Chinese Films Need Right ‘Syntax’ to Win Over Americans, STX CEO Robert Simonds Says

Robert Simonds
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

Collaboration between the Chinese and American film industries will continue to increase, but a gap still needs to be closed before Chinese stories and intellectual property win over audiences in America and the West, executives and financiers said during a conference in Beverly Hills on Saturday.

Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox, said during the C-100 Conference, that America’s multi-cultural roots have spawned films that appeal to audiences from varied backgrounds. Without that tradition, it’s more difficult for the Chinese to create films that appeal globally, said Gianopulos.

Robert Simonds, chairman and CEO of STX Entertainment, echoed a similar view, saying that Chinese films will begin to appeal to global audiences when they speak in a familiar cinematic “syntax” — with more traditional three-act structures and scene progression that will be easily recognizable in other nations.

The opinion of the two entertainment executives appeared to be shared by others speaking on the panel at the annual conference, organized by the Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese-Americans from business, politics, media and other fields.

Another member of the “Hollywood & China” panel, East West Bank Chairman Dominic Ng, said he thought a key to enhancing the prospects of films from the Middle Kingdom in the U.S. could be the hiring of more Chinese-Americans to act as cultural and business ambassadors.

“They know this Chinese audience well. They know the American experience extremely well,” said Ng, whose bank has funded multiple films and industry deals. “Hopefully the smart executives will look at Chinese-Americans who can help make … these films.”

Ng said he hoped that films like “Great Wall,” created by Thomas Tull’s (and now Dalian Wanda’s) Legendary East and with distribution from Universal, will show the way for future productions. The film tells the story of the creation of China’s Great Wall, with acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang, and starring a multi-national cast that includes Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Ng. “Co-production will get better.”

Gianopulos said he has been asked why more Chinese fables have not been made into films for a global audience. He said, for that to happen, the Chinese will have to be open to re-interpretation of their classics. “If you give this fable to Hollywood and ask them to make it for the world, by the time it comes back to China you might not recognize it,” Gianopulos said.

Donald Tang, the prominent Chinese-American investor who moderated the panel, asked whether there was a chance that the large Chinese investments in the American entertainment industry could be as ephemeral as past forays by the Japanese, French and others.

No way, said the panelists, including WME-IMG co-chief executive Ari Emanuel. He and others said the enormous growth of the Chinese market meant it would be a formidable presence for the long run.

“You see a lot of us saying we are moving our operations and opportunities to China,” said Emanuel, nothing that the situation was not comparable to past foreign investment in the U.S. His company is so intent on forming links to China, Emanuel said, that he has visited the country 10 times in the last three months. And he’s leaving for another visit on Monday.

And the growth from China shows no sign of slowing. Box office is up 50% in the first three months of this year, compared to the year prior. And, still, the average person in China goes to less than one film a year, compared to 3.5 visits a year by Koreans and four visits annually by Americans — one measure of the huge upside still to come, noted Gianopulos.

Another measure is the number of theaters in China. Though building cinemas rapidly, the nation still has a huge upside for growth — with only 23 theaters per million residents, compared to the 100 theaters per million residents in the U.S., Gianopulos said.

“The market is probably not even half the size it’s going to be,” agreed Emanuel, “so there are huge tailwinds.”

Jack Gao, the Dalian Wanda executive who oversees the Chinese giant’s film operations, said the Chinese conglomerate has been encouraged to do more business in the U.S. because its purchase of the AMC theater chain has been so successful. It picked up Thomas Tull’s Legendary Entertainment in January for $3.5 billion. The AMC deal “gave Wanda very strong encouragement to come into the U.S. market,” Gao said.

To those who complain that too much is being paid to lure American talent and expertise to China, Emanuel was unapologetic. The super-agent drew a big laugh from the crowd at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when he said: “I don’t think talent costs going up is a bad thing. … It’s going to be uncomfortable for awhile.”

But the WME boss said that markets eventually find the right price for all things. He recalled a negotiation early in his career as an agent, with a Warner Bros. executive. When Emanuel complained that the deal was unfair, his elder told him: “Young man, fair is where we end up.” Emanuel said that philosophy should be applied to future dealings between the U.S. and China.

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  1. Fritz Grau says:

    I think you need to first differentiate between Hong Kong Films and Mainland China-made Films.In Hong Kong,they have been a fully mature Film/Entertainment Center for decades,and they have been making entertainment that has International appeal for a long time.In fact,in a lot of ways,they are even more sophisticated because they have such an acute sense of Western Values and History and story-telling.Just one example would be “Infernal Affairs” ,a Hong Kong made trilogy that is every bit as good as “The Godfather” and it was copied by Hollywood and turned into a Oscar-winning movie called ‘The Departed”…..and for my money “Infernal Affairs” was an infinitely better movie than “The Departed” on every level…..It’s just a matter of time;because Unfortunately;Hong Kong production companies and Hong Kong Actors and Directors are collaborating with Mainland Film Companies……China will absorb Hong Kong and eventually be turning out First-Rate award-winning Films

  2. Joe Dang says:

    Make a film about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and I’d go see it.
    Oh wait, that will definitely upset the CCP so they will not dare produce that kind of movies.

