Local language production under way

Disney is raising the stakes as it seeks to penetrate the potentially enormous mainland Chinese market with a local adaptation of its “High School Musical” franchise, which has just started production.

Disney is planning a theatrical release next summer. Co-production partners are Shanghai Media Group (SMG) and Huayi Bros; Janet Yang will produce, and the pic will be helmed by Shi Zhengchen (“Dark Matter”).

“We’re looking to ramp up our slate in China, and we thought we could work ‘High School Musical’ in with our localization strategy,” said Jason Reed, general manager, Walt Disney Studios international production.

“High School Musical” has been one of Disney’s most successful franchises ever, having reached more than 290 million viewers, in over 30 languages, across 100 countries including China, where it was run on pubcaster CCTV.

“Disney High School Musical: China” tells the story of a new student who meets a gifted young man with whom she shares a secret passion for singing. With the help of their friends, they overcome the odds to win an interschool singing competition and discover their true calling in the process.

“Chinese audiences enjoy great storytelling. ‘Disney High School Musical: China’ promotes classic values of teamwork, optimism, friendship, pride and the spirit of self-discovery, which have made ‘HSM’ a worldwide phenomenon and further cements Disney’s position as a family entertainment brand in China,” said Stanley Cheung, exec VP and managing director, the Walt Disney Co. Greater China.

Reed said there were some similarities with the original “High School Musical,” “but we wrote an original screenplay from the ground up. This is inspired by the spirit of the first one.”

The localization process threw up some interesting developments — when the Disney treatment swapped basketball for kung fu training in the school, the local Chinese pointed out that basketball was a much bigger deal in China’s schools than kung fu. The basketball stayed, Reed said. “We made it more local by making it more American,” he added.

“Disney High School Musical: China” is being filmed in Shanghai and features six new young stars drawn from across China.

“The young stars are not as well known as they will be soon. The key for us was that they could sing and dance and whether they had the energy and charisma needed,” he said.

Disney is also exploring the merchandising possibilities in China.

Disney’s first co-production in China came in 2007, and earlier this year, it released “Trail of the Panda.” Both have played well in the region. Other projects in the region include “Book of Masters,” released in Russia this year, while “Zokkomon” is in development in India and is expected to open in 2010.

Disney’s first animation screened in China in the 1930s, and it operates offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou with more than 600 employees.

For the past two years, Disney has been trying to get the right procedures and personnel in place.

“Now it’s about increasing the level of investment,” Reed said.

Yang Wenhong, head of the Film and TV Drama Center at SMG, China’s second biggest film company, said the high recognition factor of the “High School Musical” was a factor in luring SMG.

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