This past week I’ve received emails from three different American content creators who have pitched movie ideas to Chinese studios, only to be told that their ideas did not fit the China market. As a result, each creator has declared his intent to create new projects based on updated versions of Chinese fables, and has separately asked my advice on how to crack the China market. With a newborn baby on my hands, I’ve become “Time Management Man”, so I thought I’d kill a few birds with one stone and blog my reply.
Foreigners pursuing entertainment business opportunities in China generally fall into two categories: those with a genuine interest in the Chinese people and their diverse regional cultures, and those looking to hop on the “China gravy train”. If you cannot genuinely ascribe to the first category, stop reading now and pat yourself on the back for avoiding a world of frustration. China is an incredibly fascinating and dynamic environment, but not for the faint of heart. The word “challenging” is redefined here every day, in every way.
Still with me? Ok. I have two essential pieces of advice for foreign creatives who are interested in China, eager to understand it better, and hoping to take part in the amazing growth of its media landscape…
1) MOVE TO CHINA
Just as breaking into Hollywood as an actor or an animator requires being in Hollywood, and breaking into Silicon Valley with a startup requires being in Silicon Valley, you can’t hope to capitalize on opportunities in China in any substantive way without actually being in China. You just can’t phone it in. Go figure.
Creating viable Chinese content demands AFFINITY (speaking to the hearts of Chinese audiences) and ACCESS (navigating China’s regulatory and distribution labyrinths). As a foreigner, you cannot begin to understand what makes the Chinese people tick (and what makes the Chinese authorities ticked off) unless you immerse yourself in the environment and absorb everything you can. China is crawling with ex-pats who have made this commitment. If you can’t or won’t, you’re not in the game.
And researching from a distance won’t bring you anywhere close to where you need to be. Follow the news and the trades, and you’ll have the same one-dimensional view as everyone else. Live in China, get to know its people and understand their struggles & aspirations, and you’ll begin to have some real insight into this multi-faceted environment. And while Beijing bars and Shanghai spas may arguably comprise one facet, the enterprising laowai will want to venture afield of China’s Tier One mega-cities and explore its lower-tier towns & villages. China is a quilt, not a sheet, and the patches are your audience(s).
2) GET A CHINESE PARTNER
As a foreign creative, you hopefully bring certain abilities, experiences & resources to the table, but you will never understand or engage China like a Chinese creator can. It’s therefore in your interest to team up with a Chinese partner you know and trust, who shares your goals and complements your strengths.
It would be narrowminded to suggest that Hollywood has a lock on storytelling, but Hollywood film structure has indeed proven popular in global mass media. At the same time, local audiences like what they like. There’s something to be said for combining Hollywood bones with Chinese meat. Your Hollywood knowledge & experience, and your boots-on-the-ground POV on China (assuming you’ve heeded the advice to move here) – synthesized with your Chinese partner’s native insights on culture, society, trends & market – can be a powerful combination.
Such collaboration is crucial. Your Chinese creative partner will play an invaluable role with their colloquial knowledge, familiarity with popular genres (such as Hong Kong nonsense comedy), and their ability to navigate regulatory restrictions against superstition and other forbidden subjects (which is why mainland movies with supernatural elements are always situated safely in the ancient, pre-PRC past).
Not convinced you need a partner? Not the partnering type? Imagine if a Chinese creator came to you hoping to pitch projects to Hollywood studios, and asked: “What’s popular in America? What are the trends? What kind of stories work best?” How would you answer? How would you advise a Chinese creator who aspires to create the next MODERN FAMILY or LEGO MOVIE… for an American audience? Could they go it alone from a distance? Are you smirking at the very notion? Something to consider as you aspire to play in China’s sandbox.
Another factor which requires cold consideration is your value as an attachment. Chinese people are pragmatic and are probably more interested in your name (hopefully noteworthy) and your affiliations (hopefully compelling) than in your creative contributions (such as they may be). It’s your sizzle they want, not your steak (and if this isn’t the case with your Chinese partner, it will certainly be the case with the Chinese studio you pitch to). By way of example, a fairly capable Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor and aspiring director was recently engaged by a company who shall remain anonymous (though there was A Fish Called by the same name). This individual (who came to be known as “Oscar Boy” in China) was squired around on the arm of the company’s CEO for a year before quitting (to his credit) rather than continue serving as a well-compensated “trophy foreigner”.
Not every situation is as burlesque, but you get the idea. The game in China is the same the world over: you’re used (hopefully to mutual benefit) until someone bigger & better comes along. China looks at you the same as Hollywood looks at China: “What do you BRING? What can I GET?” The good news is that China is a tough row to hoe, and by digging in you’ve got a leg up on those who are perhaps more famous and/or more accomplished but can’t handle the slog. The bad news is that you’ll probably find yourself in a long line of laowai behind foreign-trained Chinese talent such as Raman Hui (SHREK, MONSTER HUNT). Increasingly, Chinese creators are doing it for themselves – as well they should.
As a parting thought, I’d recommend that anyone pursuing opportunities in China have at least two reasons why you’re here. These can both be professional, or can be professional and personal – but you’ll be glad you had multiple plays when one gets rough, goes belly up or decides it doesn’t need you anymore.
Good luck, and enjoy the ride! China is the new Wild West. 😉