Sharks, volcanoes and romance: Warner Bros.' new China film venture plans a diverse slate

Sharks, volcanoes and romance: Warner Bros.' new China film venture plans a diverse slate
China Media Capital's Li Ruigang, right, and Warner Bros. chief executive Kevin Tsujihara, center, discuss the slate of their new joint venture, Flagship Entertainment, in Beijing. (Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)

A $100-million-plus shark movie touted as “Jurassic Park meets Jaws,” a remake of “Miss Congeniality,” a sci-fi romance produced by Brett Ratner, and a special-effects-laden volcano film are among the first dozen projects for Warner Bros.’ new China-focused joint venture Flagship Entertainment.

The wide-ranging slate of Mandarin-language films, unveiled this week by Warner Bros. Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara and China Media Capital founding chairman Li Ruigang, is aimed both at what Tsujihara lauded as the "crazy market" of mainland China — where box office revenues soared 48% last year over 2014 — as well as international audiences.

"What we wanted to do is create films in Mandarin for China, but [that] also have potential, in certain cases, to be big global hits," Tsujihara said Thursday in Beijing, a day after unveiling the slate at the Hong Kong Filmart.

Warner Bros. owns 49% of Flagship, with CMC, a state-backed investment fund focused on entertainment and media, owning 51%. (Hong Kong broadcaster TVB holds 10% of CMC's stake.) Flagship, headed by longtime Warner Bros. international hand Richard Fox, is headquartered in Hong Kong with offices now in Beijing and Shanghai; Fox has relocated to Beijing to oversee the operation.

The companies have not revealed how much they have invested to get Flagship up and running; the venture, several years in the making, was unveiled in September.

Several of the slate's pictures have already been shot, including Wong Jing's "Mission Milano," a detective comedy starring Andy Lau and Huang Xiaoming and filmed in Italy, and "When Larry Meets Mary," a rom-com from director Wen Zhang about two childhood acquaintances who reconnect as adults that should arrive in theaters before the end of the year. Tsujihara said the rest of the films are in "active development" and should be finished in the next "couple of years."

Flagship's flagship project appears to be "MEG," a long-in-development adaptation of the Steve Alten book "Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror," about Megalodon,  a 40-ton, 70-foot prehistoric cousin of the great white shark. (Since the first book appeared in 1997, Alten has penned a half-dozen follow-ups, but the movie version has never gotten off the ground.) Flagship says the shark tale will be produced by Belle Avery, Colin Wilson and Ji Erwei, but did not announce a director for the project.

"We have finished the writing and are moving into the filming process," said Li. "We are in close contact with Warner Brothers about the selection of cast.  … I believe this will be a big-impact blockbuster."

Tsujihara said he wanted to bring some Warner Bros. intellectual property to the joint venture "to give it a starting point."

The Warner Bros.-CMC partnership was rooted in earlier cooperations — including a now-defunct theater venture — between the studio and Shanghai Media Group, of which Li used to be president.

While CMC’s joint venture with Glendale-based DreamWorks Animation, Oriental DreamWorks, is based in Shanghai, Flagship is headquartered in Hong Kong, a former British colony turned semiautonomous Chinese city that is an international financial center and has its own legal system.

Li and Tsujihara said the choice of Hong Kong was rooted in historical and practical reasons. "Hong Kong has a rich [film] history, with the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest," said Tsujihara. But in recent years, Hong Kong's film industry has faced a crisis of sorts, with many actors and directors decamping for the much bigger mainland China market and Cantonese-language film production on the decline.

"The Hong Kong government is eager to revitalize the industry in Hong Kong," added Li, who said he and Tsujihara had met the territory's top official twice last year as they weighed where to locate Flagship's headquarters.

Li said Hong Kong still had a solid core of filmmakers whom Flagship was eager to tap. Mainland actors and directors, he said, are not well-trained to make commercial films, and while more and more aspiring young Chinese filmmakers are studying at schools like USC and NYU, they remain green.

Hong Kong talents, he said, can fill the gap, citing recent mainland hits made largely by Hong Kong players, including "The Man From Macau 3," directed by Wong Jing and Andy Lau; Stephen Chow's "The Mermaid," which has earned a half-billion dollars and counting; and "Monster Hunt," directed by Hong Kong native and DreamWorks veteran Raman Hui.

Tsujihara said he was eager to help "create a pipeline" of filmmakers from places like USC, NYU and AFI, where he is a trustee. "One of the things we want to do is create a cultural exchange," he said.

Li said Flagship would announce more of its management and creative team "very soon."

The other films on Flagship's slate include:

— "Murder of the Husband," directed by Peter Ho-sun Chan and based on a real story of a domestic violence victim who killed her husband in Shanghai in the 1940s and was sentenced to death, but managed to survive through war and many other social changes.

— "Beautiful Coma," produced by the odd couple of Ratner and Chan, about a couple that is involved in a car crash and "embarks on a new journey in their respective dreams," said Li.

— "The Adventurers," directed by Hong Kong's Stephen Fung, about two old partners in crime who team up again. The film stars Feng Shaofeng.

— Remakes of the 2000 Sandra Bullock comedy “Miss Congeniality” and the widely panned Drew Barrymore-Adam Sandler blind date film “Blended” from 2014.

— "Agent Baiyun," about a middle-aged woman in Beijing who dreams of being a government agent and one day gets her wish when she's teamed up with an American operative sent to China to investigate a case.

— "The Crater," a special-effects laden-disaster film about an island thrown into turmoil when its volcano erupts.

— An animated film called "Wish Dragon."

— A drama called "Chinese Wall Street."

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report. 

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