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December 8, 2000 2:00 AM
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BIZ: Taming the Dragon: Part II, Two Approaches to China's Film Market

BIZ: Taming the Dragon: Part II, Two Approaches to China's Film Market

Augusta Palmer




(indieWIRE/ 12.8.00) -- For over a decade, economists have been predicting that China's market will soon become the world's largest. So it's hardly shocking that both local and global entertainment companies are investing in the future of the Chinese film market now. With the continued American interest (economic and otherwise) in the Greater China region, it seems less than surprising that two of the major players in greater China's film industries happen to be Americans: Columbia Pictures Asia's Barbara Robinson and Imar Films' Peter Loehr. Both received their training in the film industry in Asia, which has given them unique perspectives on how to harness the potential of China's struggling film market.


Sony's Columbia Pictures Asia opened its doors April of 1998 in Hong Kong, almost a year after the city became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic and just in time for the Asian Economic Crisis. Despite the ominous timing of its start-up, the Hong Kong outpost is now flourishing. Over the space of two years, Barbara Robinson has made important acquisitions, expanded her operation to include additional development staff in both Beijing and Taipei, and started a production slate whose first product, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," hits American screens this week.


After a year in Beijing provoked her to abandon a medical career in favor of studying Chinese, Robinson headed to Taipei. There she cut her (filmmaking) teeth at Taiwan's ERA Films, where she helped to produce and market films for China's art-house giants, Hou Hsiao-hsien ("City of Sadness") and Zhang Yimou ("Raise the Red Lantern"). Her long acquaintance with Zhang Yimou helped Sony's new division secure the distribution rights to "Not One Less" (A Golden Lion winner at Venice released in the U.S. earlier this year) and "The Road Home" (a period romance and the winner of a Silver Bear and Jury Prize at Berlin). When I asked whether the acquisition of these films means that Columbia Pictures Asia is aiming for a prestige market, Robinson replied, "When we first acquired the Zhang Yimou films, we kind of chuckled because we thought, as proud as we are to be working with him, this is going to signal that we're an art-house production company. But, in fact, my business plan was calling for lots of big action movies." Referring to the Zhang Yimou films, she confessed, "Honestly, we weren't sure how we would do with them.'


The critical and box office success of Zhang's films convinced Robinson -- and presumably the studio bosses at Columbia Tri-Star in L.A. who greenlight her projects -- that Columbia Pictures Asia, she says, "can continue to work on a broad basis in terms of the genre of films." Nonetheless, when they started their own production slate, Columbia Pictures Asia chose more mainstream projects tied to directors already familiar with Hollywood's mode of filmmaking, which favors extensive contracts and tight budgetary control unusual for the Hong Kong film industry. First on the slate was Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" closely followed by legendary director Tsui Hark's action thriller "Time and Tide." Upcoming projects include "Darkness Visible" a serial killer film produced by Taiwan's Chen Guo-fu, and "Virtual Twilight," directed by Hong Kong's Corey Yuen (an experienced Hong Kong director known to U.S. audiences as the martial arts choreographer for "Romeo Must Die").


Though American viewers may consider Ang Lee and Tsui Hark to be "independent" cinema, in Asian markets their films are big business. Columbia Asia is pitching their product primarily at Asian markets, with any U.S. box office returns seen as gravy rather than as necessary to a film's success. Columbia Asia hopes to cash in on those markets by drawing on the best talents from the all over the greater China region. Using this formula for success, Robinson cites "Crouching Tiger" as "the epitome of collaboration between Hong Kong, Taiwan and China" because it utilizes acting talent from all three Chinas along with the relatively inexpensive visual grandeur of mainland locations and the screenwriting and directing of Taiwan's Ang Lee.


In contrast, Peter Loehr's Imar Films in Beijing takes a more independent and local approach to filmmaking. Imar's movies are made specifically for the Mainland market with scripts that capture the flavor of daily life in Beijing or Shanghai, and first or second-time directors culled from drama academies rather than the studio-feeding ground of Beijing Film Academy. Like Robinson, Loehr got his filmmaking training in Asia. -He worked in almost every branch of Japan's Amuse Entertainment before striking out on his own in Beijing. In August, Loehr was putting the finishing touches on what may be China's first road movie "All the Way," and was about to start production on "Quitting," another film directed by "Shower"'s Zhang Yang.


