heard all the way to Las Vegas!

Last week, media tycoon Bruno Wu announced the establishment of the $1.27-billion Chinawood Global Services Base in Tianjin. With government backing, the film production base is expected to grow to 8.6 million square feet. This follows the announcement by legendary Titanic and Avatar filmmaker, James Cameron, that his Cameron Pace Group had signed an agreement to set up his China headquarters in the same Binhai New District of Tianjin to promote 3-D technology for Chinese filmmakers, media and game designers.

And you might say, pun intended, that all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Look no further than the recently concluded and wildly successful Beijing International Film Festival. Only in its second year, this baby is now fully grown. Five billion yuan in contracts were signed during festival, a 79-percent increase over the first year. Even more co-productions were announced there, including a 3-D film based on Sun Tzu's The Art of War, as well as Gods, produced by X-men and Transformers producer Tom DeSanto.

There could be a few speed bumps in the road such as the recent US Department of Justice investigation of possible bribery in China on the part of some major US studios, and the longstanding difficulty of finding the correct film formula to attract both Chinese and American audiences. These will be overcome.

The benefits for both sides are significant, however. China will be able to share and learn from Hollywood's century of creative and commercial success. This not only includes the art of filmmaking, including special effects, but marketing and theater operation. For example, I am always amazed that no-brainer tools in the US such as using focus groups or quantitative research at every stage of creation to help maximize a film's chances for success are an alien concept here.

The US will be able to gain an increased presence in the Chinese media market. And given the increased share of box-office take announced during Xi's US visit, this is a double win.

Perhaps the greatest benefit will be the learning that will take place by each side from the other. Neither side has a monopoly on knowledge. As the world shrinks, it is critical that we each understand, appreciate and share each other's very different outlooks.

Putting business considerations aside, there is no question that China will be the prime beneficiary. Modern China is misunderstood by many outsiders, mostly because they are misinformed or uninformed. Mastering media, be it state-of-the-art exhibitions, TV or films, will help billions of people around the world get a better and more positive insight into the China of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

The author is a senior advisor to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.