Loehr delivers U.S. touch to Chinese pix

BEIJING — Peter Loehr is a man with a mission: change the face of moviemaking in China before Hollywood arrives.

“I reckon I’ve got a four- or five-year window,” says Loehr, an antsy 31-year-old New Yorker who could turn to bottling his nervous energy if he doesn’t make it in movies. “The present import quota of about 10 Hollywood movies a year will eventually change. My dream is to have at least helped encourage an alternative production structure, and drawn audiences to those movies, beforehand.”

Loehr makes Chinese movies for Chinese audiences. Not foreign co-productions, not arty fare for Western festivals, not pictures with “peasants or palanquins”; instead, well-made contemporary urban pics that reflect the lively reality of modern mainland life and present it in accessible, audience-friendly ways.

So far, he’s on a roll. The first film produced by Loehr’s Imar Film Co., “Spicy Love Soup,” was released in February 1998 and grossed over $2.8 million on a $350,000 production tab.

Loehr’s second production, the Shanghai-set hick-in-the-city romantic comedy “A Beautiful New World,” preemed in the Berlin Film Festival’s Forum section and went out in the mainland in March.

The director is first-timer Shi Runjiu, from underground alternative music videos, although, like “Soup,” the pic’s visual style and momentum are slick but not MTV-ish. Imar’s third movie, “Shower,” a drama helmed by Zhang Yang (who directed “Soup”) set in a traditional Beijing bathhouse, recently wrapped post-production.

Loehr’s background in music partly explains his interest in bringing new marketing ideas to selling movies in China. He had been involved with bands in college, and in 1990, while working in Japan as a legal assistant for a New York-based law firm, he bumped into the chairman of media conglom Amuse at a party and was offered a job that eventually encompassed managing three bands, handling TV movies and becoming vice head of the company’s international department.

When Amuse sent him to Taiwan to open an office– during a time when there was a boom in new TV channels — Loehr already had the idea of starting an indie film company in China. The head of Taipei-based Rock Records, which has the world’s largest Mandarin-language music catalog, took a look at his business plan, told him to take a year off to learn Chinese (Loehr already spoke fluent Japanese), and come back and see him.

“My idea was always to work with young people and first-time directors. I’m not interested in making ‘crossover’ movies or foreign co-productions. Our most important audience is aged between 16 and 35, for whom movies are not specifically being made in China, and who have plenty of other things nowadays — like karaoke and VCDs — on which to spend their money.”

In 1996, when Loehr returned from studies in China and the U.S., Beijing-based Imar Film was born. Loehr had backing from Rock Records for six movies at around $370,000 each (middle to low budget in Chinese terms), access to its music catalog and a hook up with Xi’an Film Studio in central China as the official producing entity.

The script of “Spicy Love Soup,” based on an idea by Loehr, took five months to develop, and the 43-day shoot started in September ’98 under first-time director Zhang, a musicvid veteran.

At the time, local distribs thought the film, five vignettes on love and marriage across the generations, was too small and unpromotable, so Loehr started to break the rules. Jetting around the country on one-day trips, he wined and dined local distribs, doing province-by-province deals.

On the promo side, he also racked up some firsts. A CD of songs from the film was released nationwide a month before the film bowed and so far has sold 500,000 units. In Shanghai, the film’s release was tied to a promo with Cadbury’s chocolate for Valentine’s Day (a foreign novelty in China) that helped rack up 40,000 admissions on its first day.

“Halfway through the release, ‘Titanic’ opened, so we could only get second-run theaters in Beijing,” Loehr recalls. “But by then, word-of-mouth had done its job, so I can’t really complain.”

Imar uses a maximum of 150 prints for the mainland market, reusing prints for smaller provinces where flat-rate distribution deals don’t make it financially viable for new copies.

Operating out of a functional suite of offices in a nondescript suburb of northern Beijing, Loehr and his young, 30-member staff are stretched to the limits just handling production and local distribution. Given his focus on the mainland market, he sees little point in dissipating his energies working the festival circuit, which tends to go for artier fare anyway.

Loehr only recently got around to appointing foreign sales agents, with Hong Kong’s Golden Network handling “Soup” on a nonexclusive basis and Amsterdam-based Fortissimo Film Sales handling “Beautiful New World.” Within East Asia, “Soup” has a distribution deal in Japan, where the pic wowed auds at last fall’s Tokyo fest, but Taiwan is considered a very small market and Hong Kong still is very difficult for mainland-themed Mandarin movies.

Loehr sees plenty of room in China for other indies making similarly accessible fare. Apart from Imar, at present there’s only Beijing-based Forbidden City Films (actually quasigovernmental) and Shanghai-based Long Feng Film Intl., whose first pic, the ensemble dramedy “No. 8,” rolls this spring, doing similar things.

“My philosophy is the more the better,” opines Loehr. “China’s a fast-moving, interesting place at the moment, and there are a lot of young directors who don’t have an outlet for this kind of work. If we can help to build a viable sector, then that’ll be good for the local market as a whole.”