How Sony TV’s ‘Mad About You’ Adaptation Broke Ground in China

Hollywood is familiar with the many hurdles that need to be cleared before a U.S.-produced movie hits the multiplexes in China. But how about a TV series based on an American property?

Sony Pictures TV navigated the process over nearly a two-year period before closing a deal earlier this month Dragon TV for a Mandarin-language adaption of the 1990s NBC rom-com “Mad About You.”

The studio and its local production partners essentially had to commission 60 episodes on spec before securing a network deal. China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television censorship board had to sign off on all of the scripts and review the finished episodes. No network would license the show until the episodes had SARFT’s seal of approval, according to Andrea Wong, president of international production for Sony Pictures TV.

Sony tapped into the local political savvy of Chinese production partners Huaso Film/TV Digital Production and Croton Media to guide the show through the approvals process. It started with selecting 60 scripts from the “Mad About You” archive that would both resonate with Chinese audiences and, of course, pass muster with the censors. Jeff Lerner, exec VP of scripted programming for Sony Pictures TV International, spent a lot of time in Shanghai shepherding the project for the studio last year.

“If they don’t approve your scripts, they will shut down your show,” Wong told Variety. “Our team went to China and worked with our partners to identify the scripts that would resonate with Chinese cultural norms and with SARFT in mind.”

The “Mad About You” development process is believed to mark the first time a Chinese scripted comedy has assembled a writers room to develop scripts in the traditional group setting used by U.S. sitcom producers. Chinese screenwriter Shu Huan spearheaded the adaptation with a handful of Chinese writers and assists from a team of U.S. consultants brought in by Sony. That list included Bill Grundfest, supervising producer of the comedy that ran seven seasons on NBC from 1992 to 1998.

Directing and editing consultants were also brought in to instruct Huan and his team how to lense a multi-camera sitcom. The production schedule for each episode was a speedy two days, compared to five days for a typical U.S. sitcom.

The Chinese version, “Xin Hun Gong Yu,” which roughly translates to “Wedding Apartment,” stars husband-and-wife actors Li Jiahang and Li Sheng in the roles originally limned by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt. The series is set to premiere Jan. 4 on pay TV channel Dragon TV, with second runs to follow on the popular streaming platform Youku Tudou.

The key to getting “Xin Hun Gong Yu” on the air was identifying the 60 scripts from the “Mad About You” archive of 162 episodes. The series revolved around the trials and tribulations of a young married couple — not exactly politically charged stuff but understanding local tastes was still vital. “It has to work within the context of the culture,” Wong said.

Sony has experience in doing local-language adaptations of classic American sitcoms. The studio put “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Nanny” and “Married with Children” on the air in Russia, and at present it has “Raymond” and “I Dream of Jeannie” airing in India. But China is a trickier market to crack because of the state’s firm grip on media.

SARFT censors scrutinized each script twice and kept an eye on production and post-production. But the timetable of production went smoothly without major delays, according to Wong. She credits that to the relationships of Huaso Film/TV, which is a joint venture of Sony and CCTV6’s HuaCheng Pictures, and Croton. In fact, it was a Croton executive’s fondness for the original “Mad About You” that sparked the deal.

Sony Pictures TV hopes to do more original series and library adaptations for the Chinese market. Wong notes that co-productions are attractive to Chinese media companies because of of the country’s interest in exporting content. Sony’s Left Bank Productions is working with a unit of CCTV on an English-language drama series co-production aimed at the global market as well as China, she said.

“China is so interesting right now — there’s so much that can be done,” Wong said. “The exciting thing is that you can pursue different models for doing production. There are no rules.”

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