International film-makers are increasingly exploring Chinese co-productions — not least because it means a film can bypass the territory’s import quotas. Liz Shackleton looks at the opportunities for co-producing with China

Though it is not the most straightforward territory in which to make a film, interest in co-producing with China has risen alongside a general fascination with the country and growing awareness of its production processes.

Chinese organisations, including China Film Co-production Corp (CFCC), have travelled the globe to advise film-makers on how to structure co-productions, and there are many successful precedents, including The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, The Karate Kid and The Forbidden Kingdom.

Every film which shoots in China has to be set up as a co-production and is censored at both script stage and after completion. There have also been projects — such as The Weinstein Company’s Shanghai — that were shown the door before the cameras even started rolling, though the authorities have been flexible in such cases. After shooting in Thailand, Shanghai was eventually set up as a co-production with Huayi Brothers and given a Chinese theatrical release.

Such deals enable films to bypass China’s import quotas, a major reason for co-producing with the country, but there are many others. “China has a lot of interesting stories and local film companies have taken a big step and started investing in foreign films,” says CFCC president Zhang Xun. “Chinese production teams are also very experienced in international production.”

Current production activity bears witness to this. Russell Crowe is in China shooting Universal Pictures’ The Man With The Iron Fists, with rap star RZA directing. Also lining up to shoot in the country are Rob Minkoff’s Chinese Odyssey, Jan de Bont’s Mulan and omnibus project Shanghai, I Love You, produced by Emmanuel Benbihy. John Woo’s Flying Tigers project is also likely to be set up as a US-China co-production. Rian Johnson’s Looper, starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will also shoot partly in China as part of a co-production deal between Endgame Entertainment and China’s DMG Entertainment.

‘Local film companies have taken a big step and started investing in foreign films’

Zhang Xun, China Film Co-production Corp president

“It’s become a lot more welcoming — the people at the CFCC are very friendly and accessible,” says former Warner Bros executive Ellen Eliasoph, now a partner at law firm Covington & Burling which is working on several co-productions. “There’s also the Sino-Australia treaty, which people are figuring out how to make use of as it offers good incentives.”

Rising co-productions

However, not all co-productions hit the mark with both Chinese and international audiences, which has led to Chinese investors becoming more cautious. “If you want a Chinese investor to put in money, he’s going to ask where he recoups from — China or globally — and if it’s China, the project has to be relevant for this market,” says Andre Morgan, who helped set up Merchant Ivory’s China-shot The White Countess and is now producing martial-arts drama My Kingdom with Chinese and Hong Kong partners.

With this in mind, more projects are being co-developed with Chinese companies, rather than brought to China as finished scripts. Minkoff’s 3D action adventure Chinese Odyssey is being developed jointly by Los Angeles and Asia-based Tiger 62 Media and rising mainland production house Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV. “We’re developing it to deliver something that works on a worldwide basis,” says Tiger 62 co-founder Pietro Ventani.

Some of the US studios are also working with local partners to co-produce Chinese-language films, aimed primarily at Chinese audiences, with mixed results. Fox’s $3m Hot Summer Days, co-produced with Huayi Brothers, grossed more than $20m in China, while Disney’s Chinese version of High School Musical (also co-produced with Huayi) fared less well — probably because marketing teams were switched late in the day and it did not feature any stars.

‘China will continue to grow and become more exciting so it’s important to know how to work in this market’

Pietro Ventani, Tiger 62 co-founder

When it comes to infrastructure, both private and state-owned companies are pouring money into facilities to service the booming local production industry. In addition to growing VFX experience, the country boasts state-of-the-art studios at the Huairou base outside Beijing, along with stages and outdoor sets in Shanghai, Wuxi and Hengdian. The workforce is also improving and it is becoming easier to find local crews who speak English.

However, China does not boast any production incentives and costs are rising along with the increase in quality and service standards, though not as much as might be expected. “There’s a tremendous amount of competition among local studios vying for the top-end business, so we’re not seeing major inflation,” says Ventani.

Indeed, Ventani and other producers with experience of China urge visitors to change their mindset and not simply regard the country as a low-cost location. “We were attracted by the tremendous amount of talent and the opportunity to develop relationships and know-how,” says Ventani. “China will continue to grow and become more exciting so it’s important to know how to work in this market.”