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Hollywood Talent Drawn East to Big Projects

More Hollywood actors are expected to appear in starring roles in Chinese films as China’s film industry continue to expand, with bigger productions looking to meet international standards and feed the growing appetite for domestic blockbusters.

So far, however, the top Hollywood stars joining the ensemble casts of these blockbusters have almost all been men. Opportunities for Hollywood actresses in China still remain largely unavailable because of the lack of suitable roles and limited genres. Agencies have been pushing for female starring roles, however, and Milla Jovovich has a role in upcoming action-thriller “The Rookies.”

According to Jonah Greenberg, who left his role as head of CAA China in February to launch a Beijing-based development and production company called Salty Pictures, the agency helped Jovovich get the role, originally written as a male. Such a successful gender-switch of a role in a Chinese film to accommodate a Western actress is a first.

The film, written and directed by Alan Yuen, is co-produced by a number of companies from mainland China and Hong Kong, including New Classics Media, Emperor Motion Pictures, Wanda Pictures and Huaxia Film Distribution. It is scheduled for release in mainland China on Dec. 21.

“The genre of films being made in China that involve Western actors tend to be war films, martial-arts films or action films, so the roles that need filling are usually roles of men,” says Greenberg. “I think audiences and film executives alike are generally excited about breaking up tired cliches. Often times a gender switch comes hand-in-glove with creative breakthrough.”

“The market in China is developing so fast,” says Cristiano Bortone, Italian director and producer who is going to adapt Yan Geling’s “The Secret Talker.” “In the beginning it was very random, but now it’s much more structured. With more co-productions and acquisitions, and increasing participation from agencies and studios in L.A. in the making of Chinese movies, there will be more interaction in the next few years.”

Summer box-office hit “Animal World” and the upcoming “Unbreakable Spirit” have put the spotlight on Hollywood talent in Chinese productions.
“Animal World”, an action-fantasy thriller starring the Oscar-winning Michael Douglas, has raked in 510 million yuan ($75 million) since its late June release as of Aug. 27.

WWII war epic “Unbreakable Spirit,” meanwhile, will open nationwide in China on Oct. 26. It features Bruce Willis and Adrien Brody in its ensemble cast. The film has already weathered a series of financial woes: Shanghai Hehe Film & Television Investment Co., one of the film’s original investors, bailed, and Shi Jianxiang, former chairman of Hehe’s parent company Shanghai Kuailu Investment Group, fled the country, and is on China’s international wanted list in connection with a box-office fraud scandal surrounding “Ip Man 3” in March 2016. The film was also allegedly involved in the “yin-yang contracts” scandal, whereby talent have double contracts to shield taxable income, but the production team denied such allegations.

Donald Sutherland, who played a Hollywood helmer shooting in China in Feng Xiaogang’s satirical comedy “Big Shot’s Funeral” in 2001, was among the earliest Hollywood stars to appear in a big Chinese production. It took nearly another decade for other Hollywood actors to catch up.
Kevin Spacey appeared in psychological comedy drama “Inseparable” in 2011. Hugh Jackman joined the Chinese cast in historical drama “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” directed by Wayne Wang and co-produced by Wendy Murdoch. Christian Bale had a role as a priest in Zhang Yimou’s war tale “The Flowers of the War,” the top-grossing Chinese film of the year.

Zhang brought Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe to China in fantasy epic “The Great Wall” (2016). The China-U.S. co-production had a satisfactory box office in China, but it in the U.S. it only grossed $45.5 million.

“Unbreakable Spirit” star Brody, Oscar winner for 2002’s “The Pianist,” is arguably the most familiar Hollywood face in China. He has appeared in Feng Xiaogang’s historical drama “Back to 1942” (2012) and action-fantasy “Dragon Blade” (2015), opposite Jackie Chan in the latter. He also launched his production company Fable House in 2014 with Chinese financial backing.

Tim Robbins also appeared in “Back to 1942.” John Cusack starred in “Shanghai” (2010) with Gong Li and returned to China to shoot “Dragon Blade.”

Frank Grillo, a co-star of action-packed patriotic drama “Wolf Warrior 2,” has said his first role in a Chinese film has changed his career after the film went on to become China’s all-time highest-grossing. Fellow Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage also made an attempt to make it big in China with “Outcast” but the film pulled out after just one day of release in 2014. The release was postponed by another six months but it was a box-office flop.

Shanghai-based critic Bono Lee says Hollywood names helped elevate the scale of domestic productions, so that producers could claim them to be so-called “international” and make the productions more appealing to investors. The latest trend is that the bigger the production, the more number of investors and production companies involved — “Wolf Warrior 2” alone had nearly 20 companies attached.

The influx of Hollywood talent extends below the line, Bortone says. For now, the majority of the big productions are action or fantasy with male leads, and bigger demand for male actors. “But in China, anything can happen in future,” he says.

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