Despite the ongoing trade war and frostier than ever ties between China and the U.S., “Detective Chinatown 3” producer and financier Shawn Yue (aka Yue Xiang) is still betting on collaboration in the film industry — though perhaps not in the way you’d expect.
Chinese production budgets and visual ambitions have lately begun to outgrow China’s ability to achieve them, given the country’s lack of existing talent and resources to execute such projects. While it might still be cheaper to shoot smaller productions in China, films budgeted over $20 million are actually cheaper to shoot in the U.S., Yue attests.
“It’s weird — if you want to make anything, you outsource it to China, but if you want to make a film, now is a good time to outsource to the U.S.,” says Yue, one of 18 listed producers and “co-producers” for “Detective Chinatown 3” who says he oversaw aspects of production and helped finance the reportedly $117 million budgeted film. “There’s only one thing I know of that’s cheaper to make in the U.S. than in China: movies. This actually creates a new opportunity for us.”
Chinese production budgets don’t just pile up from labor costs or even above or below the line expenses — they begin to skyrocket due to a lack of existing film industry infrastructure. It’s an issue Chinese officials and industry players discuss ad nauseam, but Yue explains it colorfully.
In China, if you want a shot of passengers in a turbulent airplane, there’s nowhere to rent a gimble — you have to make your own. If you need weaponry for your war movie, you have to pay out of pocket to make it all yourself.
“Unless it’s a low-budget film, there’s nowhere for us to rent or even buy the things we need,” explains Yue. “You not only have to make the gun itself, you have to manufacture the machinery to manufacture the gun, and every cost is covered by that particular production.”
At a time when Sino-U.S. co-productions have essentially gone dry, it’s more likely that the path forward for collaboration will take the shape of China hiring Hollywood talent and outsourcing production to the U.S., allowing them to make use of Hollywood know-how — and at a lower price.
This dynamic will shape the U.S.’ distinctive relationship with China in film in the coming years, differentiating it from ties with other countries’ industries. South Korea, for instance, needs to reach beyond the confines of its own small market in order to expand its scale of production. But China’s overtures to Hollywood will be “driven by a different logic,” Yue says: the desire to use its existing infrastructure.
Such exchanges are also less likely to be restricted by the headwinds of the trade war or other political tensions. Hiring U.S. individuals is “like buying auto parts from the U.S. and sending them over to China for reassembly,” says Yue. “Even at the peak of the trade war, they didn’t stop auto parts from flowing.”
This idea of learning from the West is already visible in the lucrative “Detective Chinatown” franchise itself, with its relatively well-received spin-off web TV series and long list of new characters waiting for their own stories to be told introduced in “Detective Chinatown 2.”
“There’s nothing new that we’re doing; there’s no need to re-invent the wheel. We’re just following a business model already created by ‘Star Wars,’” with its numerous spin-offs, sequels and prequels, says Yue.
The franchise, China’s most mature and commercially successful so far, does hope to be a global one, and has begun referring to itself in English as just the “Detective” series, worried that the “Chinatown” bit will make it seem less global.
One problem it will have to contend with is Beijing reflex of pulling or otherwise punishing content not aligned with the country’s current geopolitical stances. Chen Sicheng announced in February that he would be shooting the next sequel in London, but ties between the U.K. and China have grown ever frostier since. Yue reassures that “if there is a ‘Detective Chinatown 4,’ we definitely have to go to London,” whose location has already been teased in the recent film.
But the timing, however, is admittedly “an issue,” and it certainly doesn’t seem like production will go forward this year, he says. Given that relations tend to blow hot and cold, Yue says it’s best just to wait things out. “I don’t think it can go on like this forever.”
One thing is more certain, however, and that’s China’s continued global box office supremacy this year, which looks increasingly likely as the U.S. struggles to recover from COVID-19. The number of Chinese movie-goers is quite small compared to its total population, and as more cinemas are built in increasingly rural areas, new viewers will be reeled in.
“Everyone knows how far the U.S. market can go, but nobody knows how far China’s can,” notes Yue.