The not-so-inscrutable East

Guest column

Surely there can be no one left who doubts the potential of Asia as a huge growth area for the American entertainment industry.

Hollywood’s generous attention and outpouring of aid to Asia in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster deserves applause. But moving forward, the attention should be focused on a long- term relationship, allowing us to foster an industry that will help the region develop its economic potential. This in turn can help us in the West with one of the thorniest issues – intellectual property rights.

It was good to hear that the Motion Picture Assn. is launching Operation Eradicate, a new campaign to target film piracy in Asia (“MPA Targets Asian Pirates,” Daily Variety, Dec. 6). For anyone in the U.S. filmed entertainment industry, the continued commitment to combating illegal copying is a heartening sign that enforcement efforts aren’t letting up.

But these efforts are bound to fail so long as western companies continue to resist understanding the region and the underlying forces driving this illegal trade.

When it comes to cultivating successful business relationships with Asia, Hollywood has a lot to learn. There are spectacular opportunities available to the entertainment industry in the East, but without a deeper knowledge of, and respect for, the region, these opportunities will be squandered.

There are two broad lessons American producers should heed that would go a long way toward transforming Asia from a tantalizing prospect to a profitable partner:

Asia needs to be treated as a source of product and talent, not simply a market for studio films and shows. By fostering a modern industry in Asia – with efficient distribution systems, multiple ancillary markets and, perhaps most importantly, honest, transparent business practices — Hollywood has the chance to develop a market far more unified, and more lucrative, than the fractured field they face in Europe.

Doing that will be much easier if the triads and other criminal operators in Asia are given an incentive to participate in legitimate businesses. At the moment there’s little reason for Asian crooks to do business differently. Even the well-funded and well-meaning enforcement efforts like the MPA’s Operation Eradicate can’t help but merely skim the surface.

By the way, I’m referring to an Asian industry that encompasses more than just the martial arts-inspired action films from Hong Kong or the colorful, musical films from India’s Bollywood.

Asia includes active, exciting creative communities in Japan, China, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines and even some smaller countries where a new generation of filmmakers, raised on the top-notch production values and crucial three-act story structure of Hollywood movies, is ready to entertain the world.

Anyone still wondering about the global appeal of such films needs only look at the worldwide totals for such Asian films as Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” ($170 million) and Hayao Miyazaki’s anime “Spirited Away” ($259 million), or such Asian-inspired films as Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai” ($435 million) or Quentin Tarantino’s two “Kill Bills” ($309, combined). Dramatic serials from Korea, meanwhile, are the rage across Asia and, increasingly, on foreign-focused TV channels in the West, too.

Even so, censorship in China and other Asian nations has inflamed piracy throughout the region. And lingering ignorance about the range of cultures in the East, combined with the still-primitive film industry there, keeps Asian films largely in cult or exploitation genre categories. And that’s how it will remain so long as Asia remains merely a consumer of U.S. product, with the region cut off from the profits that come from major hits.

That’s because at the moment, bootlegging U.S. product doesn’t negatively impact Asian gangs or governments, so there’s little incentive to stop it. By contrast, phones and other hardware are manufactured in Asia, and create opportunities in the region; sure enough, those industries are not nearly so victimized by piracy. Cell phones, which are manufactured in Asia and help drive Asian economies, suffer much less from trademark infringement than, say, “Catch Me if You Can” when that film is sold in the East.

If Asian governments had the same stake in intellectual property rights, then there would be an official, and effective, crackdown. If the triads were making billions of dollars off the legitimate sales of films, you can be sure the piracy would cease.

The creation of a fully functional entertainment industry in Asia won’t happen overnight. But it’s not far off either. The will and the interest exists on both sides of the globe.

And such undertakings as the construction of Studios International in Thailand and USC’s School of Film and TV’s plan to open a satellite campus in that country are concrete manifestations of that shared desire. As are investments in Chinese infrastructure now being undertaken by Fox and Viacom.

So, who knows, before long producers will not only be creating films for the Beverly Hills and Brentwood crowd, but with equal enthusiasm for Bangkok and Beijing as well.

Tony To is a producer and director whose credits include “Band of Brothers,” “From the Earth to the Moon” and “One False Move.” He is leading a group of investors in constructing Studios International in Bangkok, where he was born, and the conversion of the Hatfield Aerodrome in London into a production studio.

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