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Chinese Cinema: Have Pics, Can’t Travel

Filmmakers focus on local market but int’l expansion may come from corporate giants

While the Chinese film industry is booming at home, with production volume, cinema numbers and theatrical box office all racing ahead, film exports are going almost nowhere.

Official figures are vague on the value of overseas sales achieved by Chinese rights holders, but data points to overseas box office for Chinese films dropping for the past two years.

In some quarters this is a cause for concern, but for others it is a matter of sublime indifference. That’s because they are too busy figuring out how to profit from this domestic golden era.

“China’s companies have no idea about international sales. That’s because they are so strongly focused on their home market,” says Albert Lee, CEO of Emperor Motion Pictures, another conglomerate that straddles Hong Kong and China.

When local films can gross anywhere between $30 million for “Say Yes” to the $200 million earned by “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” and “Lost in Thailand,” (pictured) China’s filmmakers will not go to the trouble of learning the complications of overseas territories for only marginal extra income.

While the new commercial movie crop is well-made and marks a refreshing break with the past, its stories are also more local. They may resonate with audiences in Asia, but for audiences in the U.S. and Europe, the new films, young directors and little-known TV and Internet stars may remain remote.

“For Chinese-language films, only kung fu movies work internationally,” says Bill Kong, head of Hong Kong- and China-based conglomerate Edko. In August he unveiled plans for “Rise of the Legend,” an attempted revival of Wong Fei-hung, one of the iconic characters of the Chinese action genre.

The irony here is that Kong was one of the producers of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a surprise global hit that was largely responsible for a massive surge of interest in Chinese movies in 2000. Unfortunately the boom, which had happened at the tail end of the video and DVD era, did not last. Also, the great financial crisis in the West meant many film funds never took off, output deals were allowed to expire, and U.S. and European buyers became more risk-averse — across the board, not just with Chinese movies.

The structure of China’s film industry has also hampered overseas success, especially its censorship system. Stories must not only steer clear of sex, drugs, religion and present-day politics, but also sci-fi, time travel, ghosts and contemporary thrillers. Censorship has also made international co-productions tricky, as regulations do not officially permit multiple versions of a Chinese film.

Filmmakers such as Chen Daming have complained that such rules make it difficult to have a strong antagonist, while John Woo’s producer partner Terence Chang says a contemporary crime thriller, such as the Chinese version of “The French Connection” he dreams of making, is out of the question because crime, corruption and police procedures are all taboo.

After liberalization in 2000-01, this meant a clustering of titles in “safe” genres: martial arts and ancient historical action.

Film regulators have gradually eased up and a genre normalization has taken place. The transformation has become more apparent with a succession of local hit movies this year, ranging from romantic comedies “Say Yes” and “Wedding Diary” through glossy actioner “Switch” to “American Dreams in China” and “So Young,” light contemporary dramas projecting a hip and aspirational universe contrasting with the naive simplicity of Chinese film just a decade or two ago.

In the longer term, the weight of history and economics may be on China’s side. China’s booming economy will draw in international talent, investors and co-producers such as Oriental DreamWorks, Legendary Pictures, Village Roadshow or Fox Intl. Productions. Chinese companies like China Film, Enlight, Le Vision, Bona Film or Huayi Bros. will seek the prestige and brand enhancement that comes from being a Hollywood player. Few believe that property-to-cinema group Wanda’s acquisition of U.S. cinema chain AMC is the last move in the Chinese film industry’s international expansion drive.

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