"I want to see this very famous Chinese story appreciated by the rest of the world, and Disney knows how to do that," Chu says. "We mustn't think that everything the West does is bad. We should all be able to learn from one another, share our experiences, our dreams." Chu is running a risk. He has been entrusted — given the government's thumbs up — to make a movie out of a national treasure. "Magic Gourd" was written in 1958 and became a touchstone for generations of Chinese children (except for those raised during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when the book fell out of favor over its reliance on the bourgeois imagery of magic and dreams).
" 'Mulan' was produced at a time when China was not looked upon as a market of its own," Chu explains. "It might have been more Western than you'd like to see." But Chu says it is Disney's commercial touch he was after. "I like the children's world. You look around: Who in China is making children's films? It's all martial-arts movies or art house films. I wanted to make a general entertainment film that everybody could understand, with fun, warmth, laughter."
The Chinese government liked the idea too.
"Oh, it's very safe," Chu says, with a laugh, of the movie's content. "This is a story with a simple moral message: Don't look for the easy way. Work hard for what you want." Chu was not unknown to Disney. He founded and has run Centro Digital Pictures, Asia's foremost animation and digital effects house, since the mid-1980s. Among its credits, Centro was responsible for the lopped off arms and heads of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films, which were made by Miramax, a Disney subsidiary.
"Magic Gourd" fits more conventional Disney branding. "We told John we were very much looking for a movie and would love it to be a family-friendly movie," recalled Buena Vista's Zoradi.
But there are many who argue, privately at least, that Disney's participation in this local production is simply an attempt to ingratiate itself with the powers in Beijing. They point to the studio's likely ulterior motives: a way to get a more sympathetic hearing on piracy issues, perhaps. Maybe to drive business to its Disney theme park in Hong Kong (a Magic Gourd Fantasy Bungee Jump?).
And they note that Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger was quoted during a visit here in September saying that Disney's plans to build a theme park in Shanghai in the next few years could ride on whether the Disney Channel gets full access to the Chinese state television networks.
Zoradi dismisses suggestions that making "Magic Gourd" is linked to any other pending Disney issues in China.
"That's not the motivation. We want to be in local co-productions all over the world." The model, Zoradi says, is "Calendar Girls," the sweet 2003 drama that Disney's Touchstone Pictures made in Britain and that was aimed primarily at the British and Irish markets. "Magic Gourd" is similarly aimed at Chinese-speaking audiences — including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, whose markets, because of higher ticket prices, are bigger than mainland China despite having just a fraction of the population.
If the movie travels more widely after that, fine. But making movies for local markets "is good for our business," Zoradi says. "It makes us a good citizen in whatever country we're in, whether that's France or China.
"There is no hidden agenda."
A tough market to crack
If Hollywood is ever going to find its way through the cultural mists and mazes of China — or get some of those 1.3 billion butts into seats for the next "Shrek" or George Clooney picture or whatever it is Spielberg decides to make — it is going to have to figure out how to get money out of people like Al Yon.
Yon already loves Hollywood. Loves American movies — even adopted his first name back in high school English class in honor of Al Pacino. Loves American TV too. "Seinfeld," "Frasier," "Friends," "Sex and the City." He's seen every episode.
"Tell me: 'Sex and the City' — who's your favorite? Charlotte, right?" the 29-year-old doctoral student asks eagerly, leaning across his margarita in an American-themed restaurant in one of Shanghai's toniest neighborhoods. Yon talks fast, like he's pitching a concept and has only 60 seconds before the studio chief calls security. "Samantha's too open; Carrie's too professional," he riffs.
"But Charlotte looks a bit Asian, don't you think? Black hair. Big eyes. Baby face." He plunks back in his seat. "Charlotte's my dream girl," he sighs.
And Yon should be Hollywood's dream customer: a smart, young, urban guy in the world's fastest-growing market, with a voracious appetite for just about anything the American pop culture machine throws out. " 'Desperate Housewives' — I love it," Yon says.
Problem is, Yon has never paid a dime to ogle Charlotte or snicker at the inside jokes with Jerry and Kramer. Never plans to. All that expensively produced American culture is being piped into his bedroom on the Internet, "shared" among Chinese consumers who swap digital files free. And Yon's not some geek operating on the fringe. He's the Chinese mainstream. He's not even one of those consumers who get their Hollywood fix from buying pirated DVDs for a dollar.
"Why would I pay a dollar," Yon asks, perplexed, "for something that is free?" Piracy is just one of the walls blocking Hollywood from doing big business in China. Take distribution of those blockbusters. Their box office pull is unquestioned. The Chinese were no more immune to the allure of "Titanic" than anyone in St. Louis, Mo., or St. Petersburg, Russia — it's China's top-grossing film of all time too. And, after three years of Chinese films topping the box office, this year's No. 1 film will be "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," joined in the top rankings by "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." But since 1994, when "The Fugitive" became the first American feature legally shown here on a revenue-sharing basis, the Chinese government has imposed a limit on the number of foreign films allowed into the country. Just 20 foreign features were allowed to be distributed this year, 16 of them American.
China meanwhile, made more than 200 movies last year, more than any place in the world outside of Hollywood and Bollywood. And Chinese budgets keep climbing. Chen Kaige's "The Promise" was reportedly made for $35 million (though critical early reviews have questioned whether all the money was spent on the production), responding to the challenge that if your movie is going to play in a multiplex next to "King Kong," it had better match it for looks.
But many Chinese moviegoers cannot afford the prices of a multiplex. It costs almost $10 to see "Goblet of Fire" in Shanghai. That's an expensive date in a country where $20 can be half a week's wages and for the price of the popcorn you could buy three pirated DVDs.
So, many still catch the latest release in dilapidated theatres. No need for half-price Tuesdays here. Tickets are just a few cents more than $2, though there is no guarantee the theater will be heated. On a recent night in Shanghai, a screening of "The Promise" attracted about 40 people to a theater that seats 400.
Most watched with their coats on as a couple of portable heaters clunked away at the back. The movie with its whirling kicks and flashing blades, arrows that find their mark just in time and a hero who is frequently tied up, beaten and bloodied (Chen's actors must suffer for his art), was projected onto a screen yellowed by years of exposure to cigarette smoke. It was like showing a film on the wall of an Amsterdam cafe.
No wonder Yon would just as soon watch the movies in his room. For one thing, he's part of a generation that grew up during China's one-child policy, and he finds nothing antisocial about being alone. "We grew up alone. I like to watch movies on my PC, alone in my room, where I can cry if I want to.
"I don't care about the big effects," he says with a shrug. "I just want to follow a good story." And that may be where Hollywood and China's interests may converge. China has stories to tell. Hollywood seems ever more hungry for ideas.
"With the depth of its cultural traditions, its stories, talent and locations, their film industry is an unexplored gold mine," says Warner's Eliasoph, a Sinologist by training who has spent most of her career in Asia. "Chinese people are very verbal, have vivid imaginations and a great sense of design. Now that they're underway, it is going to be easy for them to make movies that people all over the world would want to watch.
"It's the most natural thing in the world that China will have a world-class film industry." And Hollywood studios are spending what they can to make sure they have a stake in the action.