Universal Announces Beijing Office With Sights Set On Co-Productions

Universal's Despicable Me 2 is set to open in China in early 2014.

Universal’s Despicable Me 2 is set to open in China in early 2014.

Hollywood film companies are doing their best to cozy up to visiting Chinese executives at the U.S.-China Film Summit this week in hopes of finding ways to cash in on China’s film market, which is expected to become the world’s largest by 2020.

One company that’s particularly ahead of the curve is NBCUniversal, which will be opening a film office in Beijing, according to company vice chairman Ron Meyer. Announced at an event hosted by the Motion Picture Association and the State Administration of Radio, Film & Television, China’s film regulator, the main goal of the office will be to pursue more co-production deals, which allow foreign studios to sidestep China’s strict quota on foreign films. According to Variety:

“Co-productions are important and for us, the opportunities are going to, hopefully, be many,” Meyer said after an event at Universal to kickoff a screening series of international China co-productions.

At the moment, making co-productions that appeal to both Chinese and U.S. audiences is a challenge, but Hollywood is optimistic that filmmakers can crack the code of finding something with universal appeal.

MPAA chairman Chris Dodd said that they “want to see more Chinese films and Chinese co-productions playing here in the U.S. and around the world.” He noted the “staggering” growth of the Chinese box office from $120 million in 2003 to $2.7 billion last year.

The Chinese film market is full of obstacles for Hollywood filmmakers hoping to gain a foothold, since film regulators have two main reasons for protectionism: business and politics. The government not only heavily censors the content seen by its citizens, but also wants to protect the domestic film market from foreign competition. However, event speakers put on an optimistic face for the talk:

Studios have for years sought greater access to the Chinese marketplace, where business has been fraught with frustrations. Most recently, the studios announced that they had resolved a dispute over a 2% hike in a value added tax that violated a 2012 WTO agreement entitling foreign studios to 25% of the revenue for films released in China.

“We are getting better at this all the time,” Dodd said after the event. “We are ironing out a lot of speed bumps and hurdles with each passing year. It doesn’t mean there won’t be new ones that come up. We are dealing with a very bureaucratic system. There are those who want to protect their product and still see the release of our product in theatrical exhibition as a threat to that. But I think there is a growing appreciation that building audiences for film will also help them in the long run. I think all of this is taking us in the right direction.”

We may see film regulators lift quotas in the future, however, as Chinese films improve at holding up against their Western counterparts. This is already starting to be the case, as more than half of the top 10 movies at the box office in 2013 are Chinese, including the number one slot, which went to Journey to the West.

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