China: It’s the new frontier of moviemaking.
2017 is the year the Chinese box office is forecast to surpass the North American box office for the first time. The world economy has dramatically changed, and with it so has the movie industry. The 2016 domestic clunker Warcraft took in $433 million worldwide, the majority of that coming from Chinese audiences. This year’s Matt Damon-starring, Zhang Yimou-directed The Great Wall, with a budget north of $150 million, was the biggest Hollywood-China co-production ever. In February, the country was reported to be raising its import quota of foreign films which, since 2012, has been 34 per year (though more have slipped onto screens in the past; 14 of them must be either 3-D or large-format, such as IMAX). U.S. distributors, previously allocated 25 percent of box-office revenue, will see an increase on that number, too.
China already has more screens than America, and they will soon be the largest box office in the world. Even after last year’s so-called “slow-down” in ticket sales, there are still presently 27 new screens opening every day, a number that could accelerate as more citizens move into the middle-class and government subsidies step up to help build screens in small towns. When the concrete dust settles, China could easily have three times the box office of America. With all of these facts now swimming in your head I’ll bet that at least some of you are curious about what making films in China is really like.
After being ear-deep in the Chinese film trenches, I have some crib notes for North American moviemakers pondering a Far East adventure for an upcoming project. Granted, I worked on a big-budget film, and many argue that a film may need to be the size of The Great Wall for shooting in China to make sense. But whether that’s the case or not, I have some advice that I believe applies to everyone.
In 2015 I was in China to work on Asura, China’s version of Lord of the Rings, and the first ever $100 million-budgeted Mandarin movie. (Before Asura, big-budget domestic Chinese films often hovered around $40-60 million.) The movie is named after a realm in Buddhism that reminds us that too much power and excess can corrupt the soul and lead to the downfall of humanity.
It had been in development and prep for a long time, and there still wasn’t a shootable script, so I had been brought in to do a full rewrite. Production was to be monumental and would eventually include thousands of cast members and otherworldly costumes, hundreds of prosthetic creatures and some massive practical set builds. By the time I got there, the studio had already spent significant amounts of money creating artwork for incredibly elaborate VFX characters and sets. I didn’t fully comprehend much of that, but was excited to dig in.
I was in great company. The production talent hired by the studio was the stuff of a moviemaker’s dreams: the Oscar-winning wardrobe department was from Lord of the Rings, the set designer was from Pirates of the Caribbean, the all-star art department had credits ranging from The Avengers to Sin City. And the director was Peng Zhang Li, the guy behind the stunts in Kick Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and about half of the break-out action movies distributed in recent years.
In Beijing, I wrote seven days a week, usually 12 hours a day, with a half-day off on Sunday. The first day of principal photography was already scheduled, so I would often write 15 or 16 hours a day, finishing my last pages at 3 in the morning. Then I would sleep for a few hours and be back in the studio the next morning, already starting revisions. These hours are not kind to the mind and body. I can’t imagine many Hollywood studio writers putting themselves through such agony. Then again, Hollywood isn’t opening a movie theater every four hours, and Hollywood isn’t producing Asura.
The pace of work aside, the producers were insanely good to me. The all-night dinners on the weekends were some of the most delicious and memorable in my entire life—my only complaint was that the executives were constantly trying to get me drunk when I was already beyond sleep-deprived! Man, can Chinese executives drink. It was a crazy couple of months. As for those useful tips…
A Looser Approach to Screenwriting
Chinese studios have made a lot of fantastic movies, but many of their biggest hits were shot without real scripts. By “real scripts,” I mean actual scripts. After slaving away at my keyboard for Asura, I was surprised to learn that some legendary Chinese and Hong Kong films had been shot with only a short treatment in hand—like films by Wong Kar Wai and Jackie Chan. Sometimes the day’s dialogue was written on the back of a cigarette package! For the Chinese, prepping a big shoot without a solid script isn’t as big a deal as it would be for Hollywood.