When asked what the largest challenges facing an independent filmmaker in China are, Loehr identifies distribution as the main concern: "Unlike in other countries, when an independent filmmaker finishes his or her film, there are not a group of nationwide distributors to attempt to sell the film to," he explains. "In China, every province and city has an independent, monopolistic state run distributor. Distribution does not go through a central entity; you must go to the local level. This means that in order to get your film released nationwide, you are signing contracts with 40 different distributors. This means that to distribute your film effectively, you need to build up 40 sets of relationships and a track record so that it is in everyone's best interests not to screw you. It took us three years to do this!" Loehr also adds, "There's another big catch -- all P&A (promotion and advertising) costs are paid up front by the producer. And you thought most Chinese directors focused on international markets just because of censorship!"


When they do pursue international markets, however, Chinese films must fit into the pigeonholes distributors have assigned them to. Loehr credits a distributor friend with the following succinct list of the limited types of films that do well in international markets:


"1. Rural films about very poor Chinese peasants, that make the Westerner feel happy about their own station in life."

"2. Period films that can dazzle with their costumes and the intrigues of a back-stabbing courtier and his emperor."

"3. Films that are banned in China, providing a great promotion and publicity point of attack." About the continued use of the "banned in China" marketing strategy, Loehr says, "I actually had distributors ask me if was OK to say our films have been banned, even though they haven't."


Even though Imar's films "didn't fit into anyone's domestic or international formulas and that made for rough going when we started out," says Loehr, "we basically decided to ignore everyone and go our own way and that's why this has been fun! " It also makes the international recognition and domestic success of "Shower" (which bested its Hollywood competition and even Robinson's "Crouching Tiger" at China's box offices) that much more gratifying.


Not one to rest on his laurels, Loehr has recently started a web-based empire at www.weiku.com (the "ku" in weiku is a transliteration of that very marketable commodity we call "cool" in English). Visitors to weiku.com can buy music (produced by bands signed with Loehr's Kumusic), genuine (as opposed to pirated) VCDs of Imar's films, and even chat online in an environment they create. In addition to the obvious marketing and distribution benefits, Loehr sees his web venture as a way to discover and "incubate" new talent and products. Since the website opened in July, Weiku has signed 40 new bands (many of which come from outside Beijing and Shanghai, where most companies troll for talent) and they are developing at least one script received via the Web. Loehr also hopes that e-commerce in general and his web site in particular may help circumvent the rampant video piracy that is one of the largest obstacles to profit for the Mainland's film exhibitors and distributors by providing a higher quality product that's only a mouse-click away. Whether or not Weiku will ultimately be successful on all these fronts, Loehr is certainly getting pretty good (publicity) bang for his (advertising) buck. Despite a relatively paltry $10,000 outlay for marketing, Weiku.com is already getting about 120,000 visitors and 900,000 page views a day.


Though their goals and strategies are quite different -- Imar pitches films made by very young directors at a specifically (mainland) Chinese market while Columbia Pictures Asia is counting on older, more experienced directors to tap into broader Asian box office revenues -- Loehr and Robinson share an intense dedication and passion for their work as well as their bottom lines. Further, their perspectives on and knowledge of Asian (and particularly Chinese) cultures and markets has been gained through long experience and exhaustive study. But, even if Imar's "Shower" and Columbia Asia's "Crouching Tiger" spell increased visibility for Chinese films in the U.S., Loehr and Robinson's real investment is in the future of Chinese film markets. And, although China may be the world's largest market some time in the future, it's certainly not there yet. China definitely has an unprecedented number of consumers, but their average income is still much lower than in many other markets. So despite their current successes, both Loehr and Robinson will have to wait a few more years to see how their investment in China pays off.


[Augusta Palmer is a freelance film writer and a doctoral student in New York University's Department of Cinema Studies currently writing her dissertation on urban Chinese cinemas from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People's Republic in the 1990s.]


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