Looking to tap into the Chinese entertainment industry? If you're going to succeed, you'd better go native.
Larry Namer, co-founder and president-CEO of Metan Development Group — which delivers Western entertainment to China and produces content in China to be sold to the international market — explained the importance of immersing yourself in Chinese culture at TheWrap's TheGrill@ Locations Show on Friday at the AFCI Locations Show in the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center.
"There are huge cultural differences," Namer told Sharon Waxman, the site's editor-in-chief, who hosted the keynote interview.
"The one thing we found when we decided to go there, when they invited me to start doing stuff, I first looked and asked why have most western media companies failed in this market.
"It's not hard to figure out that if you don't really plan on being in China and plan to manage it from Australia, it's not gonna work," Namer told Waxman.
"If you're going to do business in China, you have to be in China, you have to immerse yourself in the culture, you have to have an incredible amount of patience. They don't do stuff the way we do. They're not going to do it just because we say, 'This is the way we do it.'"
Namer noted that companies "got spoiled in that post-Soviet era where, in eastern Europe and Russia, everybody wanted to either be American or be in America or move to America." Such is not the case in China, he assured attendees at TheGrill.
"I can guarantee you, people in China are really, really happy being Chinese. They don't want to be America; they want to learn about America, they want to learn about the things we do, they want to learn about our places, but they are not sitting there going, 'Boy, I cannot wait to become like an American.'"
As to the specific differences between the western and Chinese way of doing things, Namer offered, "they work on different time frames." He noted his experience on one project, where he visited the set three days before the shoot was scheduled to begin and was surprised that nothing had been built — and that the crew didn't seem to be concerned.
By the day before the shoot, the set had been completed.
"Sometimes you just learn close your eyes and somehow they manage to get it done," Namer said. "If you're looking at it from western standards you kind of lose your mind … but at the end of the day, it still gets done."
Namer also noted that, whereas western productions prefer to use computerization to minimize labor, "in China it's like, 'Why invest in computers when you can just have an extra 100 people work on a project?'"
Content approval is also an issue. He noted that scripted dramas need to be submitted for approval at various stages but that the process "is not terribly difficult if you understand" it.
"If that's your goal is to go in there and tell them to free Tibet, that's not your place," Namer admitted.
Still, Namer said, the differences are matched by the opportunities in China. Namer sees a particular need for writing talent in China ("there are certain skills that are not developed there; writing skills are incredibly worshipped there"), and believes that Metan could grow into a billion-dollar business in the next few years.
And despite the cultural differences to be navigated, there are plenty of similarities, too.
"There are more people who speak English in China than there are people who speak English in the United States," Namer asserted. "There are more Chanel stores in Beijing than there are in the U.S."