The Great Wall was a perfect example of this. A talented friend of mine, Brad Martin (whose stunt credits range from The Expendables to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), was brought over to stunt coordinate and possibly direct second unit. After three months of prep he still didn’t have a single scene ready—because, he says, he couldn’t get approval from anyone on anything.
“Filmmaking on that project went against everything I knew,” he says.
The first day of photography was approaching and he still hadn’t seen a script. The director and producers asked him if the stunt department could write the last seven pages of the screenplay, because they still didn’t have an ending. His frustration and uncertainty grew to the point where he felt compelled to resign.
Brad’s best advice for anyone working on set in China: “Care only as much as the people above you, or you will go insane.”
A Faster Working Pace
Hearing this, you might assume that making films in China is highly inefficient. But that’s the paradox: When a Chinese studio wants to shoot a movie, nothing gets in the way. It might take American producers 10 years before the heavens line up and the trigger gets pulled on a film, but in China, the same production might only require a few weeks of elbow-rubbing.
In the case of Asura, even with an unfinished script and a studio that had never shot a film close to this size, the film was financed, and it went to camera on schedule. After my contract had expired in late 2015, the script continued to be revised by Mandarin writers until it went to camera in early 2016. The movie is a behemoth—it shot for almost the whole year in seven different locations all across China, with multiple units working for much of that time. The director tells me that the first cut is nearly four hours long.
A Different Approach to Censorship
SAPPRFT, or State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, is the Chinese government agency that regulates the import of all films. It establishes import quotas and decides what is appropriate for Chinese audiences, but some of the country’s censorship guidelines might sound odd to American ears.
Here are a few examples: Any stories dealing with ghosts are inappropriate and will not be approved for distribution. Any story where a foreigner in China commits a crime or thinks about committing a crime without the Chinese authorities being in hot pursuit is not considered appropriate. Any story that involves a prostitute is not deemed appropriate. Any story featuring gambling outside of Macau is off-limits. Any story that puts the Chinese government in a bad light is… well, you get the picture.
SAPPRFT casts a broad and sometimes arbitrary net over just about every genre. Most Hollywood studio films released in Chinese theaters are modified, which usually means that chunks of the movie are removed. March release Logan had to cut 14 minutes off its runtime. That’s a lot of plot points. So if you are planning to develop and co-produce something with China, make sure you have a co-pro partner that has the connections to get your project approved through SAPPRFT before you start. Relationships matter everywhere, and China’s no different.
Changing Audience Appetites
A successful Chinese/American co-production is more elusive than it seems. The financing models look incredibly smart on paper: China puts up half, America puts up half, they each take their own country and split the rest of the world 50/50. It’s brilliantly simple. Yet the reality of a co-production is much more complicated. The difficulty is not only in passing the censorship guidelines, but in creating a concept that takes into consideration the cultural sensitivities on both sides of the pond. Many of the things we think of as cool are less so for mainstream Chinese audience.
For instance: Very generally speaking, Chinese viewers want either big-budget tent-poles or romantic comedies. They’re a little sick of martial arts movies. They hate the clichés of the wise old Chinese man guiding the way for an English-speaking hero, or the pretty Asian girl who gets paired with a white love interest. (2016 feature Birth of the Dragon by George Nolfi, what were you thinking?)
Quotas for Streaming Foreign Films
Theatrical releases aside, there is a huge streaming market in Asia that’s hungry for foreign films. But sales into China come with all kinds of caveats. Non-theatrical Chinese distributors can buy your movie for a flat fee, though they usually pay very little. The distribution quotas for streaming and VOD are separate from theatrical and, over the last couple of years, have fluctuated between 30 and 50 titles.
Hopefully, this secondary market will soon open its doors to more outside films, and a new sales/distribution model will emerge where that allows for a streaming revenue share. However, the idea of sharing profits with a Chinese company distributing your film throughout a territory of 1.3 billion people is both exciting and frightening. I am writing a script outline for a video-game franchise film adaptation that is planning to use a profit-sharing revenue model. How will we know if the profits made in China get shared equitably? That is a splendid question.