Stone lions take hold of Chinese viewers

BAN JIN BA LIANG (《半斤八兩》), Magic Dumpling Entertainment’s animated Chinese stone lion buddy comedy and Disney’s first Chinese TV co-production, is now China Central Television’s #1 children’s program, topping the ratings on CCTV14. In reflecting upon the trials, tribulations and ultimate success of the show, I come back to three key factors: people, process and perseverance… (full article on AWN)

Stone lions take hold of Chinese viewers

Co-pros are no-go

This week, instead of virtual reality, some cold hard reality: there’s no pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the Chinese co-production rainbow.

Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and co-produced by Universal, Legendary, LeVision and China Film Group, succeeded in eliciting a universal “Meh” from audiences around the world, earning roughly $172 million USD in China (a figure which once would have been astonishing but now is unimpressive) and around $35 million USD in North America. With combined production and marketing expenses in the neighborhood of $250 million USD, and global revenues expected to peter out at $320 million USD (prior to exhibitors taking their share), it’s safe to say that investors in “the biggest-ever U.S.-China co-production” are less than thrilled.

On the bright side, we’ll hopefully be spared a glut of formulaic Great White Hope films set against the backdrop of other historical Middle Kingdom marvels, pimped by puffy Chinese real estate companies with their eager Hollywood studio mascots in tow. Folks actually have to think now, and that’s a good thing. So, let’s elevate that thinking with some straight talk.

First, the unfortunate fact is that…(full post on AWN)

Co-pros are no-go

Mixed reality takes off in the Middle Kingdom

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Rick Garson is a unique figure in entertainment. A colorful, controversial executive and entrepreneur, Rick’s range of experience includes promoting Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour as well as creating and producing the Billboard Music Awards. He career has also been defined by innovation such as his development and promotion of the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” pay-per-view music special, the first of its kind.

Rick first hit China’s radar in 2008, when he produced the Beijing Olympics’ “Divas in Beijing” concert TV series. Since then, he’s had his hands dirtied and his nose bloodied in the rough-and-tumble world of Chinese events and entertainment. Rather than turn tail and go home, Rick doubled-down and moved to China in 2013.

He’s now breaking new ground in mixed reality with his latest venture, VX Entertainment. VX Entertainment provides world-class content for the immersive media era, and features what may be the first high-end mixed reality showroom (at least the first of its kind in China) combining projection technology, virtual reality and holography.

I had the opportunity to catch up with Rick in his Beijing studio, experience VX Entertainment’s mixed reality showroom for myself (one word review: awesome) and ask some questions about where he is and where he’s…(full post on AWN)

Mixed reality takes off in the Middle Kingdom

SIGGRAPH Asia Macau musings

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Early last month in the gambling haven of Macau, I attended a SIGGRAPH conference for the first time in a long time. My initial SIGGRAPH experience as a student volunteer in 1993 was eye opening, and I was a regular attendee and occasional speaker for the next 15 years – including the very first SIGGRAPH Asia in Singapore, 2008. As an outsourced event, SIGGRAPH Asia has always been a distant relative to “SIGGRAPH SIGGRAPH” (as many folks comparatively refer to the “real” conference), but the initial offerings in Singapore and Yokohama were respectable.

Cut to today. Scarfing down a plate of Doritos at the SIGGRAPH Asia 2016 opening reception is a far cry from doing shots off the back of an SGI Onyx at the Nixon Library in the heady days of 1993 (though perhaps an appropriate analogy for the austerity arc of the graphics industry over the past two decades). Twenty years ago, there was a palpable sense that “anything is possible,” even though much still was not. Now – at a time when anything essentially is possible – we seem to be holding back. These days, CGI is like Doritos: tasty but predictable. And the VR game-changer has yet to emerge.

I attended all four days of the SIGGRAPH Asia conference and decided to distill my notes into three key observations (I’m a big fan of The Rule of Three). The following takeaways are… (full post on AWN)

SIGGRAPH Asia Macau musings

Chinese Cook-ing

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Prior to the recent announcement of Dick Cook Studios’ $500 million dollar deal with China’s Film Carnival, I had the pleasure of attending the China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit on March 25th in Grand Epoch City (Beijing’s Hebei province neighbor), co-hosted by Dick Cook and showcasing an ensemble of Hollywood heavyweights.

