Saturday, July 03, 2010

China film deal: The great fast forward

As a New Zealand-China movie co-production treaty nears, Patrick Crewdson looks at the opportunities it will give Kiwi film-makers.

'Bigger, better and more epic than anything you've seen before," is how Chinese movie maestro John Woo described his military masterpiece Red Cliff.

So when the respected director needed his sweeping battle scenes and carefully choreographed action sequences to look their blazing, blood-soaked best, who did he call? Miramar's Park Road Post Production.

Sir Peter Jackson's post-production house provided DI (digital intermediate) for the two-part, five-hour epic.

Given how much Wellywood's cinematic reputation owes to another set of sword-swinging epics, the Red Cliff films were a natural fit for the capital.

But they also play as a preview of coming attractions, with Kiwi film-makers who want to crack China soon to be aided by a bilateral co-production deal (see sidebar) and leading companies such as Weta Digital and Park Road Post increasingly likely to look outside Hollywood for service work.

Red Cliff: Part I went on to usurp Titanic atop China's all-time box office charts (a spot since claimed by another film with Wellington ties, Avatar). And it probably eased some introductions for Park Road Post general manager Cameron Harland when he – along with Weta Digital general manager Tom Greally – went to China last month with a Wellington business and cultural delegation.

For the film-makers, the trip to Beijing, Shanghai and Wuxi was a useful opportunity to tour movie facilities and scope out who the true players are.

"This is the second-biggest market in terms of box office in the world and is growing at 40 per cent a year, so clearly there are opportunities," says Mr Harland. "We're smart just to get in here as early as we can and try to gauge where they might come from."

The pair also made cameos at a New Zealand film night at the 1920s-era Shanghai Grand Cinema, where the newly knighted Sir Richard Taylor introduced The Lovely Bones.

Sir Richard told the invited audience that New Zealand companies were "perfectly placed" not just to deliver contract work like on Red Cliff, but also to partner on genuine co-productions.

Some film-makers have already made inroads, even if the cameras are not rolling yet.

Wellington producer Michelle Turner, who produced Stickmen and worked on Avatar, has been pushing a co-production for two years.
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She hopes Little Dragon – the story of an 11-year-old Shanghainese girl whose family move to New Zealand and take over an uncle's restaurant in "the roughest part of Wellington" – will be one of the first official co-productions.

Penned by Wellington writer Lynda Chanwai Earle, the drama would be shot in Wellington and Shanghai. The lead cast is likely to come from China, but most of the crew would be Kiwi, including director Rachel Douglas.

Her short film Shadow Over The Sun played at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2008, where Little Dragon was also selected for a pitch and catch competition with a listed budget of US$4 million.

Kiwi connections to that festival continued this year, with Niki Caro's The Vintner's Luck, Gaylene Preston's Home By Christmas and James Napier's I'm Not Harry Jenson screening.

Wellington film and entertainment lawyer Michael Stephens was this year selected as New Zealand's international delegate for the festival. He says the "true opportunity for" Kiwi film-makers in China lies in developing joint projects suitable for international markets.

With a gross box office of US$909 million and more than 4700 cinema screens, China already boasts a huge audience. And the 450 films made there last year, including 67 official co-productions, qualify it as the world's third-biggest film producer.

But domestic income and influence are not enough. The government wants to turn the country into a cinematic titan, and sees co-productions as a way to reach global audiences. Mr Greally says New Zealand could help satisfy China's desire for higher standards.

"Our calling card is our innovation, our creativity, and the quality that brings. Their game is how they can do things quickly and at a very low cost. There's got to be a meeting somewhere of those two objectives."

The brands of Weta Digital and Park Road Post are already recognised in China, where names like Avatar, King Kong and Sir Peter Jackson carry serious weight.

Their cutting-edge reputations have attracted potential customers such as Lifeng Wang, president of animation and visual FX house Xing Xing, which worked on Twilight.

"It's just a natural match if we work with Weta and maybe do some outsourcing for them. And maybe some of the work we have, which is very technically challenging, we can use Weta's help."

Mr Wang says Chinese companies could benefit from New Zealand's creativity, technological know-how and R&D capacity.

One major advantage of co-production status is entry to Chinese cinemas. China enforces a quota of only 20 foreign films per year – "and that's everything from Kung Fu Panda to a French Cannes winner," says Ms Turner – but co-productions count as local content.

However, there's a significant tradeoff. Co-productions go under the scrutiny of Chinese censors, whose comprehensive regulations forbid content that harms the reputation of the state; inappropriately depicts ghosts, masturbation or homosexuality; corrupts social morality; or distorts Chinese history – among a laundry list of other no-go areas.

Mr Stephens also warns film-makers off thinking that China's increasing "economic muscle" means its movies are all blockbusters.

"The reality is that they only do a few at very large budget points ... the film-makers who I'm talking to that are interested in doing films with New Zealand, often their films are as low as half a million dollars or less."

Small-screen producers are also zooming in on China.

Wellington production company Gibson Group is in the script development stage of a co-production with Chinese television company Beijing Ye Chen.

The 40-episode epic drama Gold Rush Revelation, about early Chinese migrants in New Zealand and their descendants a century later, is slated to screen in China on national network CCTV and in New Zealand on Maori TV.

Managing director Dave Gibson says "the trickiest thing" is working out scripts to suit both markets.

"They could write 40 scripts, shoot in New Zealand and put it on Chinese television and that'd be fine, but because of the way we're doing it, we have to get 40 scripts that work in New Zealand and China."

Mr Gibson says even with the co-production treaty about to be signed, he sees more opportunities for television than movie work in China.

"I don't know that will lead to a flurry of films. If I look at the sort of TV work we do, I think it's compatible. If I look at the couple of films we've got on our development slate, I don't think it's that compatible."

Gold Rush is just one element of the Gibson Group's China strategy. The company has another four projects on the go, including a co-production project with Tianjin Television's Binhai Channel, and has recently appointed a Beijing-born producer, Eric Zhang, as head of Chinese projects.

Fast forward a few years, and will the Kiwi and Chinese entertainment industries be closer?

Mr Stephens at least is bullish, predicting that once the bilateral treaty is signed, New Zealand and China could "quite quickly" get to the point of making as many as half a dozen co-productions a year.


A film co-production treaty between New Zealand and China could be signed as early as this month.

It would give Kiwi film-makers a ticket to the expanding Chinese movie market, and a way around the quota system that admits just 20 foreign movies a year.

Bilateral negotiations with China began in July 2008, and by January this year New Zealand had submitted a proposed first draft to Chinese authorities. Indications are strong the deal will be inked this month.

Vivien Meek, senior policy adviser (arts) at the Culture and Heritage Ministry, the lead agency, said negotiations were in their final stages and they hoped to sign the agreement soon.

Prime Minister John Key is visiting Beijing and Shanghai this week.

New Zealand already has film co-production deals with 10 countries, including Australia, Britain and South Korea.

Such treaties tend to extend to official co-productions the funding, tax incentives and distribution arrangements available in either country, as well as making it easier to import crew and equipment.

According to Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry documents, most co-production deals take a broad view of what constitutes film, including television and animation. But Gibson Group managing director Dave Gibson says he understands the deal with China will not initially cover television.

Patrick Crewdson travelled to China courtesy of NZTE.

Last updated 05:00 03/07/2010

FILM OPPORTUNITY: Kiwi film-makers who want to crack China will soon to be aided by a bilateral co-production deal.