By Weiying Peng and Michael Keane
In 2007, the US media scholar Michael Curtin published Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience, a study of the rapid global expansion of Chinese language media. Curtin interviewed approximately a hundred industry players and academics in several countries to gauge their observations on the future of the Chinese media industry and its challenges.
As well as Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, China’s media are reaching out globally. Audiences are connected digitally and content circulates internationally in real time through cable and IPTV platforms. The works of Chinese independent film directors like Jia Zhangke are highly regarded in the global film festival circuit. Moreover, there is no shortage of capital and production locations in the Mainland. Regional governments are providing ‘sweeteners’ to lure international projects.
Recognizing the power of the Chinese media market, international players are making their way to the ‘middle kingdom’, looking to capture a share of the action. In addition to selling programs into the Chinese market, the time-honoured approach to media internationalization, producers are seeking out formatting and co-production strategies.
A direct consequence of the growth of the Chinese box office over the past several years is a desire on the part of the Chinese media industry to professionalize. As a result the numbers of media co-productions taking place in China, and with Asian partners, have increased. For the ‘foreign’ party co-production provides access to the Chinese market and bypasses restrictive quotas. Cooperation can benefit both parties.
In the past, certainly with Hong Kong, the Mainland’s participation was downgraded to a technical or production capacity with the foreign party playing the role of the ‘creative’.
Recent developments suggest that this may be no longer the common situation. Chinese partners have started to contribute more to creative production despite restrictions imposed by government.
For large Hollywood media producers the Chinese market has become important, so much so that the Motion Pictures Association (of America) is devoting a lot of time to winning over its Chinese counterparts. For workers in Hollywood, however, this new frontier might be a case of mixed blessings. ‘Runaway productions’, as offshore projects are sometimes called, take jobs from Hollywood. This is especially evident in the VFX industries.
Co-productions with China, however, are not a new idea. The China Film Co-Production Corporation (CFCC) was founded on 7th August 1979, shortly after the announcement of the Open Door Policy. The CFCC became responsible for the management and production of co-produced films although the original intention was to assist or co-produce films with overseas producers in order to enhance propaganda. Many nations came to China to make films, often with Chinese subjects; many finished up being propaganda films.
Sino-Japanese co-productions included The Silk Road (1986) and Young Swordsmen (1989); in 1986 the Philippines collaborated in two productions, The King of Sulu and The Emperor of China while Singapore contributed to Rickshaw Boy in the same year. In 1988, The Last Emperor, a Sino-Italian co-production, won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. In 1990,Canadian interests collaborated in Norman Bethune¸ the story of a Canadian born doctor who was regaled as a hero in China during the Communist Revolution. In the same year The Distant Yurt was co-produced with Mongolia.
In the 1990s and 2000s a stream of co-productions took place with Japan and more recently with Hong Kong. One of the best known co-productions is the wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), directed by Taiwan-born Ang Lee (Li An). Crouching Tiger drew resources from the US, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In fact, most successful kung-fu (gongfu) films in the past few years have been Hong Kong-Mainland co-productions.
Private companies in China are now the drivers of co-productions although state-owner organizations remain key players. State-owned organizations include the China Film Group and the Shanghai Film Group. Private players include Huayi Brothers, Bona Film Group, Enlight Media, and Beijing New Pictures Co. Ltd.
Co-productions: pros and cons
Co-productions come under different arrangements. An official co-production can be counted as a national film in China, thus evading the film quotas imposed by the Chinese government. Official coproduction can be divided into two categories. One category is the treaty co-production which refers to films produced under treaty or agreements between China and other countries. These films automatically meet the requirements for ‘official coproduction’ and are recognised as ‘domestic’ in both countries.
However, films may be co-produced without engaging in a co-production treaty; this is the case with Sino-US co-productions, which include films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Forbidden Kingdom, and The Karate Kid. Other categories of non-official co-productions are termed ‘assisted’, ‘entrusted’ production or sometimes ‘joint production’: these include The Expendables 2, Spider-Man 3, and Looper.
