Nearly all the major US studios and many of the larger indies are now involved in local-language production in Asia. Their varying goals, strategies and levels of success were discussed by a panel of senior executives at the recent Filmart convention in Hong Kong.
Faced with strong local competition and plummeting market share for Hollywood films across Asia, the executives agreed they are in the region to make movies for Asian audiences rather than looking for an elusive crossover hit.
Los Angeles-based producer Chris Lee pointed out that it is difficult to make a local-language film that is a hit around the globe. ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon demonstrated you could do several hundred million dollars - but it was more the exception than the rule,’ said Lee who has credits including Valkyrie and Superman Returns but also works with Asian film-makers such as China’s Chen Daming.
Disney’s Hong Kong-based vice-president of sales, acquisitions and co-productions, Jo Yan, agreed it makes sense to focus on the region’s fast-growing box-office markets. ‘We see the potential in Asia - you can make a lot of money given the right products,’ said Yan. He pointed to Huayi Brothers’ Chinese production If You Are The One, which was made for $5.9m (rmb40m) and grossed $46.8m (rmb320m) in China alone.
The panellists also concurred that films made with two or more cultures in mind usually end up pleasing nobody. ‘The films that broke out were not hybrids at all - The Orphanage and La Vie En Rose were just really good movies,’ said Sanford Panitch, president of the recently launched Fox International Productions, which is producing a Hindi-language version of Bride Wars and an adaptation of Japanese bestseller The Elephant That Makes Dreams Come True, among other projects.
Another unanimous conclusion was that production rather than acquisition is the best strategy in Asia. ‘It’s about the plum projects - they’re difficult to get on an acquisition basis,’ said former Universal and Focus Features executive Jason Resnick, who is now consulting for companies that want to work with Asia. ‘If you want to get in with the top talent you have to get in early.’
But the studios appear to have different strategies in Asia and are targeting different territories. Fox, for example, has partnered with its sister company Star to focus on markets where the regional broadcaster is strong, whereas Disney regards local-language production almost as a marketing exercise to expand its brand rather than a money spinner.
The panellists also acknowledged that results so far in Asia have been mixed. For every Crouching Tiger there has been a film like Chandni Chowk To China, which performs below expectations at the box office. The studios have also had setbacks in their joint ventures in China. While arguing that not every film can be a hit, the panellists pointed out that they are taking a conservative approach in Asia. ‘We’re also doing smaller films that are less risky,’ said Panitch.