Filmmakers play by China rulebook

Censors ban time travel, ghosts -- and censorship

Hollywood producers who come to China thinking the pot of gold is waiting to be discovered on soundstages in Hengdian or Huairou film production facilities must first play by China’s rules.

The problem is, those rules aren’t always clear, confusing the negotiation process when brokering deals.

“We’re still learning what ‘yes’ means,” says one high-level Hollywood executive who recently began setting up joint productions in China. “I will believe a deal is done when it’s done.”

The main sticking point is censorship.

Censors in China don’t just ban nudity or excessive violence. They also have a list of complicated demands that can make the process of applying for script approval — the first step in getting a co-production off the ground — a time-consuming and frustrating experience.

Producers have been told that the Chinese can’t be portrayed as villains, making traditional good vs. evil storylines seen on the bigscreen in the U.S. difficult to set up. Police officers must always be portrayed as wise, brave and effective. Time travel is a no-no, generally, ghost stories have spotty success in getting through the Film Bureau, and any form of political filmmaking that does not exactly match the Communist Party’s view of the world faces a rough ride to say the least.

Pics about changing contemporary social conditions are often heavily censored, thus local filmmakers often dip into historical dramas. That said, even the historical dramas have to be about the “right” subjects.

There are several films being made about Tang Dynasty concubine Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. Her lover, Xuanzong, the emperor, was so consumed with passion for her that he neglected state affairs, and a rebellion consumed the capital, Xi’an. Xuanzong was forced to order her execution as he and his troops fled to Chengdu.

One of the Yang Guifei movies is due to be directed by “Training Day” helmer Antoine Fuqua, and is backed by money from Xi’an, the city Xuanzong abandoned as the dynasty collapsed. Qujiang Film and Television Investment Group plans to spend $30 million on its own version of the story, which has been in the works since 2007. The script is being written by David Franzoni, a producer and scribe on “Gladiator.”

Franzoni and Fuqua have been asked to re-write the script, because they made changes to the story; as the story is historical, censors will not allow any changes.

“There is a rule that historical stories have to be written and filmed in an historically accurate way,” Qiao Xinfeng, vice general manager of Xi’an Qujiang Film and TV tells Variety.

As frustrating as the rules are, Hollywood needs to keep in mind that “it’s a completely different experience (in China) and you ignore that at your own peril,” says one studio exec.

The rules are somewhat understandable.

The communist government doesn’t want to be seen “as dumb money” and would like to have creative control over what it co-produces and presents to its people. Yet at the same time, it’s looking for projects that will travel and play well in overseas territories.

Producers worry, however, that it might not be possible to make a commercially successful film while sticking rigidly to the demands of the censors, and are worried that the result might wind up playing too much like a documentary.

This is a common complaint — helmer Feng Xiaogang (“Aftershock”) has said on several occasions that a big Chinese crossover success overseas is not possible as long as Mainland films have to follow the rules of censorship.

Says Qiao: “David and Antoine loved the story, and said it had all the elements of a big movie — war, beauty and love. They wanted to make it in a commercial way, and in the U.S. you can re-create a story to meet commercial demands. But here we have to obey the censor.”

Qiao is hoping the team can abandon the historical story and create a similar kind of historical movie to avoid the censor’s demands. With September the tentative start date for lensing, and with Chow Yun-fat and Zhang Ziyi in the frame to star, QFTV aims to forge closer links with Hollywood. And that happens more easily in success.

And “by lightening up,” says one producer.

World Report: China 2012
Filmmakers play by China rulebook | H’wood takes censorship in stride | Real estate boom brings movies to the masses | Studios, exhibs get China boost | Regime change carries warning signs | TV a tiny share of China market | H’wood needs no introduction | Top mainland mavens own inside scoop