Animation is tipped by leading executives as the most fertile sector for cross-border cooperation between China and overseas film industries.
International co-production is a perennial discussion at every film festival in China or any market espousing a significant China connection. The Beijing International Film Festival, which kicked off on Sunday night, made co-production the theme of its showcase panel discussion on Monday, the event’s first full day of business. Speakers included Steven O’Dell, president of theatrical distribution at Sony Pictures Entertainment, James Wang Zhonglei CEO of Huayi Brothers, U.S. director Rob Minkoff and Beijing-based Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2”).
O’Dell said that animation is one of just a handful of strategies that can lead to global success. “Animation is able to cross language barriers,” O’Dell said. (Another strategy is working on blockbuster-scale projects, which is an opportunity open to China as it now has a sufficiently large domestic market.)
Sony has an existing local-language production strategy. O’Dell said that its decentralized executives involved in the program are now being encouraged to see local animation as part of their remit. Later this month, Sony is expected unveil details of “Wish Dragon,” an animated feature that also involves Jackie Chan’s Sparkle Roll firm and Beijing-based VFX firm BaseFX.
Huayi’s Wang said that technological progress now means that animators can deliver films with different mouth movements, enabling multiple re-voiced versions that all appear to be original and local. A recent example of that was the Dreamworks Animation and Oriental Dreamworks picture “Kung Fu Panda 3.” Two years ago, Huayi launched its own Wink Animation studio, run by a former head of Oriental Dreamworks.
China’s current domination of its fast-expanding theatrical market – in the first quarter, Chinese films accounted for over 80% of aggregate grosses – does not appear to have dulled the appetite for international co-productions. Nor does the relative lack of success of most Sino-foreign co-productions to date.
Although there is significant ongoing exchange between Hollywood and China, few films have achieved official co-production status. And very few of those have succeeded with equal impact at the box office in China and the West. STX Entertainment’s “The Foreigner,” which starred Pierce Brosnan and Jackie Chan in a largely U.K.-set thriller, was a recent exception to that track record of failures.
Harlin, who has been involved in three Chinese-related movies, served up smart, practical advice for an audience which included students, local media, and a delegation of U.K. producers and directors. “Don’t approach a film with the point of view of getting as much money as you can from China. Don’t make a movie that tries to please everyone in the world. And remember that you cannot simply take any Hollywood movie and remake it in China, or put a Chinese cast member in your Hollywood movie and expect it to be a success,” he said. “Your film doesn’t have to be about a Chinese theme, but if it is going to work in China, something in it has to have meaning to Chinese audiences.”
The panelists pointed to animated film “Coco” – which is not a coproduction, but rather an in-house Pixar production — as a recent example of a film that combined a culturally-specific local story, with universal values, and scriptwriting that carefully elevated the movie above cultural barriers. It scored $189 million at the Chinese box office.
“’Coco’ was not made for Mexican audiences. But it was about Mexican culture. Those cultural aspects were very carefully explained in the movie for international audiences. Not for Mexican audiences that already know this stuff,” said Minkoff. His past credits include “The Lion King,” and he now is developing other Chinese-connected titles. “International audiences need education. (Co-production success) will happen by degrees.”