Can Hollywood-China Co-Productions Bridge The Audience Gap?

Beijing-Based DMG (Dynamic Marketing Group) Aims At Chinese & American Audiences With “Looper”

DMG funded part of "Looper" under the condition that locations were moved and a Chinese actor was given a role

With China’s fast-growing film market, now the world’s second-largest, expected to exceed $3 billion over the course of this year, Hollywood is looking more intently than ever at wooing Chinese co-production partners to tap a swelling audience while side-stepping Beijing’s film import quotas. Among the companies most active in the world of Hollywood-China co-productions right now is the nearly 20-year-old Beijing-based media agency Dynamic Marketing Group (DMG), whose involvement in the upcoming film “Looper,” starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will be the company’s first attempt at cinematic “fusion cuisine.”

Aimed at attracting both American and Chinese audiences, as Jing Daily noted last summer, DMG agreed to fund a rumored 40 percent of the US$60 million “Looper” budget under the condition that a key location in the film was moved from Paris to Shanghai, and that a role was included for the Chinese actor Xu Qing. More recently, this spring DMG announced a deal to work with Disney to co-finance the third installment of the “Iron Man” franchise, though recently it was reported that production was not moving ahead as smoothly as hoped.

This week, the Guardian speaks to DMG’s Dan Mintz (“the man who’s being called the gatekeeper to the Chinese market for Hollywood”) who, along with colleagues Wu Bing and Peter Xiao, is spearheading some of the most talked-about Hollywood-China co-productions. Mintz’s perspective offers valuable insight into how he comes to grips with the fact that “the world’s two biggest movie markets – the US and China – are also the most culturally different,” and how he manages the tightrope-walk between the two. From the article:

Hollywood is knocking on Mintz’s door because of this kind of careful strategic insight. “In the States, we’re always focused on what the fans want, what the consumers want,” he says, “Whereas in China, there are two groups of people we need to be aware of: the government and the consumer. We look at that as access and relevancy. Some people have one but not the other, and that’s when problems arise. Some people might have access but no one wants to go see it, or some people have a great movie, but can’t get it into the country. That sweet spot is key.”

It’s clear that, better than most western companies, DMG have cracked the access part of the equation: Looper, in an extended cut with more Chinese material, is getting a velvet-rope release at the start of the Golden Week holiday; other Hollywood hopefuls, like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, are still sometimes forced by the communist party to share release dates and cannibalise each other’s profits.

But relevancy is less simple, because DMG isn’t solely targeting the domestic audience (though it makes those kinds of films, too). Mintz says they will make global movies, “with China as the wind to our backs” – but there’s a tension between the two requirements. It may be surfacing in the production of Iron Man 3, whose Chinese hookup, with DMG on board as producers and distributors, was trumpeted back in April. There was some internet debate about how Marvel and DMG were going to make the film Sino-friendly, in particular mooted villain the Mandarin, who was a beard-stroking Fu Manchu knockoff in the comics. Then Iron Man 3’s whole eastern direction seemed to be thrown into question when director Shane Black denied at Comic-Con there would be any first-unit presence in China at all.

“The first question a lot of people ask me is, ‘What brought you to China?’ But that’s not really the question,” he says, “The question is, ‘Why’d you stay?’ The reason is a moment in time. It was a realisation that what I could witness here, I could never witness again. I’m from New York – greatest city in the world. But somebody already built that.”

A-list actors like Christian Bale have starred in Chinese features like Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War"

Though Mintz is confident that his company will be able to bridge the culture and business gap separating China and Hollywood, it’s questionable whether so-called “global” co-productions will actually have global draw. Despite a strong showing at the Chinese box office, Zhang Yimou’s “Flowers of War,” starring Christian Bale,  took in a paltry $311,434 in North America, and there are signs that Beijing’s film regulators are on the verge of tightening co-production regulations. (Perhaps because imported blockbusters continue to dominate at the Chinese box office.)

The Wall Street Journal noted this week that

co-productions haven’t exactly taken off so far. The 2008 co-production “Red Cliff,” an epic based on the classic Chinese novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and directed by Hollywood-tested Taiwanese director Ang Lee, saw box office sales of $92 million in China and $627,000 in the U.S. Box office sales for the 2010 release of “Karate Kid,” a co-production featuring martial arts star Jackie Chan and the son of superstar actor Will Smith, hit $176.6 million in the U.S. but only $7.9 million in China.

Film companies have been looking for the winning recipe to reach both markets. According to the China Daily report, China’s regulators think they’ve just resorted to falling back on Hollywood storylines and have conveniently left out the Chinese part of the deal, which would give them a soft power boost.

Therein lies one of the key problems facing these co-productions: in order to please Beijing regulators, Chinese audiences, global investors and viewers in North America, Europe and elsewhere — a potential “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario — filmmakers and producers risk pleasing nobody. To date, these co-productions have been — as the WSJ noted — at times mocked in China for simply tacking on a few Chinese references or casting a single Chinese actor, while in the US, alterations made to films to slide by Chinese regulators have too been mocked as Hollywood caving in to censorship to make a quick buck. While professionals like DMG’s Mintz are doing their best to bridge the gap, it remains to be seen whether audiences themselves will find these films spellbinding or stodgy.


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