The news that Disney has followed Warner Bros and Paramount in closing down local-language production or acquisition units highlights the difficulties the US studios face in this area, particularly in Asia where a very different filmmaking culture exists.

In a region where filmmaking is fast and furious, rather than subject to long periods of development and risk analysis, the US method of making films has struggled to take root. There have also been many misconceptions and falsely held beliefs on both sides that has resulted in many studio-backed films being lost in translation.

General cost-cutting may also have played a part in Disney’s decision to pull back from local-language production, but the studio’s experience on one of its recent films, a Chinese version of High School Musical, contains some interesting lessons.

A slam dunk on paper, the film faltered because it used local unknowns, rather than stars, as it was initially believed that the High School Musical brand would be enough carry the film. However, this eventually led to disagreements between the studio and local partner Huayi Brothers on how to market the film and position the actors. With marketing decisions made way too late in the day, the film performed well below expectations.

A common error made by the studios is that they often use their in-country distribution people to head up their local-language production activities instead working with development and production executives. Even though their distribution people are usually local, they’re often more rooted in the US studios’ global distribution culture than Asian production culture. Being a whizz at marketing Hollywood blockbusters, doesn’t guarantee that you can recognise a good local-language script.

The studios have also made the mistake of selling themselves to local film industries as having the ability to push local-language productions through their global distribution networks. In practice, this very rarely happens because only a handful of local hits really have the ability to travel.

However, there are some exceptions. Ironically for a studio owned by a media conglomerate that is not currently renowned for its sensitivity, Fox has had several Asian-language hits by basically going native. Rather than tap its local distribution people, the studio is working with seasoned producers and industry insiders in each major East Asian territory including Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. In India, Fox is working with its sister company, Star TV, which after nearly 20 years of producing and distributing Indian-language content is a de facto Indian company.

While Disney may have withdrawn from making individual films, it’s also effectively taking the same route as Fox in India by buying out local studio UTV Software Communications. The deal covers much more than filmmaking as UTV is also involved in broadcasting and the video games industry. Viacom has also become an Indian producer through its joint venture with Indian broadcaster Network18. 

Meanwhile some of the US indies, which politically are perceived as less of a threat than the studios, also appear to making headway in Asia. Companies such as Lionsgate, Relativity, Legendary, Hyde Park and The Weinstein Company may not have jumped into local-language filmmaking, but are working successfully with Asian partners in several different areas. What they’ve recognised, to varying degrees, is that the key to working with Asia is to build long-term relationships, based around a mutual exchange of talent, financing and distribution capabilities.   

I recently spoke to leading Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi who noted that there are now around a dozen independent US companies buying Asian films, and making them work in the North American market, because they understand that they need to build relationships: “They’re not stupid – they know that if they come in five years time, when the Chinese market is really doing well, they’ll be far too late.”

In short, the West needs to understand what Asia really needs. It doesn’t need money or empty promises that all local films can be distributed globally. It does need some help with making global movies – Hollywood still leads the world in universal story-telling and worldwide distribution – but not every Asian film needs to go global. If Hollywood wants access to Asian markets it has to figure out what it can offer in return. It may sound obvious, but collaboration doesn’t work unless it’s a two-way street.