Hollywood-Asia marriage matures

Local production is key to U.S. success

The relationship between Hollywood and Asia has evolved like a marriage, through the heat of excitement to a more settled and mature relationship — one in which the empowering of local production partners is a key to U.S. success in the region.

It’s a bond that wasn’t always so inclusive, enlightened or long-term. But the rules were just being written 10 years ago, when Columbia boarded “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” produced by Hong Kong veteran Bill Kong. The studio’s new Asian office in H.K. delivered a clutch of Oscars and a worldwide hit with box office reaching some $213 million.

Since then, as with all relationships, the novelty wore off and the problems of cohabitation came to the fore. Studios discovered China wasn’t always so easy to work with, nor did the Chinese industry, still undergoing a centrally organized overhaul, have an endless supply of new world-beating movies and talent simply waiting to be delivered to an expectant global audience.

Asian filmmakers in turn found that Hollywood was a demanding suitor that failed to love it unconditionally and promote it to a world audience.

An impatient Hollywood next doted on remakes and then had affairs with Korea and India. These flings were distractions from the root problems of the relationship with China: mismatched expectations and different levels of maturity in business practices.

Today, however, there are good reasons to believe the relationship may have turned a corner.

In the past two years, Warner, Fox and especially Disney have each made a decision to become bigger, more local players.

Hollywood’s change of heart has business, cultural and even technical reasons, says Fox Intl. Prods. prexy Sanford Panitch. “Local films have the growth potential, whereas MPA films are flat or even on a downgrade. With technology, local films can compete — they can have as good quality as any Hollywood film. …

“You can’t be in the international film business without Asia being a very major component,” says Panitch, whose business unit launched only nine months ago.

Indeed, local product is gaining the ability to cross over, Panitch says: “Look at ‘The Orphanage,’ which did almost $40 million in Spain and then another $30 million internationally. You don’t have to be in English to be profitable.”

The studios are also finding that working locally can help their talent relationships. Fox handled all three of Timur Bekmambetov’s Russian movies before he took on “Wanted.”

“The lines are becoming blurred,” Panitch says. “You no longer think of it as foreign-language product, you are just looking out for good, quality storytelling.

“There has to be some (planning as to) which films can cross over. But this company wants to make quality, profitable movies in any language,” he adds. “The most extreme case is India. If you don’t make Hindi films, you don’t make money.

“Two things are important to me in the execution of the (local production) concept,” Panitch continues. “First, empowering the local team, ensuring that decisions are run through Mumbai and Hong Kong concerning what types of stories should be told, the filmmakers they work with and how pictures are positioned in the market. Second, we are building for the future. … We are a learning organization, building (production) capability in those territories.”

The learning curve across Asia’s many different territories seems a long and tough one, strewn with the kinds of obstacles that have previously made Hollywood think twice about its involvement.

Warner pulled out of the Chinese hardtop sector and then saw its unique production joint venture with China Film Group slow down. Sony has recently mothballed its Hong Kong production office, preferring instead to acquire or invest in big-budget crossover movies and to maintain a relationship with Stephen Chow’s Star East company.

But it seems certain that if the region’s talent continues to win Oscars and its B.O. keeps posting growth, Hollywood will try its hand again and again. That’s presumably why Sony took its remake of “Karate Kid” to none other than China Film. .

Tip Sheet

What: Filmart

When: March 23-26

Where: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center

Website: hkfilmart.com

What: Hong Kong-Asia Film

Financing Forum (HAF)

When: March 23-25

Where: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center

Website: haf.org.hk

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