Stroh, Chen caught in mutual ‘web’

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When Moonstone Entertainment co-founder Etchie Stroh received a message months ago from director Chen Kaige in Beijing that, after a four months’ shoot and some editing, he was ready to show him an early version of his new movie, “Caught in the Web,” Stroh was in Hong Kong and ready to jump on the case. Once again, his good friend Chen needed his eyes and ears.

Since working closely on Chen’s 2002 melodrama, “Together,” Stroh has served as his manager, advising him on upcoming projects; devising marketing, distribution and sales strategies; and perhaps most importantly for the director, offering a fresh perspective.

“Etchie is very reliable and knows how to sell films worldwide,” Chen says. “He believes in good films and always reminds me why I became a filmmaker. He urges me to ask myself what’s my motivation, that it goes far beyond just making a living. I appreciate his input.”

In Beijing, Stroh viewed a rough cut of the contemporary comedy-drama that Chen had titled “Searching” for the mainland market. He says he was pleasantly surprised at the movie’s spin on contemporary China and the social obsession with the Web.

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“It had a fresh modern look with a universal theme of how the Internet and media can tear people apart,” Stroh says.

When Chen and Stroh first met in Paris in 2002 through mutual acquaintances, the helmer immediately took a liking to Stroh and his specific recommendations on how to roll out “Together.”

“He urged me to premiere in Toronto and consider no other festival, which proved to be very wise,” the director says. “He was also right about San Sebastian, where we won best director and actor, and helped the film perfectly internationally.”

The results were a worldwide take of $6 million, solidifying a partnership between Chen and Moonstone that includes Chen’s period epic, “The Promise.”

Much of the “Together” strategy is also being applied to the new film, in which Moonstone is involved primarily as international sales company.

“Our role varies from project to project so it really comes down to what (Chen) needs, and where we think we can be most effective and helpful for him,” Stroh says. “In this case, we first gave him notes, some of which he accepted and some he rejected. We came up with the international title, ‘Caught in the Web,’ since the mainland Chinese title doesn’t translate well abroad.”

Above all, Stroh was certain that such a fast-moving ensem bler, starring a mix of such vets as Wang Xueqi and rising stars like Chen Ran and with a style that makes the story’s unidentified mainland city (lensing took place in Ningbo) feel like Hong Kong, would be a perfect fit for Toronto, which Stroh deems the best festival market in the world from a producer’s and distributor’s standpoint.

Its local B.O. of $30 million nicely sets up the film’s profile with prospective buyers in the key territories of the U.S., Japan, South Korea, France, Germany and Italy.

“The advantage it has over several other mainland Chinese movies in the marketplace is that it gets away from the period action genre, which I think is probably in decline,” Stroh says. “It’s also extremely topical and fresh.”

The disadvantage? “It’s a mainstream subject in (Mandarin). That’s the challenge we have to overcome, since buyers tend to categorize Chinese films in two areas, martial-arts genre or arthouse. ‘Caught in the Web’ is interesting because it doesn’t belong in either one.”

Stroh has determined that Toronto is the first step, which is ensured with the film’s slot in the festival’s prestigious Special Presentations lineup. “Whether we do another festival beyond this, we’ll see,” the Moonstone vet says. “But I expect Toronto will keep us quite busy.”

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