Studios, distribs race to get piece of the pie

The world is obsessed with China.

And so is Hollywood. Three studios are planning to release large-scale English-language movies filmed in China: Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. will open Rob Minkoff’s $55 million “The Forbidden Kingdom,” starring Jet Li and Jackie Chan, on April 18; Universal releases the $160 million sequel “The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” starring Li, Brendan Fraser and Michelle Yeoh, on Aug. 1. Harvey Weinstein and producer Mike Medavoy are still hoping to gain access to China this April to shoot the $30 million pre-Pearl Harbor mystery “Shanghai,” starring John Cusack, Chow Yun-Fat, Ken Watanabe and Gong Li, for year-end release. So far, China has barred the film.

And four Asian distributors joined forces to back Hong Kong action maestro John Woo’s ambitious $80 million epic “Red Cliff,” with “Lust, Caution” star Tony Leung and a cast of thousands.

The stakes for these players are huge. With an entry into the rapidly burgeoning Chinese film market, where box office is growing 25% every year, distribs are looking to grab a bigger piece of the pie. (China offers a measly 13% film rental to outsiders.) In 2006, China’s B.O. grosses amounted to some $400 million; that’s expected to more than double by 2010. Five years ago, China and Hong Kong’s theatrical markets were about the same size; now China’s is four times as big.

“China’s middle class is now 250 million,” says “Mummy” director Rob Cohen. “We’re feeling the buying power of those 250 million people.”

China and Hong Kong also boast a raft of movie stars with global appeal: Li (“Lethal Weapon 4″), Chan (the “Rush Hour” trilogy), Chow (“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”), Yeoh (“Tomorrow Never Dies”), Zhang Ziyi (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) and Gong (“Miami Vice”) have all starred in Hollywood films as well as toplining Asian pictures. The studios hire these stars to boost their fortunes worldwide, but especially in the mighty Asian market.

Ever since 2000, when Sony’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” directed by Ang Lee and starring Chow, Yeoh and Zhang, proved how well a Western-accessible Chinese action film could perform, more studios have been trying to tap the global market for Asian films.

The studios would like to gain some of the clout in Asia currently enjoyed by Chinese producer/distrib Bill Kong, whose mission since producing “Crouching Tiger” has been to build a self-sufficient pan-Asian film market. Kong also produced Zhang Yimou’s “Hero,” “The House of Flying Daggers,” and “The Curse of the Golden Flower,” as well as Lee’s controversially sexy “Lust, Caution,” which helped contribute to a recent crackdown by gatekeeper China Film Group.

But if you go to China, you play by China’s rules: In 2006, Warner Bros. tangled with the China Film Group over requested changes to “The Painted Veil” that the filmmakers and star Edward Norton did not want to make. A compromise eventually was reached.

Sony has backed 10 Chinese films in the past eight years, including “Crouching Tiger,” Stephen Chow’s action comedies “Kung Fu Hustle” and most recently, “CJ7.” “There’s a strong interest in China in making people aware of what it has to offer,” says Sony exec Gareth Wigan. “With the coming Olympic Games, it’s their priority to show China as one of the first rank of nations. China is a place where Sony will be making more films, in Chinese and in English.”

A logjam of movies is awaiting script and final-cut approvals, as well as permits to shoot in China, including Mikael Hafstrom’s “Shanghai.”

Word is that the Chinese harbor a grudge against Harvey Weinstein for reneging on his promise to release Chen Kaige’s $35 million epic “The Promise.” But Medavoy cites Chinese issues with drug-running and prostitutes in the script, which he compares with “Casablanca.”

If “Shanghai” never clears the gate, the project will lose some $3 million in Chinese pre-production costs and will have to move to Thailand and/or Hong Kong, says Medavoy, who grew up in Shanghai and has developed this project for a decade. “It’s an international movie that should play everywhere. The Asian stars lend luster to it.”

