China partner helps ‘Looper’ win big

Co-production with DMG delivers in crunch for Endgame

If Hollywood execs could travel through time, many wouldn’t mind landing in the shoes of producer/financier James D. Stern and his Endgame Entertainment execs two years ago, just as they met with China-based distrib DMG Entertainment about the time-travel actioner “Looper.”

DMG not only agreed to distribute Rian Johnson’s film, it also came aboard as Endgame’s Chinese production partner. The deal positioned “Looper” to become one of the rare Hollywood projects to open globally day-and-date and on thousands of Chinese screens during a blackout period for foreign fare. (The lion’s share of the film’s equity was Endgame’s, according to Stern, thanks to its investment and FilmNation presales. “DMG came in for a small piece, and prebought Chinese rights,” he adds).

When “Looper” hit theaters on the Sept. 28-30 weekend, it made $20.8 million domestically, while according to Endgame’s estimates, it took $23- million-$24 million in China — if pending official B.O. figures stay high enough, it will be the first time a film’s Chinese opening has topped its domestic bow.

Flash back to August, however, and much like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis’ shared lead character, a key part of the plan was put in jeopardy. At that time, Zhang Peiming, deputy bureau chief of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, said all films aiming to achieve official co-production status needed to strictly fulfill China Film Co-production Corp. regulations that mandate at least a third of financing and main casting come from China. The designation guarantees a mainland release, permits the pic to be screened during the blackout period for foreign films and, perhaps most importantly, allows the U.S. partners to earn a much larger share of box office revenue — as much as 45% for a co-production vs. roughly 15% for a film that isn’t one.

“Some so-called co-production movies just (make) superficial changes, with little investment from China, use very few Chinese elements, and call it a co-production,” Zhang said at the time, singling out “Looper,” among others. “These co-productions get around the quota system and take domestic investment away, and threaten Chinese movies.”

Despite receiving long-lead publicity at June’s Shanghai Film Festival — publicity usually not available to foreign fare — and an announced Sept. 28 international day-and-date release, “Looper” still hadn’t received official co-production status approval. The week before its release, Chinese regulators announced the pic had been given “assisted co-production” status — an apparent blow to Endgame’s hopes.

The shingle, however, remained sanguine. “Whether we have a (co-production) stamp or not is semantics to me,” said Endgame business development VP Christopher Chen, who came to the company at its 2002 launch to develop film opportunities with China. “We’re being told that we’re a getting a favorable box office (around 45%). DMG is telling that to us, and they haven’t let us down yet.” Chen added.

Indeed, more than a week before the film opened, Stern downplayed its official status, calling it more of a technicality. “I know when this film is opening, when it’s being promoted, how many theaters it’s going into and how long it can stay in the theaters,” he said, and would not be drawn into giving more details about the source of his confidence.

If “Looper” continues playing strong in China after its big opening weekend, Endgame’s take could be substantial. When the outfit made its first stab at the market with an investment in Ironpond, a film fund founded in 2005 to explore potential U.S./China entertainment collaborations, China’s total box office was $249 million. By the end of this year, it’s likely to exceed 10 times that figure, and approach $3 billion.

“Looper” is Endgame’s biggest-budget film to date. It is the first feature backed by their $150 million P&A fund Endgame Releasing, which provides $20 million-plus in marketing coin for each of its wide-release films, with distributors often contributing an equal share on pickup. At Cannes, FilmDistrict closed the deal to release the pic via Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar shingle in the U.S.

According to Stern, the DMG deal, announced in January 2011, came together after FilmNation presales were done and Endgame made pay-or-play deals with Gordon-Levitt, Willis and Johnson. Producer Ram Bergman set the budget at less than $50 million, with a three-month Louisiana shoot and two-plus weeks in Paris before the idea came up of moving its Paris shoot to Shanghai.

Chen had been in touch with onetime ad firm DMG prior to Ironpond’s launch, and with execs having initially read the “Looper” script with Chinese distribution in mind, talks quickly evolved.

Stern says he called director Johnson, who welcomed the idea of a China shoot. “In Rian’s mind, it worked better for the script. In fact, he originally thought, when talk about it came up, (that) we couldn’t afford to go to China — otherwise he could’ve written it in initially.”

Among changes Stern says were made to the script, the main one was casting a Chinese actress (Summer Qing, who plays Willis’ wife in the film), as well as showing off Shanghai to good effect. Chen says DMG suggested the changes to smooth the deal, and both were stipulations the filmmakers eagerly agreed to.

Normally time travel is taboo to censors, but Stern says that stems from sensitivity over showing China’s past. “In our case, China is set in the future,” he explains. “We heard about the time travel issue, but it did not come up with us.”

Among several bigscreen projects Endgame has in development, only the historical epic “Marco Polo” “would go to China once it gets further down the road,” Stern says, once key talent attachments are made. (At this year’s Cannes, the project was reportedly set to star Gong Li as part of a joint U.S./China project, but Stern says no Chinese producer is attached yet.)

“We’ve done one co-production (‘Looper’) where the lion’s share of money came from us, and we were going to make it whether we had a Chinese partner or not,” Stern says. “In the case of ‘Marco Polo,’ it’s the same thing. If we shoot it in China and it benefits us, great, (but) we’re not going to make a movie in China simply because we can. You have to make a movie that fits for them in an organic way.”

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether “Looper” will mark Endgame’s successful jump from mostly specialty fare (“An Education”) to wide-release commercial films and TV series (including HBO’s upcoming “Sport in America,” helmed by Stern and Adam Del Deo), and if its breakthrough in China represents just a wrinkle in time — and politics.

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