With its box office set to overtake the U.S. by the end of the decade, China is central to nearly every big-budget movie’s economic calculus. But part of that equation is cracking the code on “Chinese elements.”
China has a quota on imported films, which all need to be approved by the state censorship body — something major movies like “Ghostbusters” and “Suicide Squad” failed to accomplish. One way around that limit is partnering with a Chinese firm on an official co-production, which counts as a local movie.
Miao Xiaotian, the president of the state-run China Film Co-Production Corporation and moderator of a Thursday panel at the U.S. China Film & TV Industry Expo in Los Angeles, argued that the co-production qualifications aren’t hard to understand.
“Chinese regulation is very simple,” he said: “Co-investment, Chinese element and at least one [Chinese] main character.”
Yet he said Hollywood continues to fail the test, insisting there’s too much lazy plug-and-play adaptation and not a true integration of Chinese elements. He mentioned receiving one script that “looked very much like a Hollywood movie with some of things changed to China.” His agency rejected it and got a revised version in just two weeks — not enough time for meaningful changes.
“This kind of script will continue to show up,” he said. “I don’t want to repeat the same thing in Los Angeles.”
However, several veterans of the production process from both sides of the Pacific explained how to do it right — and why it’s so hard.
Brian Goldsmith, the chief operating officer of Lionsgate, cited his studio’s “Now You See Me 2” as an example of a successful integration of Chinese elements. The film made just $65.1 million in the U.S., but banked $97.1 million at the China box office.
“I think what’s really important is not to try to force elements,” he said. “Try to make it organic.”
He said Chinese actor Jay Chou, a member of the film’s ensemble cast, had an authentic interest in magic — central to his character — which made his appearance different from an obvious token cameo.
“We didn’t try to make the movie Chinese — we tried to incorporate certain elements in a movie that was going to be global,” he said. “The story has to resonate, and if you try to force something, it won’t work.”
Simon Sun, the executive vice president of Le Vision Pictures, which recently opened an L.A. office and is producing a slate of English-language films, said China’s younger audiences’ tastes are evolving quickly, and the basics of storytelling that work everywhere else apply there, too.
“For the young generation, their sensibilities are getting more in line with global sensibilities,” he said.
Wei Zhang, the president of Alibaba Pictures, said Chinese audiences look for a certain emotional connection.
“If you have down-to-earth appeal to Chinese you can succeed,” she said. “If you appeal to the heart of the audience you can succeed.”
Xian Li, the director of international productions for 20th Century Fox, said the real key is finding a story that has Chinese elements, organically.
“People are kind of doing it the wrong way,” she told TheWrap after the panel. “To me, it always starts with the story itself. Does the story have any Chinese elements? [Instead, they think about] changing it from the very beginning.”
And sometimes that means not trying to make everything a crossover hit.
“Instead of using a Chinese element that would jump out of the story and be so obvious — if it has to be an American story, just let it be, make it American,” she said. “If it has to be a Chinese story, don’t make it American.”