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Tips for filmers heading to China

Flexibility, perseverance and an understanding of cultural differences – these are the qualities that are repeatedly mentioned by anyone who has made a movie in China.

“So much depends on approach,” says Barbara Robinson, VP of production licensing at the Hong Kong office of Era Intl., producer of mainland-shot films like “Raise the Red Lantern” and “To Live.” She adds, “It’s incredibly important, and says a lot about you to the Chinese you’re dealing with.”

Leaving the U.S. in the mid ’80s to teach in China, Robinson learned Mandarin in Taiwan and ended up at Era Intl. doing everything from foreign sales to associate producing. She has been based in Hong Kong the past four years and is one of the few foreigners in the biz with a deep understanding of the Chinese mindset and a facility in the language.

“It’s vital to have a knowledge of the area and business culture,” Robinson says, “as well as to have some pre-understanding of the people or companies you’ll be dealing with. Personal relations are much more important than in the West.”

Adds Robinson, “(When it comes down to the fine print), the Chinese like to reach an agreement, but not detail everything on paper. That leaves room for both sides to either get out or rework things later on.” Chinese movie contracts are famous for being only a couple of pages long.

Chris Cain, who spent four months in China prepping and shooting the WB kidpic “The Amazing Panda Adventure,” in a national park in the wilds of Sichuan province, agrees flexibility is paramount. “In the U.S., people work 24 hours a day for the money. In China, they have a different motivation: Some people work for pride, and the money doesn’t matter too much.

“So what you save on things that are cheap and plentiful there, like sets, wardrobe, props, extras and labor, you can partly lose by the extra time it takes to do things. No one will take individual responsibility.”

Cain rates tech facilities as “still behind what they were in the U.S. when I started 20 years ago,” so he ended up importing virtually all equipment from the U.S. or Hong Kong. “But from a bureaucratic standpoint, like permissions, I’d say it’s much easier than shooting in the U.S…. In China, once we got the go-ahead, we were able pretty much to do what we wanted.”

A vet with full-time, on-the-ground experience of filming in China is Megan Gathercole. European-raised of American parents, she moved to Shanghai in the early ’90s after several years as a trade journalist in London. While working at Shanghai’s Film Bureau raising coin for the city’s first film fest, she learned the language and also, through her trade contacts, moved into TV sales.

“At that time the film industry was starting to devolve ” recalls Gathercole. “So I saw an opportunity to get into movie production, especially as we were the only people who actually wanted to base ourselves in China (rather than come in on a pic by pic basis).”

Gathercole set up Long Feng Film Intl. in 1993. “I think the (Beijing) Film Bureau and the Co-production Corp. also saw us as a tool to encourage more foreigners to do the same, to set up outside the studio system.”

Between consulting work and selling foreign programs to China’s cash-rich TV stations (“no sweat”), Gathercole plugged away at getting a feature off the ground – a two-year odyssey.

After submitting to the Film Bureau the script for “Testudo” – a cross-cultural historical drama about Ancient Romans and Chinese, to be shot in English – she waited six months for approval, by which time she’d raised $450,000 of the $1 million-plus budget. For a director, she finally settled on Zhang Zi’en, a middle-generation helmer based at Xi’an Film Studio in central China with a solid track record in commercial fare.

Meanwhile, a 50% Taiwan chunk of her financing had dropped out, and Gathercole spent another eight months on the coin trail. She wasn’t helped by the fact that pre-sales on a no-name director, no-name cast Chinese movie were virtually impossible.

The final $1.2 million budget is an international mix, with major coin coming from a gap financier, a distrib and a satelliter. Gathercole has deferred her own producer fee, and given Zhang points within China in addition to his helming fee.

TV, sat and video rights in East Asia have been sold off, and Gathercole puts TV sales within China at only $7,000 to $8,000, a “minute amount.” What she calls her “golden apple” is retaining distrib rights within China.

“It’s never been done before by a foreigner, but we’ve got a system in place. Though we’re totally foreign-financed and most of the film is in English, we’re a China-based company and using 80% mainland Chinese crew.” Though officially billed as a co-production for technical reasons, the Co-production Corp. is only in for a management fee, which its own articles state cannot be more than l% of a pic’s budget.

Gathercole is tight-lipped about the distribution details, but says she’s negotiated a unique deal whereby she shares local distrib profits with the Film Bureau (30%), rather than importer China Film. And she’ll concentrate on key and coastal cities only.

Based at Xi’an Film Studio, the pic rolls Aug. 28 with a 70-day shooting sked (including two months on location in the deserts of Ningxia province), to be followed by post work in the U.K. Delivery is expected by December, with an international rollout on the fest circuit.

If “Testudo” works, Long Feng has four other projects ready to go, says Gathercole. A strong believer in the huge potential of the local distribution market once full devolution arrives, she reckons things can only get better – so long as you’re prepared to remain here, on the ground.

“On a personal level, as a young female producer, I could never do what I’m doing here if I was in the West,” she says. “On a business level, I’m making the pic for a 20th of what it would cost over there.”

Gathercole says it has taken her at least three years to understand the country’s business culture and regional film politics to a point where she feels she can operate effectively.

She adds, “There’s something known as ‘the three M’s’ here: ‘meiyou’ (don’t have), ‘mingtian’ (tomorrow) and ‘mei banfa’ (no way). But it’s vital to realize that ‘mei banfa’ isn’t absolute – it’s more like a negotiating position.”

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