China is an alluring market, but it is also a challenging one in which to work, says Michael McDermott, founder of the production services company Gung-Ho Films, which has offices in Hong Kong and Mainland China.
“The challenge is for people in Hollywood to figure out and better understand how complex and different the environment is here compared to what they are used to,” says McDermott.
Gung-Ho works with advertising agencies, production companies, networks and film studios from around the world to facilitate shoots with crews, translation services, catering and the like. They do features, commercials, photo shoots, and such TV skeins as “The Amazing Race” for Chinese, U.S. and European markets.
“Once in a while we’ll do a documentary — we did the China portion of ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ We do corporate videos. We dabble in a bit of everything — anyone who needs to put a camera down in China, we’re there to help,” he says.
A graduate of UCLA, McDermott fell in love with China and studied at the Beijing Film Academy, and at a graduate school in Taiwan. He has now been in China for the past 22 years.
Clients have included filmmakers and commercial directors alike, including Alejandro Inarritu, Tarsem Singh and Davis Guggenheim, d.p.’s Lance Acord, Rodrigo Pietro, Wally Pfister and Emmanuel Lubezki and photographers such as Patrick Demarchelier.
China is getting easier to film in as opposed to the early days, when foreigners holding cameras were treated with suspicion.
“It was close to the Cultural Revolution and foreigners holding cameras was something to be worried about,” says McDermott. “You could lose your job, they’d get in trouble. The best thing to do was not allow them to shoot. In America, things are more black and white — yes, you can do it or no you can’t. Back then you could never tell if they would say yes or no.”
Since such events as the Olympics and the Expo in Shanghai, things have become more open. They’ve also become more commercialized, and one major difference these days is how expensive things have become. McDermott recalls a time when you could shoot in the Forbidden City at the heart of Beijing for $1,500 a day.
“There’s no way I could do that today,” he says. “If I wanted to shoot in the Forbidden City, and there is a section you can shoot in, it’s eight times that price.” The flip side, according to McDermott, is “the overall environment is getting better, there is more and more equipment available.”
McDermott has had to explain many times to potential clients that the yuan is not a convertible currency, and also how the censorship environment is different from what people in Hollywood are used to.
“There is an attraction on both sides at the moment. Their respective environments are so different. We have a lot of companies knock on our door, who want to pick our brains, and one of the first things I always tell them is — if you come to China, don’t be too greedy.”