WB’s China syndrome

Studio goes local with Shanghai venture

SHANGHAI — Despite formidable obstacles to doing business in China, Warner Bros.’ new joint filmmaking venture is fast making inroads on the local production scene.

“Our partner is already the most powerful movie entity in the country … And from our side, we bring skills in development, distribution and marketing,” Warners’ Ellen Eliasoph says.

The same China of strict quotas and Byzantine censorship is now firmly in bed with the Yanks.

“We are used to being in direct distribution all over the world. In this case we can’t do that for imported movies, but we were determined that we would be able to do so for local pictures,” says Eliasoph, a Warners vet whose passion for Asia has previously seen her stationed in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Today, she calls Shanghai home, and works in the Chinese capital at the Warner China Film HG joint venture, housed next door to the Beijing Film Academy.

Company was set up barely a year ago and is now poised to release its first pictures “Crazy Stone” and “Telephone 601.” This year, it will release four movies considered Chinese. It has a further eight features in development and is poised to board a couple of other high-profile local titles.

Eliasoph says Warners first looked at a Chinese joint venture as far back as 1993. But in those days, when revenue-sharing between state distributor China Film Group and Hollywood studios was still in its infancy, government officials were frightened at the prospect of a foreign company owning a piece of a Chinese movie producer.

After a decade of closer working relations between East and West, and several one-off co-productions, Warners got the call in fall 2003, giving it the go-ahead to start negotiations. Initially conceived as a two-way pact, China Film brought in the Hengdian Studios Group, which operates some of the largest facilities in the world. That created an equity split 40% for China Film and 30% each for Hengdian and Warner Bros.

Venture is headed by China Film’s Han Sanping and managed by Eliasoph with a staff of 16, predominantly a mix of Chinese and Americans, with Chinese roots. Head of development Beaver Kwai is typical, with experience in Hollywood, but now enmeshed in the creative sectors in mainland China and Hong Kong.

Eliasoph’s opposite number from China Film, Zhao Hai Cheng, says, “There are times when we argue, because we don’t understand how the other wants to work, but mostly we have very complementary skills and strengths.”

Eliasoph says Han Sanping, who is both prexy of China Film and of the JV, has been rigorous about bringing appropriate projects and scripts to the group. “He really gets it,” she says.

But there were some significant obstacles to launching the venture. It’s the only major market in which Hollywood can’t distribute its films directly. “Warner Bros. in China doesn’t get involved with decisions like how many prints to strike; we don’t do the contracts with the exhibitors,” Eliasoph says. “The biggest challenge then for Warner China was to create a marketing and distribution division almost from scratch.”

But with “Crazy Stone” going out imminently on a wide 300 prints, staffing up the marketing department has been crucial. Marketing has much more freedom than the typical studio offshoot. “We cut our own trailers, design our own one sheets and determine our own message about films,” Eliasoph says. Venture has similar freedoms at the production stage. The slate will include everything from films by young directors in the $1 million budget range to $30million-$40 million epics with well-known directors.

Pics are neither automatically funded by Warners nor is distribution through Warners guaranteed. “Telephone 601” was produced and is co-distributed with the Shanghai Film Group, and theoretically the venture can deal with other U.S. studios.

Warner China isn’t allowed to get involved in direct distribution of imported pics, but there are benefits for the parent org. “We do have the ability to help (with distribution). We have the ‘Superman’ trailer on our next domestic film,” Eliasoph says.

And other benefits of the Warners’ clout could follow. Eliasoph sees the same connections in Latin America that helped the studio land Alfonso Cuaron as helmer of the third “Harry Potter” film as capable of cementing similar talent deals in China. “I’m sure we’ll one day have a Chinese director do a movie for Burbank,” she says.

This year’s four pictures are all acquisitions, boarded before production, and Warner China takes a co-production credit.

In addition to the two comedies, there’s Sino-Finnish martial arts fantasy “Jade Warrior” and China-set period romancer “The Painted Veil.” Helmed by John Curran and starring Edward Norton, it was produced with Bob Yari’s Stratus Film and is handled in North America through Warner Independent.

“This slate represents our mission statement,” says Han. “It is well-balanced between new talent, established talent, small and large budget films, contemporary and period pieces, comedies and dramas.”

Next year’s offerings are likely to include one or two literary adaptations, a remake and a string of original screenplays.

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