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Chinese back lot grows to epic proportions

Strengths are in its moviemaking infrastructure

ZHEJIANG PROVINCE, CHINA — The sun rising at dawn over the Forbidden City in China’s ancient capital. Or a marketplace in the Ming or the Qing dynasty. Or a kung-fu brawl in a teahouse spilling out onto the streets of 1920s Shanghai. Or how about an army scaling the walls of a castle in the Warring States period?

All of these scenarios are possible at Asia’s biggest film base, Hengdian Studios, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province, which boasts 13 movie lots spread over 330 hectares (815 acres), and it’s luring a growing number of productions as well as tourists, since Hengdian is also a popular theme park.

The biggest hit shot here was Zhang Yimou’s 2002 “Hero”; many subsequent projects shot in Hengdian — around 50 a year — are likewise historical epics.

And although Hengdian is huge, post-production is not a major strength in China, with most big pics tending to go to Australia or Hong Kong for post work.

Hengdian’s strengths are in its moviemaking infrastructure.

As well as a full-size replica of the Forbidden City on a 100-acre site, it has the Emperor Qin’s palace and both Ming and Qing dynasty palaces. The lot has a 148-foot-high Grand Hall of Dazhi Temple, with a 98-foot-tall Buddha inside.

One soundstage within the complex is China’s largest, with an area of 20,925 square feet and a height of 75 feet. The Hengdian Group has spent around $240 million developing the site.

The first project shot in Hengdian, a town of 100,000 people, was “The Opium War” back in 1996, and since then 300 crews have visited the set.

Hengdian has advantages over other filmmaking hot spots, including Beijing and Shanghai, because it has a lot of water and is relatively inexpensive compared with those cities. There is also a ready supply of cheap labor around.

The studios are located in the lush Zhejiang region. Many of the local villages have become known as “extra villages” because of the way the residents now make more of their income as movie extras than they do from farming.

Hengdian is keen to cater to the country’s booming biz, but the theme park also is a major draw.

For $5, tourists can visit the Hollywood of the East just as visitors can tour Universal Studios, to see a Hong Kong street and all of the palaces, among other attractions. Last year, the site had 4.6 million visitors, a rise of 32% over the year before.

“We’re not trying to be a second Hollywood — there are a lot of crucial differences. Both the film industry and tourism are our major business here. Our future is also a major theme park,” says Zeng Yuling, chief editor of the Hengdian Movie & TV Tourism magazine.

Hengdian is a five-hour drive south from Shanghai, although Hangzhou airport is much nearer, around a two-hour drive.

Chinese auds are crazy for costume sudsers, and historical skeins dominate production at Hengdian at the moment. Among the major projects being made are “Women’s Flowers” (Nu Ren Hua), while Jet Li starrer “Ci Ma” (The Warlords) has just wrapped. He comes back this month for what’s being dubbed the J&J Project, which also stars Jackie Chan and Michael Angarano, with Rob Minkoff at the helm.

Besides its back lot ops, the Hengdian Group is involved in many areas other than film and has more than 60 subsidiaries, 130 affiliated companies and three China-listed companies. The group is a partner with Warner Bros. in Warner China Films HG, which has had a major success in producing Chinese-language movies.

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