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Breaking the Rules of Chinese-American Film Collaboration

The audience at the second annual U.S. China Film & TV (UCFTI) Expo may have been looking for simple rules to follow to produce filmed entertainment for and with the Chinese. But the lesson from producers and writers, speaking Tuesday on the second day of the Expo, was that there are no rules.

The event at the Los Angeles Convention Center, co-sponsored by Variety, instead delivered lessons about the continued boom in the Chinese entertainment industry and approaches that work, at least some of the time. Among the nuggets delivered Tuesday:

Even as growth of the overall Chinese economy has continued to slow, the boom in film consumption continues apace.

David Linde, the former Universal chairman and now a producer of multiple films in China, recalled a conversation just three years ago in which an industry pro wondered if films could earn $100 million at the Chinese box office.

“Now a movie in China can do $350 million or more,” said Linde, the day’s first speaker. “The growth is astounding.” Rance Pow, founder of the consulting firm Artisan Gateway, projected that box office this year in China should top $6.5 billion, compared to $4.8 billion in 2014.

The future remains uncertain for the five-year-old annual quota of 34 U.S. films permitted for release annually in China.

The policy is up for review and experts at the Expo Monday said they expected it to be lifted when it is due for renewal in 2017. But one academic who follows the issue closely said on Tuesday that the outcome is far from certain. Aynne Kokas, an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, said: “It doesn’t seem like there is as much movement from the policy side” to end the quota.

The Chinese government moves slowly on such issues, said Kokas, who is finishing a book, “Hollywood: Made in China.” Pow said he expects the quota to rise, as the home-grown Chinese industry has not been overwhelmed by American films. Chinese-made films now take 55% or more of the domestic box office, a trend that should continue even with a lifting of the 34-U.S.-film quota, he said.

Piracy continues to eat away at the box office potential of Chinese films in foreign markets.

Producer Linde described how the 2011 film, “Flowers of War,” got off to a strong opening weekend in New York and Los Angeles when it was released for award consideration. But by the full release of the film — starring Christian Bale as a Westerner trying to save women during the the Rape of Nanking — it was already too late. “By the time we could actually finish the film and sell it and deliver it, it was early the next year,” Linde said during his conversation with Variety Asia bureau chief Patrick Frater. “And by that time, the film had found its market, illegally.”

There are no magic bullets for marrying Western and Chinese sensibilities in film.

When making the hit “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” screenwriter James Schamus and his Chinese counterparts bounced the script back and forth dozens of times before arriving at a finished screenplay. Linde, who served as an executive producer on the film, said that depth of the painstaking collaboration continued throughout production of the film — down to post-production and the creation of the subtitles for the Ang Lee-helmed drama. Bill Borden, a producer of animated films for Mili Pictures in China, commented later: “I loved that answer: There was no magic. It was work. There was some magic — a great director — but it was a lot of work.”

The “rules” for foreign box office success are made to be broken.

Screenwriter and producer Laeta Kalogridis (“Terminator Genisys,” “Avatar”) said one of her favorite movies of the year, “Mad Max: Fury Road,” had scored big overseas even though it did not follow convention. The film bagged $221 million in foreign markets (though not released in China), even though it didn’t abide by several rules that are supposed to govern successful overseas releases.

“You’re not supposed to make R-rated action films and it did hugely well internationally,” Kalogridis said. She also noted that the film featured Charlize Theron as a female action protagonist, another supposed no-no. “Everything you are not supposed to do to make a successful film, domestically and internationally, this film did,” Kalogridis concluded.

The conference was set to wrap up Tuesday afternoon with panels about the development of theme parks and other real estate enterprises in China and a competition for films made by students at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

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