China-US co-productions have become popular over recent years - a trend that is likely to continue given the success of action adventure The Forbidden Kingdom. But, as many producers have discovered, navigating China's political landscape and vastly different production culture can be as daunting as one-on-one armed combat with the Monkey King.
In an attempt to bridge this gap, one of the producers on The Forbidden Kingdom, David U Lee, has launched Los Angeles and Beijing-based Xinhua Media Entertainment (XME), which aims to structure and finance a slate of China-US co-productions with leading talent from both sides.
'When a US film-maker says they have a great film they want to make in China, there's usually a false assumption that all the rules like scheduling, location deals and hiring crew remain the same,' explains Lee, who was born in Taipei and moved to the US as a child. 'But this is not Hollywood, this is China. So we explain the cultural issues that are preventing certain things from happening.'
However, XME aims to move beyond acting as a cultural mediator: it will also structure co-production agreements with the Chinese authorities and arrange financing. Lee has a background in production and finance. Most recently he was executive vice-president of Asian operations at The Weinstein Company. He left TWC early last year, but has a producer credit on Shanghai, the first project from TWC's Asian Film Fund.
XME's initial slate includes projects such as action-thriller The Cage, from producer Casey Silver and writer John Fusco who worked together on The Forbidden Kingdom; live-action epic Mulan, from producer Steve Waterman (Stuart Little 1 and 2); and 3D thriller The Hunted, to be directed by David R Ellis (Snakes On A Plane).
The projects, budgeted at $25m-$50m, will be mostly English-language, dubbed for China, and aimed squarely at international audiences. As Chinese co-productions, they will bypass import quotas and be treated as a local release.
The slate is not fully financed but Lee is in talks with US studios and Chinese backers such as China Film Group Corporation and is also working with sales agents such as Arclight Films and Glen Basner's FilmNation.
In addition, XME's parent company, Beijing-based Xinhua Finance Media, headed by Fredy Bush, aims to invest in XME projects.
'We share the same vision for doing business in China; we have a deep respect and understanding of the rules that govern the media sector in China,' Lee says.
He acknowledges these are not the best times to be raising production finance but points to the potential of the China market, where box office has been growing at a five-year compound annual growth rate of more than 30%. 'There are always people with money and a tremendous amount of liquidity has been parked on the sidelines. You just need to be able to articulate the opportunities,' says Lee.