  3. EricJ says:

    It starts by understanding American films, not by understanding What Chinese Like About American Films (hey, how ’bout that Transfomers 4?)
    Which unfortunately involves understanding American/Western thought, which is still pretty much taboo.

    Whether it’s Japanese anime, French big-budget epics, or Chinese investment-outreaches, a foreign production is doomed if it tries to make “an American style movie” as an outside observer.
    Anyone remember–no, no one does–that one movie that was supposed to open up more commercial mainstream Chinese-US film projects, and assumed that audiences needed to have an American teenager learn all about the Monkey King?
    That was worse than OUR trying to make a “native” Wuxia movie for US audiences who had never seen Wuxia, and hire Ang Lee (…Ang Lee??) because he was the only Hong Kong director available.

    Like restaurants, we prefer the real foreign film cuisine on our plates, and if they’re not popular, it’s usually because Chinese isn’t to our tastes.

  4. Harry Georgatos says:

    China needs commercial inventive filmmakers with the sensibility of a John Woo. China wasted Woo’s talent on a period historical epic THE CROSSING PART 1 & 2 that bombed in China and hasn’t been released in western countries. A modern day Chinese espionage action thriller with John Woo would have opened in markets all over the world. Chinese period historical dramas will only play to Chinese audience! Unless China dissects the template of Western films and applies that structure to modern Chinese stories then they have a fighting chance in the western market. Unfortunately the Chinese state will most likely block films dealing with the supernatural and Horror films in a state that doesn’t recognize religion. Films critical of the state in any form of genre will be blocked and censored regardless of commercial success. The film industry is about entertainment and films within China are didactic historical epics that the mainstream cares very little about and are more suited to a more rarefied audience. Entertainment is what audience crave for good or bad. Adapt or perish!

    • Rex says:

      The problem with that is that China has almost NO modern stories to tell! The completely blew it for most of the 20th century so there’s just nothing there to work with, no antecedents, no cultural touchstones that can be referenced and remade, and there are so many utterly laughable commie rules in place about what can be portrayed in modern-set movies that whenever they even ATTEMPT to make a western-style high-concept show, the finished films are so absolutely non-sensical with no connection to reality, either in China or in the U.S. that you can’t help but feel sorry for all the great former Hong Kong directors and actors who’ve been forced into partnership with the mainland.

  5. Rex says:

    Gianopulos and Simonds appear to have been reading every comment I ever left on a Chinese+Hollywood related article here, and Donald Tang should really trust his better judgment. The world outside China will never embrace Chinese pictures the way they embrace ours. It won’t happen. You can’t tell mainlanders how to do anything, so they’ll just keep cranking out costume epics and poverty dramas that don’t follow a universal formula, winning the home market and then going direct to VOD over here. Worse, thanks to the gargantuan cock-up they made of their 20th century, the Chinese have NO INTERESTING STORIES TO TELL from a nearly 60-year period of history other than the same drab tales of agrarian misery (NOT blamed on the government in any way, of course) that they’ve been cranking out for decades. Beyond that, it’s period epics, espionage/adventure tales that can ONLY be set pre-1949, and modern day rom-coms that encourage the worship of consumerism and hollow status in ways Hollywood can’t even touch.

    Anyone who predicts that will change is dreaming.

    • anon says:

      USA! USA! USA! Nationalistic Americans are true believers in American supremacy in everything.

      • Rex says:

        I’m not even American, but I know that as far as movies are concerned, American cinema will always dominate. ALWAYS. It’s the ONLY world cinema effectively made in a true melting pot of cultures, unlike homogenous Chinese movies. If you think the day is coming when the whole world — including the majority NON-Chinese population — will be clamouring to see the latest mainland Chinese movies and driving the box-office to the global levels enjoyed by Hollywood’s top shelf films, you’re DELUSIONAL.

  6. Molly Brown says:

    Here are a some questions you should be wondering about:
    Did the opening ceremony of the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing have aspects of Rogers and Hammerstein?
    To what extent was choreographer Chen Weiya responsible for this and why isn’t there a biography of him on the internet?
    How can the Chinese win over foreign audiences anywhere if they keep denying everything foreign?

  7. Peggy says:

    This is all well and good, but it better not interfere with the diversification in the US film business. I don’t want to hear that they can’t make movies with blacks and Hispanics because it won’t sell in China. And I don’t want to see Chinese movies that denigrate the US and Western society.

    • Hollywood is already dumbing down its product to appeal to foreign markets like China. It’s why we get so many special-effects-laden action movies, comic-book crap, and superhero silliness. All of the good writers have migrated to indie films or television.

    • herrumph says:

      Hollywood movies have denigrated the Chinese ever since cinema was born. Turning the tables is only appropriate to give the West a taste of their own medicine.

      • Rex says:

        Too bad NOTHING the mainland Chinese could ever make will ever be SEEN by enough westerners to actually make anyone give a shit what they think about us (and don’t think they haven’t been slagging us all along in their movies; it’s just that those movies are pretty much seen only by the Chinese mainlanders, so they’re preaching to the choir, lol). The only ones getting a taste of their own medicine will be China when the plan backfires and they become just the latest in a long line of countries/cultures that finally ceded to the superior technical qialities of Hollywood popular culture, and decided to figure out the best way to board that gravy train — as Alibaba has done — rather than fight it.

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