Hoping to raise the red curtain

Hoping to raise the red curtain.



BEIJING – China screens only 20 foreign films, mostly from the United States, in theaters every year, but even fewer Chinese films are allowed in US cinemas. Those that make it often fall into two genres: kungfu dramas such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero or John Woo’s Red Cliff, and art-house fare such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. But even these are seldom shown in mainstream theaters.

A veteran Chinese producer has set about to change this, by targeting a market so far ignored – the Chinese diaspora in North America. Jiang Yanming’s China Lion Distribution has distributed six Chinese films in the United States and Canada since its establishment in September 2010.

The LA-based company is a joint venture between Jiang, president and majority shareholder, and New Zealand-based Incubate, owned by Australian distributor Milt Barlow. Both are veterans with more than 20 years experience in the motion-picture business.

According to data from the US Census Bureau, by the end of 2009 more than 3.8 million people of Chinese descent were living in the US. Statistics show that this figure for Canada was 1.3 million by the end of 2006.

Additionally, there are growing numbers of Chinese nationals working and studying in North America.

With an exclusive deal with AMC, the second-largest theater chain in the US that owns about 6,000 screens, China Lion is targeting the Chinese diaspora as its prime audience.

Jiang is well aware of the partnership’s potential value, as is evident from AMC’s partnership with Bollywood, aimed at the Indian diaspora in the US, whose numbers were put at an estimated 2.8 million in 2009 by the US Census Bureau.

“Indian films now bring in $6 million to AMC every year, but an Indian film used to gross only thousands of dollars four years ago,” he tells China Daily. “I am prepared for an operating loss for up to two years to build the market. We have learned from the experience of Indian films that they found their audience when they arrived in theaters with regularity and met filmgoers’ expectations.”

China Lion is the exclusive supplier of Chinese films to AMC and oversees the outreach and marketing to filmgoers, while AMC provides the in-theater standees and runs the trailers.

There’s no dearth of films, though, with China churning out 526 feature films last year. Jiang, who boasts decades-long connections to the Chinese film industry, has distribution agreements with many of the country’s leading studios, including Huayi Brothers, Shanghai Film Group and Bona Films.

Robert J. Lenihan, AMC’s president of programming, told Film Journal International that the partnership is “another manifestation of AMC’s effort to provide a bigger and more diverse array of entertainment”.

“We believe that if we continue targeting the various groups, they’ll continue to be very supportive,” he was quoted as saying. “We want to be a community center.”

The joint venture’s latest move is to release The Founding of a Party, a film that celebrates the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. It will be screened in North America on June 17, the first Friday after its China premiere on June 15.

The film gathers more than 100 well-known stars in Chinese-speaking regions, such as Liu Ye, Chow Yun-fat and Zhao Benshan.

“I think Chinese audiences would like to see such a star-studded film while North American viewers, who know little about the Communist Party of China, may also go to theaters out of curiosity,” Jiang says.

However, not all of Jiang’s efforts have been box-office winners. The first film China Lion distributed was, actually, a disappointment.

In October 2010, only one month after the company’s establishment, Jiang distributed Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock, a tearjerker about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed about 240,000 in China, in two dozens theaters in the US and Canada. The film grossed an amazing 673 million yuan ($104 million) in China, but only $61,000 in North America.

“It failed at the box office,” Jiang says. “An important reason was it hit US theaters three months after its premiere in China. Many people had already seen it on the Internet or on DVD.”

In a bid to avoid another flop Jiang has since ensured films are released the same time as in China. His biggest success so far has been If You are the One 2, a romantic comedy also by Feng. Starring beloved comedian Ge You and big screen seductress Shu Qi, it was released on Dec 24, the same day as its China premiere, and grossed a decent $427,000.

Jiang plans to release 15 to 24 films a year, in 20 to 50 theaters in more than 10 cities in North America. To date, six different titles have each gone to about two-dozen AMC screens in cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco in the US and Toronto and Ottawa, in Canada. The company has also teamed up with Cineplex in Vancouver and Consolidated Theaters in Hawaii.

Although more Chinese producers are approaching him, Jiang says choosing an appropriate film can be tricky.

“Audience preferences are hard to tell,” he says. “I thought entertaining films with big stars were surefire choices, but Andy Lau and Gong Li’s What Women Want, a Chinese remake of Nancy Meyers’ Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt comedy, saw a rather modest box office return of $130,000. We are still studying cinema-goers’ appetites and cultivating their habit of going to theaters to see Chinese films.”

Jiang is also keen to win over the non-Chinese audience but sees language as a major hurdle.

“We are aware that they do not like subtitled films,” he says.

Although kungfu flicks, with less dialogue and more action, remain a favorite with foreign audiences, Jiang does not want to limit his choices.

“What I am doing is business. But more than that it is also an effort to promote Chinese cinema overseas,” he says. “I want to show different kinds of Chinese films.”

He is also cooperating with Confucius Institutes, the worldwide nonprofit public institutions aimed at promoting Chinese language and culture, by offering discounted tickets of Chinese films to North American students.

“Students at Confucius Institutes are interested in Chinese culture. They can understand our films and help popularize them among a larger population,” Jiang says.

In addition, he is exploring co-productions, which will feature stories relevant to both China and the US. On the company’s agenda are stories about a Chinese karate champion who lives in the US and a war epic about the US Army Observer Group in Yan’an, sent there in 1944 to coordinate the struggle against Japanese aggression.

“These films will be in English for North America and in Chinese for China,” he says.

“So, both audiences can relate to them.”

China Daily

(China Daily 06/03/2011 page1)



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