The Chinese talent industry is a supernova in the making - but is still in its infancy. SEN-LUN YU explores the emergence of the territory's star system.
Film talent management is a very recent development in China. Up until three years ago, star managers and companies mostly concentrated on TV, and most of the stars were managed by family members or friends.
In the film arena, production companies sourced actors from previous productions, rather than from agents.
But starting from 2003, when the Chinese film industry began its rapid growth, star management has become an important part of the growing industry.
Huayi Brothers Group, Chengtian Entertainment and CAA China are three active talent houses, aiming to develop artists and become integral in their careers.
Recently they have been proactively involved in major co-productions such as John Woo's Red Cliff, Ning Hao's Silver Medalist and the Jackie Chan/Jet Li collaboration The Forbidden Kingdom, promoting their stars in these projects.
Huayi Brothers was set up in 2000 while Chengtian and CAA China were established between 2005 and 2006. Huayi Brothers now manages around 50 artists including Zhou Xun and Li Bingbing. Chengtian also represents around 50 actors, including Xia Yu and Tong Dawei.
And CAA represents more than 20 directors in China, Hong Kong and Korea and big name actors such as Zhao Wei, Yu Nan and Huang Bo.
'Stars are born out of an initial perfect combination of factors and a single performance - and sustained by making the right choices once a star is successful. Most of the biggest stars in China are focused on film,' says Peter Loehr, CAA China's managing director.
Ziyi Zhang, Gong Li and Jet Li are on the top of China's star pyramid. Rising fast are stars who have just appeared in Hollywood projects, including Yu Nan (Speed Racer) and Zhang Jingchu (Rush Hour 3), while Zhou Xun has won several pan-Asian awards.
Zhao Wei and Fan Bingbing - who have appeared in successful pan-Asian films - are also big names. Women far outnumber men in the Chinese star pool.
China is definitely a star-embracing market and Chinese movie-goers show strong support for their local heroes. Talent agents and production houses both believe Hollywood producers can benefit if they cast a Chinese star in their English-language films.
'It's happening all the time on co-productions in China,' says Loehr. Maggie Q, he says, is a great example.
'Her strong Asian following provided her with a springboard into great roles in movies like Mission: Impossible III and Die Hard 4.0.'
Film schools and drama schools are the star factories of China. The Beijing Film Academy, for example, has taught actors such as Zhao Wei, Yu Nan and many of today's active film directors.
The Central Drama Academy has fostered Ziyi Zhang and Fan Bingbing while the Shanghai Drama Academy is the alma mater of Tong Dawei and Song Jia. These schools' senior graduates traditionally introduce juniors to a film/TV project or to an agency.
Another route to stardom is reality TV singing contests. Agents tend to provide more training and packaging for these stars: Huayi Brothers has signed several talents in this way.