Chinese Head to Hollywood, Ready to Deal
Los Angeles Times, February 19, 1999
By Robert W. Welkos, Times Staff Writer
Movies: A delegation from the mainland will meet with U.S. executives to
seek co-production arrangements.
A delegation of film executives from mainland China is coming to Los
Angeles next week in hopes of forging co-production deals with its
American counterparts, the latest signal that relations between China
and Hollywood may be on the mend.
Its arrival comes on the heels of a decision by Beijing to allow a
Mandarin-dubbed version of Disney's animated feature film "Mulan" to
play in major cities throughout China.
Now, the China Film Co-Production Corp., a onetime government agency
that oversaw all co-productions in China until the entertainment
industry was made more competitive in recent years, wants to open
further dialogue with U.S. studios and independent filmmakers.
The CFCC not only wants American studios to consider filming inside the
People's Republic of China, but it also seeks to co-finance U.S. films.
"The Chinese are as interested in generating revenue and making money as
the U.S. studios, if not more," said Thomas Leong, whose Hong Kong-based
agency represents CFCC in North America.
To that end, the CFCC executives plan to hold a seminar next week with
independent production companies at the American Film Market in Santa
Monica. They have also scheduled private meetings with various studio
executives, filmmakers and agents.
In all, Leong estimates, there are more than a dozen films in various
stages of development in Hollywood that the Chinese feel they could
co-produce, if given the opportunity.
One project that has intrigued the Chinese is author Iris Chang's
nonfiction book "The Rape of Nanking," which tells the horrific story of
the Japanese military occupation of Nanking, China, during World War II.
It's one of several projects now in development at Hollywood studios set
in China during the war.
"I think I might well look to them [CFCC] for half the budget and not
rely on an American studio for all the financing," said Brenda Feigen, a
Los Angeles-based literary agent who is developing the book into a
film. Feigen said her hope would be that the movie could be shot in
Nanking and noted that Wolfgang Petersen ("Air Force One") has already
expressed an interest in directing.
As for interference by the Chinese government, Feigen said she would
resist any attempts to censor the script once it is written. "They're
not demanding anything, but if they did, I would have a big problem with
it," Feigen said.
Hanging over any potential movie deals between China and Hollywood are
the volatile issues of censorship and human rights abuses in China.
In 1997, the Chinese government halted all distribution of movies
released by the Walt Disney Co., Sony Pictures Entertainment and
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after the three studios released films that harshly
depicted the Communist regime in Beijing.
The Chinese were upset with Sony's "Seven Years in Tibet" and Disney's
"Kundun" for portraying China's occupation of Tibet and its treatment of
Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, as brutal. MGM was also
criticized because its Richard Gere political thriller, "Red Corner,"
cast a harsh light on China's judicial system.
But last fall, Disney Chairman Michael Eisner undertook a damage control
mission by traveling to Beijing and meeting with Chinese leaders,
including propaganda chief Ding Guangen. Disney also bought the U.S.
distribution rights to two Chinese films.
"Michael Eisner traveling to China was an inspired move of diplomacy;
Disney is already feeling [the benefits] with 'Mulan,' " Leong said.
China, America Have Worked Together Before
It may come as a surprise, but China has had relationships with
Hollywood filmmakers dating back years. Director Steven Spielberg, for
instance, made his 1987 film "Empire of the Sun" in Shanghai. At the
same time, the Chinese film industry is now about a century old, and the
facilities in China are equipped to handle all but the most advanced
digitally enhanced films.
Mike Medavoy, a veteran producer who was born in Shanghai and currently
heads Phoenix Pictures ("The Thin Red Line"), said Hollywood will do
business with the Chinese if and when it makes economic sense.
"It's all about money," Medavoy said. "Nobody is going to do this unless
they feel they can get something in return."
Medavoy is in talks with Shanghai Studios, one of 16 major studios in
mainland China, to make a film there called "Shanghai," set against the
backdrop of World War II.
Universal Studios is making its first foray into that arena in May, when
shooting begins an hour outside Beijing on the film "Pavilion of Women."
Based on a Pearl S. Buck novel, the film is a classic East-meets-West
story told around the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and
involves a love story between a Western missionary and a cloistered
Nadia Bronson, president of international marketing at Universal, said
the project has encountered no significant obstacles in the year and a
half it has been in development, but she added that American filmmakers
"have to have a lot of patience" when working in China.
"They are wonderful and creative and want to get things done, but we are
two worlds apart," Bronson said. "Just having patience on both sides is
Ted Perkins, who as Universal's vice president of acquisitions went to
China to help arrange the movie, added: "I think they are inclined to
distrust Hollywood from the start, but that goes for just about
everybody these days."
Universal did show the script to the Chinese in advance, they noted, but
there were no problems.
Last September, Sony Pictures Entertainment announced that it was
forming Columbia Pictures Asia, a production division to be based in
Hong Kong whose mission will be to produce and acquire local films for
distribution throughout the world, but with emphasis on Asian audiences.
There are also a number of China-themed films in development at various
Hollywood studios. At Paramount Pictures, for example, producer Alan
Ladd Jr. is developing a film called "The Flower Net," based on a book
by Lisa See.
Leong said any Chinese-related film could be made and co-produced by
CFCC, if Hollywood is interested.
He added that despite the flap over the three films, Chinese film
executives want to build personal relationships with their American
"You don't become good friends overnight," he conceded. "You have to
assess the sincerity of your opposite partner. It's a gradual