Americans will help filmmakers navigate bureaucracy

Western filmmakers trying to navigate China’s not-always-friendly bureaucracy will now have a familiar shingle helping them find their way: Raleigh Studios.

The Chinese government has inked Raleigh to manage its massive Wuxi Studio project, a facility near Shanghai that aims to combine production, retail and tourism in an echo of Universal Studios.

The State Administration of Radio Film and Television and the Jiangsu provincial government will invest 10 billion yuan ($1.57 billion) in Wuxi Studio, which will become mainland China’s first production center specializing in digital movies.

Wuxi Studio will be managed by Raleigh using a mix of Americans and Chinese in key positions.

Raleigh Studios prexy Michael Moore told Variety that Wuxi will likely attract three categories of production: local productions; indie productions looking to tap into the film finance fund attached to Wuxi; and studio pics that are “looking for a bit of an edge on the distribution and want to work on assisted co-production or have to shoot in China for creative reasons.”

Filmmaking in China has long been difficult for Westerners because of government red tape and unreliable local equipment and crews.

“We’re there to help navigate through the difficulties that may be present in a region, whether it’s China or anywhere else,” Moore said. “We’re here to provide guidance to our clients about what they can count on, what they might be able to count on, and what they certainly can’t count on.”

Raleigh manages seven studios in four states and two countries.

Productions shooting at Wuxi will be able to apply for financing from Wuxi Film and Television Fund, which is already capitalized to the tune of $157 million. Wang Lifeng, director of Wuxi Jinyu Investment Management Co., which manages the fund, said it has signed agreements with third parties for another $173 million and is negotiating with production and investment companies in the U.S. and U.K. for matching funds in foreign currency. The fund is aimed at international co-productions and domestic Chinese projects, said Wang.

Wuxi is a city of 5 million about 85 miles west of Shanghai. Wuxi Studio will cover 2.3 square miles. Phase one of the studio, built within a rehabilitated steel factory, is skedded to open this summer. It includes six smaller soundstages made to local production standards as well as production offices, visual effects and post facilities and a Universal Citywalk-style retail and nightclub zone.

Phase two, on which construction has just begun, will include five state-of-the-art soundstages, including one with a water tank and additional office space. Largest stage will be 64,560 square feet. All were designed under Raleigh Studios’ supervision. Phase two is scheduled for completion by summer 2013.

Plans include a backlot and tours. Some 800 companies will be based in the studio.

Academy prexy Sid Ganis has been honorary chair of Wuxi Studios since 2011 and helped with the deal. Ganis said the Wuxi project may point toward a future when more studio pics are shot in China. “One still has to go through the formal checking-in with various authorities before one can shoot here, but SARFT is more approachable,” said Ganis. “They are being more attentive to the needs of stories that are submitted. There seems to be much more of a give when it comes to Western filmmakers requesting to shoot in China.”

Ganis himself is developing an auto racing story set in Shanghai and hopes it will be shot at Wuxi.

The facility will be part of China’s efforts to boost the domestic biz. Moore said the Chinese government is “trying to raise the bar on production quality and the way they do things. That’s why the people at Wuxi hired us, to come in and build a Hollywood-standard studio.”

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