Fox will make its first foray into China production when Fox Intl. Prods. (called Fox Star in India and Asia) teams with John Woo and Terence Chang to produce “King’s Ransom,” with Woo protege Patrick Leung in talks to direct.

The script was generated under a previous first-look deal with Woo and Chang’s Lion Rock Productions banner. The “King’s Ransom” pact includes a new first-look deal for Woo and Chang to make Chinese-language films in China.

A caper film involving two circus acrobats and a love triangle, the script has been at 20th Century Fox since 1997, when it was expected to be directed by Woo. The film never made it out of development, until Fox Intl. Prods. president Sanford Panitch identified it as one whose concept would travel.

Leung was second unit director on “Red Cliff” and “Hard Boiled,” and first assistant director on “The Killer.” He doesn’t yet have a deal, but Chang said he and Woo feel Leung is the ideal choice, since he has directed numerous films in Hong Kong and China, including Mandarin-language pictures.

“The last draft of the film by Peter Iliff was in Atlantic City and Brooklyn, but that can be replaced by Macau in the Southern part of China without much difficulty,” said Chang. “Once a film is successful, everybody starts doing the genre, like the way they are making historical period films like ‘Red Cliff.’ I don’t think there has ever been a big-scale caper movie (in China). This would be the very first, and with three young leads, this will appeal to a young audience.”

Fox Star will require a co-production partner, because studios cannot themselves distribute their films in China. The Woo-directed “Red Cliff” was made with China Film Group, and Chang said they will find a partner and a writer to re-imagine the script for its new locale. Fox Star is entering the arena at a fortuitous time, Chang said, though shooting in China can be a challenge.

“It’s certainly cheaper, and while there are good DPs and the art departments are strong, there are some weaker departments and we have to train those younger people,” Chang said. “Bringing in people isn’t cost effective; that didn’t work out because of the language barrier.”

The move comes as FIP targets China as a potentially important emerging marketplace for films. By year’s end, there will likely be only 4,000 screens to service a population of 1.2 billion, but Chang said theatrical expansion is happening so quickly that there could be twice as many theaters by the time “King’s Ransom” is complete.