The speakers were welcomed by Beijing Film Academy Vice Dean Sun Lijun during a pre-summit luncheon in the BFA’s “Movie Story” restaurant.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F057A/

During lunch, I had the opportunity to catch up with my old friend and mentor, legendary Disney producer Don Hahn (THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST), and also to share observations on China with Bruce Hendricks, President of Production at Dick Cook Studios (and fellow Disney veteran).

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Summit keynote speaker Cheryl Boone Isaacs, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, is a tireless advocate of opportunity and diversity in the motion picture industry… and very accommodating of her first 360-degree selfie.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F057D/

The China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit was attended by a mostly Chinese audience of film industry professionals and students from the Beijing Film Academy, with a few laowai such as myself sprinkled in.  Following are some non-comprehensive notes and photos.

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VR view:  http://vr8.tv:88/3F054D/

Dick Cook was gracious and affable as always, and kept things flowing smoothly.  Before I departed Disney (the first time) in 2007 to pursue my independent ventures, I embarked on a string of informative lunches with an array of Disney producers and executives.  Don Hahn was the first person to let me pick his brain over a meal, and Dick Cook was the last – so it was a kick to see them both in China on the same ticket a decade later.

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Randall Wallace (BRAVEHEART, PEARL HARBOR) offered heartfelt advice during the “Art of Storytelling” panel, noting that his breakthrough came when he thought his career was over and he wrote something that he thought his descendants would want to see (BRAVEHEART).  My favorite comments from Randall were his observation that “a script that doesn’t surprise the writer will not surprise the viewer” and his opinion that “it’s easier to restrain a fanatic than to resurrect the dead”.

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Don Hahn killed it (and earned the only standing ovation of the day) with an inspirational micro master class on the animation creative process.  Characteristic of Don (but unbeknown to most) is the fact that he reformatted his entire presentation the day before, once he got a load of the venue’s panoramic screen.

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Patrick Frater (Asia Bureau Chief, Variety) did his level best to draw his panelists out during the “Cooperation” panel, but William Feng (VP of Asia Pacific, Motion Picture Association) and his fellows weren’t having it.  So, for those who may be wondering, the answer is “yes”:  China’s booming film industry is rife with problems (and opportunities), and foreign parties hoping to engage it must contend with significant (and shifting) hurdles.

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Dick Cook had a chat with his new buddy, Beijing Film Academy Director-General Hou Guangming, during the “Education” panel.

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Zhang Xun, former General Manager of the China Film Co-Production Company, had no advice on the “do’s”, but plenty to say on the “don’ts” of Chinese co-productions (memorably citing “82-year-old U.S. flight attendants” as an example of the profound cultural differences between East and West).

Even if you’re not an American screenwriter hoping to pitch your story of an 82-year-old Chinese flight attendant to Wanda, the viability of Chinese co-productions seems bleak, given only 12 in the last 5 years, with decidedly underwhelming results.  Thorny issues abound, creatively and economically.

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No surprise to anyone, filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron was a big draw – especially on the heels of GRAVITY, a big hit in mainland China (due in no small part to Sandra Bullock being saved by a Chinese spacecraft).

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Cuaron was charming and self-deprecating, noting that his primary motivation for making his next film is usually to pay his rent.

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The summit concluded with the “Technology” panel, during which you could feel the disruptive impact that immersive media will have upon the motion picture industry.  Ray Kurzweil’s dictum was prominently cited:  “The greatest change in the history of humanity is the acceleration of change itself.”

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An eye-opener for the foreign speakers was the fact that there are currently over 2,000 location-based virtual reality entertainment zones in mainland China, with a concurrent proliferation of low-cost consumer VR hardware. That most Chinese players are currently obsessed with manufacturing the bottles rather than cultivating the wine indicates an area of opportunity for immersive content creators.

IMAX stands to be hit particularly hard (IMHO), and needs to radically re-examine their business model instead of wishfully clinging to “large screens and lasers”.  What happens when home VR can replicate immersive, communal theatrical experiences – complete with an adjustable level of simulated audience response, from “sedate” to “raucous”?

(If anyone from IMAX is upset by this observation, hold a company retreat, write “IMAX goes under and nobody misses us.  Why?” on a board, use the subsequent discussion as the foundation for a revolutionary strategic plan, and thank me later.)

Chinese Cook-ing

So, you want to make a Chinese movie…

Chinese movie

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.  😉

So, you want to make a Chinese movie…