Kong also helped out on Woo’s “Red Cliff,” which Columbia was interested in backing early on, before it ultimately balked at the film’s bulk, length and potential pricetag. (The budget soared from $35 million to $50 million to $80 million.) Producer Terence Chang assembled the film’s initial production funding, taking a bank loan against investments from Korea’s Showbox Entertainment, the China Film Group, Taiwan’s CMC Entertainment and Japan’s Avex Entertainment. Summit Entertainment handled global presales.

“There was no other way to do it,” Chang says on the phone from Beijing. “It’s a Chinese film based on a famous story well-known in Asia that John has wanted to do for 20 years.”

After Woo’s longtime Hong Kong star Chow ditched the film on the first day of shooting on April 14, the company had to destroy a lavish set complete with a running river built at Beijing Studios to make way for Chen Kaige’s next film. Leung stepped in for Chow. Woo is editing the first of two films for release in Asia on July 10; he’ll unveil some footage at Cannes to launch the film. The second “Red Cliff” installment, which boasts a massive sea battle and 1,000 CG shots by the Orphanage, as well as a two-hour Western combined version, are due at year’s end. Only after showing the entire film will the filmmakers seek a North American distributor.

China’s cash-only below-the-line filmmaking costs about a third of what it would have cost to shoot in the U.S. “Red Cliff” would have run at least $200 million to shoot Stateside, Chang says.

When it came to making a third “Mummy” film, this one set in China, Universal co-chairman David Linde turned to Kong, with whom he had worked at Good Machine and Focus Features on many of his films.

“We needed Kong to bridge not just the cultural gap but the way different countries operate,” says Linde, who plans to operate more directly in Asia through local studio co-productions.

Kong submitted script drafts to the China Film Co-production Corp., says director Cohen, who compares brokering a co-production deal with the Chinese to negotiating a nuclear treaty. “We had to depoliticize the script to keep certain things as fantasy and not so historical.”

A complex co-production deal was hammered out between Universal and China. Elaborate manifests listing every screwdriver, costume, prop and lens cap had to be presented before anything could be brought into the country.

“Mummy 3″ was able to film all over the country, says Cohen, a long-time martial arts fan and Buddhist who filmed 1973’s “Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story.” After shooting interiors in Montreal, “The Mummy,” which Cohen describes as “an emotional journey into a mystical world that combines ancient Chinese history with a 1946 story about a son estranged from his two parents,” spent three months shooting on locations all over China, at an ancient monastery on the western border of Kazhakstan, the pyramids of Ning Xia and near Beijing, where they staged desert battles, built a recreation of the Great Wall and brought an army of Terra Cotta warriors back to life to fight for their immortal emperor, played by Li. Wizardess Yeoh fights Li with her own ghost army of the dead buried under the Great Wall.

Cohen and stuntman Vic Armstrong staged an elaborate balletic sword fight for the two martial artists’ first-ever onscreen battle, and mounted a car chase with 500 extras inside a huge set replicating Shanghai’s wharfside Bund district at Shanghai Studios.

While shot on a much lower budget than “Mummy 3,” “The Forbidden Kingdom” also took advantage of China’s exotic locations. Based on classic Chinese mythology and financed by Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media, the movie focuses on an American kid obsessed with Chinese culture. Director Rob Minkoff, a China fan in his own right, was a good fit.

Also facing off for the first time are the somber Li and lighthearted Jackie Chan. Producer Casey Silver brought in “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger” choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger” cinematographer Peter Pau.

“These are Asian heavyweights,” says Silver, who sold the film to Lionsgate and China territories before he started filming in the Gobi desert, the Wuyi Mountains in the south and at China’s largest studio, Hengdian. Weinstein acquired rights in Latin America, Spain and France and part of North America. “I wanted to bring the craftsmanship of Asian cinema, executed at a high level,” says Silver, “and make it understandable to a Western audience.”

The trick for all of these films will be attaining universal appeal — without alienating Western or Asian audiences.

Patrick Frater (Asia editor, Variety) contributed to this report.

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