Film producers will seek out co-productions for a variety of reasons. First, they may be more cost efficient. For instance, producing in China can deliver efficiencies and savings although this is not always the case across all aspects of productions. Pooling of creative, technical and financial resources can enhance the prospects of getting a project started. Further advantages include assistance from both sides (often provided by the local government) and access to the partner’s market. If the film (or television production) is successful the share of revenue is much higher than direct sale of finished programs, which for foreign interests in China often involves a one-off fee.
A disadvantage is dealing with complicated cultural and political issues, and this often results in projects getting delayed or scripts being altered to accommodate political demands. In the end many projects fail to capture interest due to interference and attempts to appease all parties concerned.
There are two types of development models: foreign-directed and domestic directed. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was a case of a foreign director although most Chinese will argue that Li An (Ang Lee) is technically a national. In the foreign-directed model a project is proposed by the foreign party: investment, scriptwriters and directors are sourced by the foreign party. Actors are employed from different Chinese-speaking countries and regions to meet the demand of different markets. The overseas partners are responsible for the distribution in areas other than the Chinese mainland, while the Chinese party get distribution rights within the China mainland. Revenues are distributed to each party separately.
In the domestic-directed model the project is initiated by domestic producers. Private companies join with state-owned agencies to co-produce and investments are shared between the Chinese and any overseas partners. Both scriptwriters and directors are Chinese nationals and the content concerns China only.
Australia in the Chinese co-production market
For smaller media nations like Australia, co-productions represent part of a strategy to make inroads into overseas markets. However, co-productions often come with cultural complexities, no more so than in Asia. In 2013, Singapore-based HBO Asia partnered with the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) to produce a ten-part detective noir drama set in the sixties called Serangoon Road.
Placing characters from different cultural hemispheres in the narrative is fraught with challenges. What producers like to call ‘co-development’ inevitably entails compromise and simplification of cultural meanings. Problems arise when putting Western characters in Chinese narratives. The scriptwriters have to come up with a story that is realistic, and this often entails narratives such as Westerners looking for lost treasures amongst buried ruins, which while appealing to non-Chinese audiences, is unlikely to garner great excitement among Chinese domestic audiences. On the other hand it is natural to include Asian characters considering shared linguistic traditions and the long history of cultural exchange in East Asia.
Collaborating with China is therefore a much different ball game. Australian producers have sought to take advantage of the Sino-Australian Co-Production Treaty. Although signed off in 2006, only a few co-productions have resulted. Parts of Mao’s Last Dancer, directed by Bruce Beresford, were shot in China but it was not released in China due to its sensitive topic area. Productions that have taken advantage of the Sino-Australian Co-production Treaty are Pauline Chan’s 33 Postcards (2011) and The Dragon Pearl (2011), the latter directed and produced by Mario Andreacchio. The Dragon Pearl targeted the youth market: its narrative blended Western story-telling practices in a Chinese setting, using a backdrop of history.
For Australian producers the opportunities appear to lie more in documentary and youth programming. Documentary is a viable strategy as long as the topics are approved by the Chinese government. Making documentaries about China’s social problems is probably best done from afar. Co-productions are emerging with Chinese partners hoping to make documentaries that can break in international markets, for instance on cables channels devoted to history, tourism, culinary practices, and lifestyle.
A project currently in development is The Stone Forest, a contemporary action adventure romance 3D feature film. The project was initiated by NJM Film, a QLD Gold Coast-based company. The screen writer and director is Nick McCallum, whose father John McCallum was a producer and actor known for Skippy (1967), Barrier Reef (1971) and Boney (1972). The Stone Forest utilises the Official Treaty Co-Production. Its partner is Beijing Universal Starlight and the target audience is young adults, 19-25 years old.
Goodwill has been extended on both sides and cultural differences have been observed. There is no guarantee that this project will be successful. Then again success may be measured in a different way than just box-office. Whereas Hollywood is charming China with its celebrity directors and promises of blockbusters perhaps the best that a country like Australia can hope to achieve for in the short term is to make inroads into the market. There is no denying that Australia needs to maintain a cultural presence in China, whether this is in film-making or participating in the many other opportunities emerging in the creative industries.