Hollywood filmmakers gather in China at Shanghai film festival

SHANGHAI — Hollywood and Chinese film veterans eager to take part in the world’s fastest growing movie market gathered in this historic city to kick off the 15th annual Shanghai International Film Festival.

China’s movie ticket sales rose 30% last year to $1.2 billion, and a lot of those tickets were sold for American movies.

Hollywood films accounted for about three-quarters of the ticket sales in China in the first three months of the year. Ticket sales also topped those in Japan for the first time, making China Hollywood’s biggest export market.

Representing the two nations on the red carpet were American actors Aaron Eckhart and Heather Graham alongside Chinese box-office sensations Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat. American producer Mike Medavoy, who was born in Shanghai, received an honorary achievement award and was feted by, among others, French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, the festival’s jury head.


The event’s first panel Sunday was titled “Tell a Chinese Story to the World,” and turned into a discussion about how to make movies with global appeal.

A test case might be legendary comic book creator Stan Lee, who made a festival announcement by video message that his Chinese superhero “The Annihilator” is on his way to the big screen. The upcoming 3-D movie topped the inaugural slate of feature film co-productions announced Monday by state-run National Film Capital.

NFC, a Beijing entertainment industry fund management company chaired by former China Film Group President Yang Buting, will draw on an initial $422 million raised by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and other partners, said NFC co-founder Kathy Peng, a former investment banker in Hong Kong.

“The Annihilator” producer Eric Mika said the film is a planned 2014 release, to be shot in China in English with a budget of more than $100 million. The script is being written by “Bourne Legacy” author Dan Gilroy. Creator Lee has said the movie will star a Chinese actor.

“It will be a 100% Hollywood-China co-production,” Mika said. He declined to say how much of the budget would come from NFC and how much from the Hollywood studio co-production partner he hopes to attract. “It’s a Hollywood film with global appeal.”

Mika said there was also lots of “soft money” from brands interested in being attached to “The Annihilator” — both Chinese brands wanting to go West and Western brands wanting to break into China.

Among the festival’s panel attendees Sunday night was “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars” producer Gary Kurtz, who cautioned that films work best globally when they first work locally.

“You’ve got to make films for your culture first,” said Kurtz, who is helping a Chinese partner develop a $25-million animated film based on the historical classic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”


Kurtz’s animated effort is based on the same material as “Red Cliff,” a live-action 2008 film from Chinese director John Woo, who parlayed Hong Kong action movies such as “Bullet in the Head” into big-budget American jobs on “Face/Off” and “Mission: Impossible II.” However, “Red Cliff” fared poorly at the U.S. box office. Kurtz will trim the complicated plot to appeal overseas without alienating Chinese fans.

“The U.S. audience doesn’t need to know that they’re watching Chinese history,” Kurtz said. “As long as the story core is universal, the environment is immaterial.”

Medavoy, who grew up in Shanghai as the child of Ukrainian Jewish refugees, has made multiple visits to the Middle Kingdom and has been bullish on future co-productions between American and Chinese filmmakers.

Joining Kurtz, “Star Trek” director Nicholas Meyer and Shanghai Film Studio President Ren Zhonglun for the Sunday event, Medavoy also seemed dubious about any efforts to make movies for foreign audiences.


Meyer agreed. “Hollywood is making wind-up toys for the Chinese market and the rest of the world,” he said. “Where I come from, you’ll only find universality in specificity. You’ll never find universality in universality. You’ll just get cafeteria food.”

He got no argument from Ren.

“Filmmaking is a fuzzy, vague industry,” he said. “Data come out after you’ve released a movie, but you can’t count on it to help you make the next one a hit. This is the beauty of the industry and what makes it fun.”

Also in attendance was Steven Saltzman, a Los Angeles attorney with deep China experience who helped put Christian Bale in director Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War,” and then helped that wartime saga get released in the U.S.


“In 2007, when I first spoke in Shanghai about co-productions, it was hard to get people to come,” Saltzman said. “These days, people write to me all the time asking if I can get them on a panel.”

Other Hollywood executives in Shanghai this week include Danielle Dajani of Raleigh Entertainment, the new management company of a Chinese studio complex outside Shanghai; Frederic Rose, chief executive of Technicolor, which recently helped restore a Chinese animated classic; and Kevin Arnold, head of product placement at 20th Century Fox Film, whose parent company, News Corp., recently bought 19.9% of Chinese distributor-producer Bona International.

Donald Deline, a Hollywood studio producer whose “Green Lantern” was a hit in China last year, was excited to be visiting the country for the first time.

“Everything’s changing. I’ve had some movies released in China and some that weren’t,” Deline said. “It’s too important now to not understand what works and what doesn’t.”


The festival will screen more than 300 films to an expected 10,000 attendees, and will run through June 24.